Thousands of Chicago teachers rally downtown

May 24, 2012

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Thousands of Chicago Public Schools teachers jammed the streets of downtown Chicago Wednesday afternoon, where their union held a rousing rally.

The show of force comes as the Chicago Teachers Union and school district are locked in contract negotiations, and as a vote authorizing a strike seems increasingly likely.

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The teachers arrived downtown after school in dozens of school buses.

Dressed in Chicago Teachers Union T-shirts, they formed a sea of red in the Auditorium Theatre.

Union official Kristine Mayle told the 4,000 school workers gatherd, she knew being a teacher would be tough.  

MAYLE: But what I didn’t anticipate were the challenges foisted upon all of us by the CPS bureaucracy and others. (Applause) Others–like the millionaires appointed to our school board by mayors who don’t send their children to public schools.

Mayle said teachers understand what schools need.

MAYLE: We need time to teach as opposed to administering standardized test after standardized test.

There were big cheers for smaller class sizes, art teachers and air conditioning. And loud boos for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and charter schools.

MAYLE: I’m prepared to do whatever is necessary to ensure that our members get a fair contract—are you?

In recent days, union officials seem to be gearing up for a strike vote—and have said they’d want it to happen before summer vacation, and before about 1,400 teachers retire.

Chicago Teachers union president Karen Lewis spoke last at the rally, after state and national union leaders, Jesse Jackson, and a parent.

Teachers’ feet thundered against the floor.

LEWIS: So why are we here?

Someone in the crowd yelled, "Strike!”  The crowd began to chant. Lewis at the microphone joined in, but said “fight," not “strike."

After the rally, the teachers poured outside and marched up Michigan Avenue, filling the wide street for blocks and chanting "CTU! CTU! CTU!". Spanish teacher Amanda Lord was among them.

LORD: (I'm) just trying to get dignity back for the profession, and get the public to see us en masse.

Other teachers said they were attending the rally because the district rescinded raises last June. Teachers also mentioned school closings, the privatization of public education, a longer school day with no extra pay.

In the Loop, onlookers waved and applauded as the  teachers walked by. Police guarding the route gave teachers thumbs up and put stickers on their bullet-proof vests that said, “YES to small class sizes.”

Inside a restaurant, two customers stood up at their table and applauded the teachers through the window. Just outside, Dominque Walker, who’s studying to be a teacher, called out to the throngs passing by.

DOMINIQUE: You all need to be honored, honored, honored!  Thank you! Thank you!!

Further down Adams Street, security guard Raymond Martinez said teachers need to be paid fairly, or kids will suffer.

LUTTON: Hey, how much do you think a teacher makes, average?
RAYMOND: I have no idea. Maybe about $40,000 a year, something like that?
LUTTON: Average--$71,000
RAYMOND: That’s pretty good!! Then what are they striking for?

Two longtime CPS teachers—who didn’t want to give me their names—said they haven’t been to a rally this big in their 30 years as teachers. 

TEACHERS: Never a rally like this one. Never—I don’t remember one like this. Not in my lifetime. I mean, I’ve been in several strikes but I never recall a unified thing like this downtown.

The school district posted a response to the rally on Facebook and Twitter. CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said the district respects teachers, and they deserve a raise….

But CPS believes teachers should not take a strike vote until after a fact-finder’s report is issued mid-July. Any steps toward a strike before then “would only hurt our kids,” Brizard says.