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“When America’s great crisis is a story in the pages of history, there will be a significant chapter devoted to the unfailing sacrifice of the Chicago teachers, who are now carrying on under inconceivable difficulties, far beyond the point which might be fairly considered the limit of human endurance.” ---The NEA Journal April 1933 (NEA: National Education Association)

On the eve before the Great Depression, what the NEA called “America’s great crisis”, Chicago’s teachers found themselves in a contradictory and uncomfortable position. Although their pay and working conditions were better than the blue collar workers in the city, their work in the classroom was becoming increasingly difficult. There had been a dramatic increase in Chicago public school students all through the 1920s which left the schools scrambling for funding.

The schools were largely financed through property taxes, and powerful corporations, along with real estate interests, had been dodging taxes for decades. The system was plagued with corruption and mismanagement and by the late 1920s was bogged down in lawsuits, court actions and a business-led tax strike. To make matters worse, the appointed school board had become a cesspool of financial corruption, especially under the gangster-tainted reign of Mayor William Thompson, an ally of Al Capone.  By 1929, the year of the Wall Street stock market crash, Chicago was essentially broke.

The schools in the immigrant inner city neighborhoods often lacked libraries, playgrounds or even adequate toilet facilities. The children, many of whom had only an uncertain grasp of English, were herded into overcrowded grim looking classrooms that one educational analyst described as resembling “enlarged prison cells”. Schools in Chicago’s growing African American neighborhoods were plagued by overcrowding and poor facilities. African American teachers faced relentless racial discrimination.

School administrators took over textbook choices and piled on more clerical work. They introduced a blizzard of standardized tests which one critic said reduced teachers to “automatons” and students to “mechanized memory machines.” The superintendent abolished the Teachers Councils, which had given teachers a voice in educational policy.

But even as they were being treated like cogs in a soulless machine, teachers were told to uphold:

"…the idea that  teaching was a noble profession, free and immune from the cares of a more sordid world… As teachers, they felt they had to maintain professional dignity, had to be blameless and subservient, and to be neutral to social, economic and political matters. [Teachers] believed that their professional dignity and self respect required that they keep aloof from any organization affiliated with labor."--- Mary Lyons, from the American Teacher magazine--1927
This idea of a "noble profession" was supposed to make teachers to feel  haughtily superior to their  blue collar neighbors, even though their working  conditions and pay lagged behind other professions such as medicine, law and business.

The professionalism that was pushed on teachers had little to do with their skills and dedication to education, but everything to do with an ugly class snobbery. Teachers increasingly came to view this pseudo-professionalism with cynicism and suspicion.

Then came the Wall Street Crash of 1929. In the wake of the disaster, teachers eventually organized militant street demonstrations which became the impetus for the founding of the Chicago Teachers Union (AFT Local 1).

 What a difference an economic collapse can make

However teacher militancy did not begin right away. The shock of the Great Depression was too terrible. By 1932, half of the Chicago labor force was out of work and those who did have jobs found their wages cut. Teachers were paid their monthly salaries only three times between January 1931 and May 1933. They did not receive regular paychecks, but were paid in “scrip” which had to be redeemed by businesses and banks who did not honor their full value. 

Teachers line up for pay

According to the May 1933 Nation magazine, teachers faced dire poverty: 

“Homes have been lost. Families have suffered undernourishment, even hunger. Their life insurance cashed in, their savings gone, some teachers were driven to panhandling after school hours to get food.”

Paul Schneider, who had taught manual arts at Washburne High School, shot himself to death in despair before his wife and children. Later it was discovered that his life insurance had lapsed.

Classroom conditions were especially grim as schools were overcrowded with impoverished, undernourished students. A July 1933 Saturday Evening Post reported this from a Chicago high school teacher:

“If a girl in my class begins to grow thin and turns an ever paler face toward me, more than human sympathy requires me to know why. It is my job. If a boy--normally well behaved and sensitive lad of fifteen--is transformed into an ill-tempered dreamer, I can sometimes read the answer the answer in the patches on his clothing...In these stern years when I look searchingly into the eyes of a student, often it is as revealing as if I had peered through the window of a Chicago home.”

In the face of the social catastrophe, Chicago teachers stayed on the job despite the payless paydays, determined as one Chicago teacher put it “...not to desert the Chicago schools.” Teachers raised $112,000 to buy clothes and provide breakfasts for needy children and despaired that they could not raise more.

Teachers create a new lesson plan: Fight for your rights

Teachers also came to understand the importance of organizing resistance to the corrupt oligarchy who had made Chicago’s school funding crisis the worst in the nation. That was not easy. Only 10% of the teachers belonged to the four competing teachers’ unions, all of whom opposed any militant action, preferring petitions and lobbying. 

