Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Chicago Teachers Strike: A Turning Point

It has been an amazing couple of weeks here in Chicago.   For once, the topic of education was part of the national-no international-conversation.  And not told by Michelle Rhee.

Some of the debate has been incredibly encouraging, practically unthinkable just months ago.  I especially liked this MSNBC Up With Chris Hayes segment (Monologue starts around 4:32 but please watch all the segments regarding the strike.)  I literally was jumping up and down in my living room very early on a Sunday morning when they aired this-I couldn't believe they were finally asking the right questions, having the right conversation.  (They mentioned poverty!  They talked about underfunding!  Woo-hoo!!)  Or take this piece by Eugene Robinson entitled Standing Up for Teachers.  Wow, the press is actually taking teachers' side. We're not in Education Nation anymore.

I was elated as my friends, and passionate education activists, took to the airwaves and big news outlets.  Teachers and parents were finally being given a platform to speak truth.  Xian Barrett a CPS high school teacher at Gage Park High School, Wendy Katten a CPS parent and member of Raise You Hand, Phillip Cantor-a high school teacher at North Grand, Jen Johnson-CPS high school teacher at Lincoln Park High School, Adam Heenan-teacher at Curie High School, Matt Farmer-CPS parent, and so many more enlightened us with their knowledge and experience.  And of course my friends and collegues in the union itself spoke truth to power!

At the most recent rally last Saturday, I quipped with my activist friend, CPS elementary school teacher Michelle Gunderson, that I missed my rally and marching buddy after not seeing her in the crowd.  We had become friends after meeting at multiple education events over the past year.  She replied, "it's not just the same twenty of us at these rallies anymore."

No, it is not indeed.  And the movement is growing.

There was solidarity from friends and strangers across the country and the globe.  I was getting messages on facebook and twitter from old friends and acquaintances from New York, Seattle, LA, Indiana, as well as Japan, Germany, Australia, and more.  The whole world had its eyes on Chicago with the understanding that something major was taking place in this town.  

And yet, many in the media didn't report it that way.  A large part of the conversation out in the media and bloggosphere has been around the call for collaboration and trust. Many seem to think that if Rahm had simply been less aggressive, and if the union had been less rigid, they could have collaborately come to an amicable agreement.  This argument might have made sense if the fight were really about pay raises or benefits.

But anyone who actually listened to teachers knows this was about so much more.  This fight is not about compromise on a contract, it is about power and oppression. When up against oppressors, there is a clear right and wrong. Pundits need to admit that Rahm is wrong. As Karen Lewis said, this fight is about the very soul of public education.

Teachers were speaking up for their students, for their learning conditions, speaking against the savage inequalities of school funding and school reform.  About what really hurts our students.  This strike was about pushing back on the powerful who would sell our schools to the gods of privatization and competition. 

To call for "compromise" is to side with the oppressors. It says that "a little abuse" is acceptable all in the name of warm fuzzies and "just getting along".  It tells that battered wife that she shouldn't fight back against her abuser, 'cause the conflict might confuse the children.

No, there is a time to fight.  And in education that time is now.

Others made this yet another labor struggle. No, this is not about labor, or rather not just about labor.  Some have labeled this strike as the next Wisconsin. In some ways, certainly, this is about collective bargaining and the right to strike.  But to me, this fight was about a union which chose to fight in a social justice movement.  It was about redefining the role of what a union could be.  The CTU is a fighting union!  And the fight it took on was the fight against harmful corporate education reforms, the reforms of the elite, reforms that hurt children and their schools.  It is a fight for justice.

And I will admit it, it felt good to fight.  As I wrote on Anthony Cody's blog last week, there was jubilation on the streets of Chicago.  Finally someone was standing up to these cruel policies.

Before the strike, I had written off the entire press corps, especially the so-called "progressive" journalists, as 100% sold on the corporate education reform movement.  No one seemed willing to do the hard journalism to expose the truths behind corporate ed.  Perhaps their friends were reform-minded.  Maybe it was all those New York cocktail parties where teacher-bashing was becoming common-place.  I don't know.  They weren't reporting on the realities of our schools, just sound bites from Duncan, Rhee, Kopp, Klein, Bloomberg, and all the other Deformers.

Now that there are at least some journalists reporting the broader story of poverty, of inequality, of the profit-motive, of the damage of school reform on classroom practices, the others cannot simply ignore it anymore.  This strike represents a turning point.  Like the moment when reporters called out big tobacco on its intentionally suppressed deadly health risks, you can never go back to the time before the connection was made.  

Us public school advocates are no longer protesting with a small handful of other like-minded folk.  We are now part of a full-fledged civil rights movement calling for educational justice.  I thank the CTU for the long, hard, upward battle it has fought to reach this point. I thank them for building bridges to communities, to educating, to mobilizing its members into collective action.

That action made a difference.  The battle rages on, but one thing is sure, things will never be the same.


  1. Dear god Katie, this was beautiful. Almost have me tearing up in the middle of class! Thank you for being an inspiration to all of us.