Public protest is an honored tradition in our democracy. From the American Revolution to Black Lives Matter, speaking out for fairness, justice and freedom is in our national character and protected under the First Amendment.
But protest without purpose can be counterproductive, leaving the public, the media and even the participants confused. That seems to be the case with the planned “strike” by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) on April 1.
The union’s website talks about the governor, the mayor and “the 1 percent,” “threats” to cut pensions, more funding for public education, higher wages for private sector workers, support services in schools and communities, higher taxes, smaller classes, a promise of no budget cuts, restrictions on charter schools and an elected school board.
It’s unclear how the walkout makes any of these outcomes more likely.
The website acknowledges that many of the union’s demands were met by Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) last contract offer but a union bargaining committee rejected the proposal citing lack of “trust.” Instead they have chosen to strike.
Under state law, the union is technically not allowed to strike until the middle of May after a 105-day “fact-finding” period. But, the union’s house of delegates voted 486 to 124 to authorize the walkout, regardless of whether it is legal. In a body that is often unanimous, it is notable that 20 percent of the delegates voted against it. Nevertheless, CTU President Karen Lewis declared the union “united.”
But are they? The Tribune quotes teacher Jim Macchione (who also appears in the video above) asking:
“Is it really worth it? Is it going to make that much of a difference for your ultimate goal of getting more funding?”
In a blog post, another CTU member tried but failed to make sense of the CTU’s decision.
DNAinfo, an online media outlet in Chicago, quotes several teachers opposing the strike who are fearful they could be kicked out of the union for crossing the picket-line. One teacher put it bluntly: “I think we are being used as pawns.”
Meanwhile, the kids, who are already losing a day of learning because CPS can’t pay its bills and has ordered furloughs, will now lose another. The parents of more than 300,000 students will also have to make accommodations.
CPS is arranging activities for kids at parks, libraries and schools. And, while there probably won’t be much teaching and learning taking place, the students may take from the whole experience a few lessons about adult dysfunction.
On the other hand, they may see the day as an important civics lesson and a chance to voice their frustrations. Student protests have had an impact on education politics in cities like Newark and Boston recently, though it’s not clear how much they were genuine expressions of student voice or whether they were put up to it by activists.
Attentive parents may also notice that, while their traditional public schools are closed on April 1, Chicago’s 130 charter schools, including the 25 percent that are unionized, will be open, serving about 60,000 kids. The walkout may in fact fuel demand for more charter schools, which is one of the things the union is fighting.
It could also feed the agenda of Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, who is openly encouraging CPS to consider declaring bankruptcy in order to get out from under teacher contracts and pension obligations and restructure debt.
Let’s also remember that CTU President Karen Lewis faces a union election in May and despite her apparent desire to cut a deal with CPS and avoid a strike, Lewis is being pushed by hard-liners to take a tough stand. Maybe that’s the point after all. Despite rhetoric about economic inequity and educational injustice, maybe this walkout is really just union politics.
If so, it will be a missed opportunity for labor and management to come together, pressure Springfield, and secure a real and lasting victory for Chicago.