Schools First, we take Chicago

  • By Myke Bartlett
  • This article was published more than 4 years ago.
  • 29 Nov 2019
Students, teachers and staff striking in Chicago. Photo: Supplied

To Australian eyes, the American public education system can seem a salutary warning. More than 50 million students are educated by US public schools, but decades of national and local cuts have left US public schools in a parlous state – dilapidated, overcrowded, under-resourced and staffed by teachers whose stagnating wages have failed to keep up with the cost of living.

Under the Trump administration, things have only grown worse, not helped by the appointment of a Secretary for Education who is a one-woman display of the Dunning-Kruger effect – not knowing enough about public schools to recognise that she doesn’t know anything about public schools. Overall, it’s a vision of public education that the AEU and its members have been fighting to hold back from our shores.

And yet, there are signs that the tide might be turning. American unions are fighting back against government cuts – and they’re winning. The recent 11-day strike by the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) – the longest American teachers’ strike since 1987 – has seen teachers win more than a well-deserved 16% pay rise.

“It was worth it. If we had not fought for these children, who would have?”

The new, hard-won agreement will see an extra US$30 million invested in Chicago public schools, reduced class sizes, and a nurse and social worker on every campus. At-risk schools will be targeted for extra investment. Teaching assistants, admin staff and other low-paid school staff will see an extraordinary 40% wage increase.

Although the CTU was aiming to see striking teachers paid for their 11 missed days, it ultimately reached a compromise that will see strikers paid for five. CTU President Jesse Sharkey told reporters teachers were willing to make a sacrifice. “We lost more than a week’s pay for this strike, but we can hold our heads high because we accomplished something meaningful,” he said.

While the CTU didn’t win everything it bargained for, the scale of its ambition shows a renewed confidence for the American union movement. The CTU’s demands for affordable housing for teachers and other school workers were unprecedented in negotiations for enterprise agreements.

These kinds of broad demands show a shift away from simply tackling working conditions to demanding action on social justice issues affecting the broader community. It’s what the CTU calls “bargaining for the common good”.

Photo: supplied

This wide focus might explain the broad public support the Chicago strike received. An article in Vox reported that, despite the disruption it caused for the city’s 300,000 public school students, polls showed most of its inhabitants supported the strike. In fact, affected parents were actually more likely to support the strike than the general population, with some even joining teachers in their protest.

The CTU kickstarted this new wave of actions back in 2012, when its 25,000 members walked out on strike for the first time in two decades. That nine-day strike, coming in the wake of the global financial crisis and its resultant austerity, forced a reluctant city mayor to offer significant concessions on key issues such as wages, job security and teacher testing.

A wave of similar strikes followed across the country. Last year, teachers walked out in Arizona, West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma until state lawmakers agreed to increase wages and investment. When the strikes moved beyond hostile Republican-held states, unions found they were able to demand – and win – even more. A win by Los Angeles teachers for more nurses, guidance counsellors, librarians and education support staff in turn inspired the CTU.

Photo: supplied

Where the American union movement turns next is uncertain, but clearly a grassroots movement has been awakened. Having been given short shrift for too long by those in power, teachers and other workers are rediscovering the strength of collective action to change their lives and, more broadly, those of the society they serve. As one CTU member posted on Facebook in the wake of their victory, who else is going to fight to change the world?

“These and so many other gains would never have been possible without days marching in the rain, our songs to heaven for positive change, and, yes, our sacrifice of time, money, sweat, and emotion,” she wrote in a post picked up by the Chicago Tribune. “It was worth it. If we had not fought for these children, who would have? Not the uber-rich of Chicago and its glittering suburbs.”

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