Chicago teachers have voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike in response to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's demand for a contract extending their work hours by, in theory, 10 percent, but in reality significantly more, while giving them a 2 percent raise. The threshold for a strike authorization was that 75 percent of all teachers, not just of those voting on the issue, had to support striking. This was a policy explicitly put in place by Emanuel, the state legislature, and corporate education policy group Stand for Children to make a strike impossible. But nearly 90 percent of Chicago teachers voted yes, shattering what was supposed to be an impossible goal.
Jean-Claude Brizard, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, responded to the 90 percent vote by trying to question the democracy of the process, saying, "The Chicago Teachers Union leadership pushed their members to authorize a strike before giving them the opportunity to consider the independent fact finder’s compromise report due in July." That might hold water as a response to a close vote. In response to a 90 percent vote out of all teachers, not just those voting? Ha ha ha ha ha.
The Chicago Teachers Union is asking for a two-year contract with a 24 percent raise in the first year and a 5 percent raise in the second. Some of you will be saying, "But the mayor only wants them to work 10 percent more—isn't a 24 percent raise greedy?" In fact, teachers would face far greater increases in their work hours; Emanuel has extended the school day by 21 percent, from five hours and 45 minutes to seven hours in elementary schools, and extended the school year by 10 days. So his contract proposal increasing the time teachers are required to spend in school by 40 minutes is a fiction under which teachers would have students in the classroom for 75 additional minutes and have 35 fewer minutes to meet with students individually, prepare classes, or grade student work. The end result may only put teachers in the school building for 10 percent longer, but it leaves them with far more than 10 percent more work to do. For that, Emanuel is offering a 2 percent raise in the first year of a five-year contract, having already rescinded a 4 percent raise the teachers were due last year.
And teachers are not even allowed to bargain over their hours. Emanuel simply got to extend the length of the school day, declaring it a victory for kids without answering any of the difficult questions of what happens in the added time. Parent activist Wendy Katten asked NPR, "People want to know, seven hours of what? What are we getting in seven hours if they're adding this hour and 15 minutes? What's the content?"
Chicago teachers are running straight into a buzz saw of corporate "reform" money aimed at breaking unions, extracting corporate profit from public schools, and putting kids' actual interests way, way down the priority list. Teachers are fighting not just to be paid for their actual work hours but to keep a voice in what happens in the classroom. And if they don't fight this, the inevitable result will be an acceleration of the dismantling of public education, taking resources out of public schools in the name of "choice" that doesn't serve all children equally, putting decisions about education in the hands of billionaire philanthropists and for-profit testing companies.