The Chicago Teachers’ Union Strike: An Interview with a Teacher

Chicago Public Schools are the government schools of the city of Chicago, USA.  Students attending are predominantly from poor and working class communities.  Students attend free of cost, and poor students receive free breakfast and lunch.  But funding for the schools is never secure, and has been cut under Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and state governor Bruce Rauner.  Finances are further complicated by debt refinancing and other financial instruments connected with big banks, and as a result of corrupt practices by the school board members. Teachers’ jobs are not permanent, but are subject to performance-based contract renewals.  Much like in India, there is a strong push for privatizing public education, and this push is backed by the major political parties and other moneyed elites.

chicagoAt the same time, the Chicago Teachers’ Union, which represents some 27,000 teachers of the Chicago public school system, is one of the strongest unions in the USA.  On Friday April 1st, the Chicago Teachers’ Union held a one day walk-out strike to protest the lack of state funding for public education.  The Union made a concerted effort to reach out to the local working class community, which is similarly affected by reductions in public spending and increased privatization of public programs.  And the teachers were met with an overwhelming show of support and solidarity.

Thozhilalar Koodam interviews Bridget Bancroft, an art teacher at one of the Chicago public schools.

Thozhilalar Koodam: HOW WAS THE DAY OF THE STRIKE?

Bridget Bancroft: It was really great.  I think, building up to it, there was a lot of anxiety, because we had just been on strike three years ago.  A lot of teachers were asking, “What is it going to accomplish?”  We had to take another vote to figure out if it was really the right thing to do.  And we kept voting yes, so we decided to do it.

There was all this terrible media coverage of teachers leaving the kids at home alone with no day care and stuff like that…So everyone was sort of nervous building up to it, but during the day it was so great!

We started off in the morning in front of our school, which is what all the teachers did–
they did a picket line in front of each school and read and made signs and picketed.
Everyone was honking their horns in support and it was super good vibes.
Students and parents came out to stand with us. Even our principal was pretty supportive–she was not legally allowed to be outwardly supportive but she still managed to say ‘be safe’ and ‘good job, guys!’.

Afterwards we marched down the street to the Nabisco factory because they are closing down the Nabisco factory and there are 700 people who will be losing their jobs.  A lot of the Nabisco workers are parents of our students so we picketed in solidarity with them.

Then later we went downtown for the march–and it was just super amazing, there were so many people there, people of all ages, and it wasn’t only teachers.  There were a bunch of other unions: there were unions from Mexico, from Detroit, from california, and other parts of Michigan…and it was just giant!  There were nurses unions and plumbers unions,
and it was really good vibes.

TK: HOW WAS THE MEDIA COVERAGE OF THE EVENT?

BB: It was more positive after the event than before.  The stuff I did read was talking about how many people came out and how impressive it was…with photographs of people in red stretched down city blocks.  It seemed like more positive coverage than before that was building up to the strike, at least on more left leaning news.

TK: WHAT IS THE PUBLIC PERCEPTION OF THE TEACHERS’ UNION?

BB: Well, the Teachers’ Union is at least more popular than the Board of Education.  Barbara Bennett (the previous head of the BoE for Chicago) was kicked off for giving money to a small organization in the suburbs; before that it was Jean-Claude Brizard, who was around during the school closures; there’s been a lot of turnover in that position, and that position is appointed, not elected.  Forrest Claypool, the new head of the BoE, sent letters home to parents about how disappointed he was in the Teachers Union and how the strike is illegal and how it is so selfish that the teachers are letting these kids go without daycare, and how the kids are not going to get their two round meals a day…I think that added to the anxiety of teachers, and they sort of started to doubt themselves…but then the approval rating for the teachers union was still higher than it was for the board of education; so that at least tells us that they don’t trust the board of education; I’m not sure if that means they trust the Teachers’ Union.

TK: WHAT KIND OF BACKGROUNDS DO YOUR STUDENTS COME FROM?

BB: The neighborhood I teach in is called Ashburn, and it is pretty much split 50-50.  That is, 50% Latino, and 50% African-American, that’s the demographic. It is 100% low-income, so all the kids get free lunch and free breakfast.

TK: WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE A TEACHER AT YOUR SCHOOL?

BB: I’m the only art teacher, and I teach every kid in the school.  During each school day I teach 130 kids, divided into five different groups.  And each day of the week I have a totally different group of 130 kids.  There are class sizes of up to 37 kids now, and in the past I’ve had 45 in a  room; and that’s a lot of students to teach.  There are a lot of students that have behavioural disorders or undiagnosed learning needs, and it is up to the teachers to figure this out.

TK: DO YOU INTERACT WITH THE PARENTS OF YOUR STUDENTS?