The first sign of militancy came at the end of 1931 when 26,000 people organized by the teachers’ unions and community groups held a mass meeting that helped prevent the actual closure of the Chicago schools.

Teachers began to believe that public education itself was under attack along with the democratic values that it represented. They saw education as a way to empower Chicago’s largely working class student population and provide a path of social mobility. 

Harry Tate of the Chicago Teacher Voter Association addressed a 1932 teachers’ mass meeting by calling schools “the last bulwark protecting American democracy.” In a nation where many believed the entire economic system was on the point of a violent collapse, this was not idle hyperbole. Totalitarian movements were on the march and working class resistance was critical to preventing their spread.

Saving public education

It takes a spark to set off a militant mass movement in the streets and that spark came on March 17, 1933 when teachers discovered that school janitors, many of whom were patronage employees protected by Chicago’s political machine, had received a secret raise when teacher’s pay was cut in January. Frustrated by the lack of results from cautious union leaders, hundreds of teachers marched to the mayor’s office on March 21 and assured him that they would return every Tuesday until teachers were paid. Teachers also organized a boycott of businesses that were still evading taxes.

Teacher Protest
Teacher protest in the 1930's

Elementary school teachers staged a one day sick-out in early April. That was followed later that month by a high school teachers’ sick-out with thousands students joining them in a sympathy strike. At an April Board of Education meeting the president of First National Bank was loudly booed by teachers who had packed the meeting after 3000 of them had protested in the Loop. 

On April 15, teachers received a partial payment of back wages, but that did not stop 8000 teachers who marched to visit Charles Dawes, former US vice-president and head of City National Bank and Trust Co. The teachers wanted to know why the bank had just been bailed out to the tune of $90 million by the new Reconstruction Finance Corporation, but could not help the teachers get paid.

All hell broke loose on April 24 when 5000 teachers converged on five of Chicago’s largest banks who had refused to buy the tax warrants that were needed to pay the teachers. Once inside teachers confronted the bankers with chants of “Pay us! Pay us”, as they trashed the offices by turning over desks, smashing windows and throwing ink on the walls. A week later there was a similar demonstration at the Chicago Title and Trust Company that involved a pitched battle with mounted Chicago police.

The violence got the attention of Chicago Mayor Ed Kelly and representatives of the major banks who hastily promised relief. The VEC announced that the teachers would receive 4 months of the nine months owed to them at  a huge rally in Grant Park on May 13 . Then on June 9, the last day of school, there was another confrontation with police as 5000 people protested in the Loop against the banks.

Chicago teacher protest June 1933

Most of the marches were organized by a new group called the Volunteer Emergency Committee(VEC). The VEC was led by a charismatic PE teacher named John Fewkes who belonged to the Men’s Teachers Union(MTU), one of the four Chicago teachers’ unions of the time. Even Margaret Haley of the Chicago Teachers Federation(CTF), who was very sparing in her praise of rival teacher union leaders, called him,”...a fine specimen of physical manhood, well built, and he had a demeanor that was impressive.” Fewkes made it clear that the VEC was a one issue group focused solely on teachers’ pay.

Chicago’s business community had also been organizing, with the Citizens Committee on Public Expenditures (CCPE) as the result. With the support of the CCPE, the banks had consistently refused to lend any more money to the hard pressed Chicago schools. It was essentially a banker’s coup with even the CCPE admitting they had “taken charge”. But even after their downtown offices were wrecked, the banks continued to arrogantly set school policy.

On July 12, 1933, the Chicago Board of Education approved a budget that stunned the packed meeting room with cuts so drastic that School Superintendent William Bogan, who had not been consulted, was seen holding his head in his hands in shocked silence. Helen Hefferan, a Board member whom the others suspected would oppose the cuts, was not even invited to the meeting. After the fateful July 12 meeting, the Board steadfastly refused all requests for an audit, presumably to protect financial irregularities and  the many political patronage employees. The US Commissioner on Education called the cuts  “a return to the dark ages”.

That evening the VEC joined the new Citizens Schools Committee(CSC) made up initially of teachers, the PTA and the city’s leading women’s organizations. The following week the CSC held a rally at the Chicago Stadium that drew more than 30,000 followed by renewed lobbying efforts. The first day of school in September was chaos as a result of the financial carnage, so the Board, on the defensive, effectively rescinded the worst of the cuts by October. Then in 1934, with federal money, the teachers finally got all their back pay.

