Strike ends, union declares victory

The union's biggest win may not be in the contract; it may be in teachers' newfound resolve to fight changes like school closings.

September 19, 2012

By Linda Lutton

(AP/File)

Chicago Public Schools are open this morning. Delegates to the Chicago Teachers Union voted Tuesday afternoon to end their seven-day strike. Teachers are declaring victory, even though they did not get all they were fighting for.

Euphoric teachers, many in the red T-shirts they wore on the picket lines, started streaming out of a South Side union hall after talking for more than two hours about their proposed contract. 

They were smiling. The delegates, who’ve been tight-lipped lately, let it all hang out.

"I’m excited," said Denise Julian, a librarian at Claremont Academy in West Englewood. "I’m overjoyed to be back in the classroom, to do what I love to do, so it’s gonna be great."

John Dudley, who teaches at Collins Academy High School, wore a wide grin. "I just want to thank everybody out there in the city of Chicago that honked at us and supported us and stood with us.  It’s really meant a lot to us out there and we’re looking forward to getting back to work and teaching the kids the very best we can."

Solorio High School teacher Melissa Barton says the union was able to limit the use of standardized tests to evaluate teachers. "It’s a huge victory against testing. The union is sending a message that we’re not going to stand for high-stakes testing and what it does to our students."

There’s no merit pay in the contract—something else teachers are happy about.

During their meeting, teachers cheered that they’ll now be able to turn in lesson plans in any format they like. They cheered again for a new protection against bullying principals.

David Gregg, who works at Senn High School, says part of the union’s success was getting the public to discuss school reforms he says haven’t been debated enough. He pointed to a long line of media trucks on the street: 

"This is huge. How often do we have this kind of press covering the Chicago teachers? How often do you hear people talking about issues of standardized tests and how teachers should be evaluated and what students’ days should look like?  That kind of conversation doesn’t happen, and that was definitely one of the biggest victories in this strike."

Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis used this strike to put on trial the district’s reform strategy of closing schools and replacing them with charter schools. She said the union was fighting for the “heart and soul” of public education. And while there is nothing in the agreement that would stop the district from shuttering schools, Lewis said the union won.

"When people come together to deal with problems of education, the people that are actually working in the schools need to be heard," Lewis told reporters after the delegates' vote. "And I think this has been an opportunity for people across the nation to have their voices heard."

Lewis admitted teachers didn’t win all they were fighting for. In fact, the union has been highlighting not just its triumphs, but how much worse things could have been.

The Board of Education, on the other hand, got wins that mean fundamental shifts in schools. Some hiring and firing will now be based on teacher performance, not seniority. Teachers will be rated in part on how much their students learn--a fundamental shift from the current 40-year-old rating system, which is based on infrequent "drive-by" principal observations. And Mayor Rahm Emanuel touted his big victory, a longer school day.

"We have been discussing the need for more school time for more than a decade, but lacked the ability to achieve our primary educational goal," Emanuel said.  "Each time it was postponed or rejected because the changes were considered too difficult."

Emanuel said the longer day means an additional two and a half years of school over the course of a child’s education, kindergarten through 12th grade.

Parent Patricia Anderson breathed a sigh of relief when she heard the strike had been called off. She says she’s been making up things for her four children to do at home.

"And for all the mothers that are like me—a single parent—I can imagine how good they feel too!" said Anderson, whose children go to an elementary school where all the teachers were let go at the end of last school year so the school could be "turned around."

"And I am glad that the strike is over!" said Anderson.

The district will now have to figure out how to pay for raises it didn’t budget for. 

And teachers say they have homework too: They say they’re determined to keep up the pressure for those things they didn’t win in the contract: lower class sizes, air conditioning.

"I think we showed the public that there is a group of people out here that is tired of being pushed around," said second-grade teacher Mary Edmonds.

Edmonds teaches at one of the city’s best grammar schools, McDade Classical. She says after hours together on the picket lines, teachers feel more unified and powerful than they have in a long time. She says teachers plan to use that power to resist what the union believes will be massive school closings.

"We’re gonna fight all those closings and turnarounds—in just that kind of group, that kind of intensity. We’re gonna fight that hard, to save public education."

The union’s biggest victory from the strike may be that a lot of teachers—teachers at good schools and  teachers at struggling schools—are talking just like Edmonds.

Natalie Moore contributed reporting.