The days of ’33 were a quantum leap in Chicago teacher consciousness

“Few of us are the sweet complacent, non-thinking 100 percenters that we used to be. Our eyes have been opened...After four years of learning that bankers are our worst enemies, that politicians are interested in our votes and power only and use our children merely as pawns in their selfish game, that we can depend on no one but ourselves, we cannot be restored to our previous complacency.” ---- Teacher Edith Smith
John Fewkes, whom Time Magazine called the “John L. Lewis of the teaching profession”, was, like the legendary Lewis, a militant, not a radical. Fewkes was anti-communist at a time when communists played an important and generally positive role in the labor rebellions of the Depression Era. Fewkes would use militant tactics, but only for limited objectives. He went on to become a founder of Chicago Teachers Union in 1937 and served as its president for many years.
John Fewkes in 1967
John Fewkes in 1967

After the days of ’33 and the founding of the CTU in 1937, Chicago teachers generally rejected any Oliver Twist meekness before an ofttimes illegitimate authority. But teachers had difficult decisions to make-- what exactly should their new union do? 

Should the union take a broadly social activist role, allying with other organizations for progressive change? Should the union confine itself to bread and butter economics? Should it take a stand on issues of curriculum and testing? How should it confront Chicago’s school segregation and the barriers faced by teachers of color? What was the union’s relationship to Chicago’s corrupt political machine? What was the role of radicals, socialists and communists within the union? 

Teachers would grapple with all of these questions in the decades to come. Today, the Chicago Teachers Union, under new progressive leadership, is facing many of the same problems that teachers did back in the first half of the 20th century, plus new ones, such as the drive for privatization of the schools. Today the very existence of public education faces a greater threat than in the worst days of the Great Depression, but Chicago’s teachers are showing no signs of complacency. 

The spirit of ’33 lives on.

 Chicago teacher rally July 2012

Chicago teachers rally at the Board of Education in July 2012



Sources Consulted: My special thanks to John Lyons and the late Mary Herrick whose excellent primary research made this posting possible.

 Education & the Great Depression: Lessons from a Global History by E. Thomas Ewing, David Hicks

 Teachers and Reform: Chicago Public Education, 1929-1970 by John F. Lyons

 The Chicago schools: a social and political history by Mary J. Herrick

 Chicago Public Schools and the Depression Years of 1928 -1937 by Lyman Burbank


Originally posted to BobboSphere on Thu Aug 02, 2012 at 09:06 AM PDT.

Also republished by In Support of Labor and Unions, History for Kossacks, Anti-Capitalist Chat, Readers and Book Lovers, Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter, and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Republished to History for Kossacks. nt (7+ / 0-)
  •  tip, rec, hotlisted, & repub to (6+ / 0-)

    Anti-Capitalist Chat.

    This is excellent work!

    See also this story at Labor Notes for current issues:

    WE NEVER FORGET Our Labor Martyrs: a project to honor the men, women and children who lost their lives in Freedom's Cause. For May: Martyrs of the San Diego Free Speech Fight, Spring 1912.

    by JayRaye on Thu Aug 02, 2012 at 10:19:12 AM PDT

  •  Chicago Teachers Union (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Susan from 29, tommymet, BobboSphere

    have been foxed onto a path where they will get screwed. My teacher friends know it, coming to understand too late how their leadership has been played.

     Mike Madigan and Rahm don't want to own up to the past; to promises made and contracts signed. Teachers who get deserved combat pay will be villainized. Talk to three or four teachers in the CPS system. Parents don't care or don't exist, ESL classes produce minority students who end up unable to speak, write, or read either language which in turn feeds the 45%+ high school drop out rates and feeds the gangs more idle but willing bangers. Teachers come into the system unable to teach reading writing and math at the elementary level, often in a combat zone where the few parents who do care hide their children in the basement hoping a bangers bullet doesn't kill them.

    You want to see the hell of a dystopian educational system? Welcome to CPS.

    But no one gives a rat's ass what teachers think in Chicago. They've endured administrators who are totally incompetent to their jobs. They've read about grants and programs that never materialize in the classrooms. They've had their bad teachers posterized as typical. Take a look at the money spent on the bureaucratic level above the schools and see waste beyond comprehension. The city grants rebates and tax breaks to businesses that take money away from CPS, and TIF districts alone steal away over $250 million each year.

    They've been sold out completely by a city that doesn't care about anything but money.

    Who needs it? I don't blame them for girding for battle.

    •  The've been organizing for months (0+ / 0-)

      The leadership knew that they would be facing a tough fight, so they did the difficult job of organizing school by school and taking risks like participating with parents at sit-ins. They formed alliance with community and labor groups including Occupy Chicago.

      Rahm has backed off some, but the battle is far from over.

      "Don't believe everything you think."

      by BobboSphere on Thu Aug 02, 2012 at 08:43:36 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Wonderful work! Tipped, rec, hotlisted, Facebook (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    anastasia p, Ozzie, US Blues

    shared and republished to Readers & Book Lovers and Progressive Friends of the Library, because if you can read, you owe it to a teacher.

    From Chicago, I learned of the multiple sacrifices teachers made during the depression to keep the classrooms doors open. William Manchester's work, The Glory and the Dream, highlighted those sacrifices in this paragraph that I quoted in a diary on that book:

    The story of the Chicago schools was a great Depression epic.  Rather than see 500,000 children remain on the streets, the teachers hitchhiked to work, endured “payless paydays” -- by 1932 they had received checks in only five of the last thirteen months -- and accepted city scrip to be redeemed after the Depression, even though Chicago bankers would not accept it.  Somehow the city found money to invest in its forthcoming World’s Fair of 1933, when Sally Rand would gross $6,000 a week, but it turned a deaf ear to the Board of Education.  A thousand teachers were dismissed outright.  Those who remained taught on at immense personal sacrifice.  Collectively the 1,400 teachers lost 759 homes.  They borrowed $1,128,000 on their insurance policies and another $232,000 from loan sharks at annual rates of 42 percent, and although hungry themselves, fed 11,000 pupils out of their thin pocketbooks.
    Thank you for providing the story of their struggles.

    "I cannot live without books" -- Thomas Jefferson, 1815

    by Susan Grigsby on Thu Aug 02, 2012 at 12:05:04 PM PDT

    •  Thanks! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Susan from 29

      If I had the numbers that Manchester wrote about it and you quoted in your dairy, I would have included them. The reference to Sally Rand was priceless. The teachers did have a demonstration where they tore down the "Century of Progress" flag.

      "Don't believe everything you think."

      by BobboSphere on Fri Aug 03, 2012 at 09:48:24 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  So much repeating of the past... and the reasons (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Susan from 29, US Blues

    why are so clear... we let the looters and the history ignorant take charge at our peril since they will repeat the same mistakes using the same reasoning.

    And they will drag society bacwards in a destructive cycle until eventually reasonable people have enough,  wise up,  rise up and push back and eventually after a lot of needless suffering that could have been avoided get  things to return to normal... or something closer to what should be normal.

    Pogo & Murphy's Law, every time. Also "Trust but verify" - St. Ronnie (hah...)

    by IreGyre on Thu Aug 02, 2012 at 12:22:05 PM PDT

  •  Labor history (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    US Blues

    There is so much of it that has been forgotten. Thanks for this.

    ¡Cállate o despertarás la izquierda! - protest sign in Spain

    by gjohnsit on Thu Aug 02, 2012 at 01:38:23 PM PDT

  •  First I had to stop crying (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LakeThomas, BobboSphere

    This is the story of my grandmother, a Chicago schoolteacher raising a daughter as a single mother during the Depression (Her husband died in 1932:

    She would have been 44 when this happened, and my mother was 17 — already a student at the University of Chicago.

    Given her husband's Communist past, which you can read about at his WikiPedia entry, my grandmother was fearful of sticking her neck out. But until the end of her life (1984) there were stores she would not go in, banks she would not do business with, because of the way they treated teachers in the 30s.

    But this article also brought me to a realization I never had before: a second reason for my parents' passionate belief in public education. I had always assumed it was about my father's ability as a young immigrant to get an education here. I imagine it was also about what my mother observed as well, and I am so sorry she is no longer here to ask. I know it would break both their hearts that today, they would be forced to send us to University of Chicago Lab School because the Chicago Public Schools are no longer a viable choice for parents who value their children's education as much as mine did.

    My mother cared so much that she worked her way up from president of my elementary school PTA to president of the Illinois state PTA. When we were out of school, she was the League of Women Voters' education expert, serving as their state education chairman. Technically, she may have been what is so cloyingly referred to as a "stay-at-home mom," but she really wasn't.

    Take the "Can't(or)" out of Congress. Support E. Wayne Powell in Va-07.

    by anastasia p on Thu Aug 02, 2012 at 01:58:21 PM PDT

    •  Thank you so much... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      US Blues

      ...for sharing this very personal story. The women's organizations like the League and PTA were critical in the battle for public education in the 1930's. It was a long hard struggle with much heartache as teachers went to school hungry and fearful to greet students whose situation was often far worse. The NEA quote was no exaggeration.

      "Don't believe everything you think."

      by BobboSphere on Thu Aug 02, 2012 at 08:48:34 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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