BB: I call my students’ homes a lot, but unfortunately it is usually just for behavioural stuff.  If I’m having a lot of trouble working with a kid and I’ve talked with that kid a lot, then eventually I’ll call home.  For me at least it is difficult, because, for example, I’ll have five kids to call home, and I’ll get only two parents who will actually answer the phone…But I can talk to parents after school, when they come to pick up their kid.

I’ve tried several times to do outreach art classes for parents, ceramics classes and drawing classes…there’ll be  a lot of parents who sign up at report-card pick-up days…but they just don’t show up to the actual classes…that’s just a constant challenge; the kind of thing we need an actual position for–a person who has the time to do all the outreach and figure out better systems to do better outreach to the community.  But I do wish I could do more for that.

TK: LEADING UP TO THE STRIKE, DID THE STUDENTS AND THEIR FAMILIES TALK TO YOU ABOUT IT?

BB: I had a lot of great conversations with students about it; I didn’t really talk to many parents to be honest.  But students were curious and they would be like, ‘Oh we don’t have any school on Friday?’   So I would ask them questions like, ‘Why do you think we don’t have school on Friday?’  Some of them will say, ‘Oh teachers want more money,’ and others will be like ‘No, it’s more complicated!’ And lot of the kids were talking about the funding structure of education, talking about mayor Rahm Emanuel and governor Bruce Rauner–usually after being told about these issues by other teachers. But they knew a lot of information, and I was pleasantly surprised.  But it was never one thing they were saying, it was always lots of conversations happening together.

TK: WILL YOU TALK TO THEM ABOUT IT IN CLASS TOMORROW?

BB: Yeah definitely, depending on the grade level.  A lot of the younger kids are just totally unaware of it.  But i’ve been talking to my 4th graders about what an “activist” is; that’s part of our curriculum, and hopefully I’ll be able to talk about the strike directly with them and incorporate that into our projects.

TK: HOW WILL YOU DESCRIBE WHAT AN ACTIVIST IS?

BB: I did a unit with my 8th grades about activism too, and I was kind of surprised that they didn’t know what the word meant.  So we started off with a vocabulary lesson: we looked up the definition of ‘activist’ and ‘artist’ and ‘community’.  Then we tried to discus what an activist is relative to a community, and came up with a simplified definition that an activist is someone who believes in something and organizes and stands up for that belief.

And then we got in a lot of conversations about what activists they know of.  There was a lot of mention of Martin Luther Kind and Malcolm X, and a lot of kids had a lot of trouble figuring out an activist who is still alive.  But one girl was like, ‘Oh my sister is an activist’ and she explained that her sister is associated to Black Lives Matter.  And we talked about what Black Lives Matter means, and what it is standing up for.  We had lots of great conversations.  Just the word ‘activist’ is cool to teach kids.

My eighth grades then designed protest signs.  We talked about lettering–how to design different letters–and they made good looking protest signs based on a message they believed in.  some of them were like ‘Less school time, less homework!’ and some of them were about police brutality, and immigration, and a lot of stuff that’s going through their minds these days.

TL: HOW DID THIS STRIKE DIFFER FROM THE PREVIOUS TEACHERS’ STRIKE IN 2012?

BB:  Well the last strike, as I understand it, was pretty much about the contract: teacher’s pay, and school size, and everything that is a part of the Chicago Teachers’ Union contract.  And this current strike is still about that, since we still don’t have a contract, and they are not really negotiating with us…but it is also about the funding structure of our state…Which is a really big idea and why it was also tougher for some teachers to stand behind it.

Because I think it’s scary for some teachers to think that you could actually organize and could actually band together to change something that’s so big!  Like change the way that the funding structure is within the state and what Bruce Rauner and Rahm Emanuel are funding and how they’re funding it, and oppose the power of the banks and the power of the uber-wealthy of the state.  And it’s a scary thing for teachers to think ‘Oh I can really change all of that by doing this action.’

I don’t know if the strike is going to directly affect these bigger issues, but I know that I learned a lot just participating, and I think that’s one of the best parts of doing anything like this: How much you learn and how much community you build and how much more you figure out there is to do and what comes next.  I think that’s really exciting.

TK: WHAT DID YOU LEARN?

BB: I learned more specifics about how the schools are funded by the state and what sort of debt we’re in and how that’s affecting our school system.  And about toxic swaps and different loan agreements that the board of education entered us into and how a lot of members of the board of education were from hedge funds and Bank of America…
a lot of specifics of the situation we’re in.

And I also learned that there are so many other people who feel the same way, who are upset at what’s happening in our state.  There’s health care workers, people fighting for living wages (the fight for a minimum wage of 15$ per hour).  So it’s just interesting how powerful I felt as part of this big mass of people.

You’re so powerless, you’re very isolated as a worker of any sort, and you’re in your own life and doing your own things and you’re upset but maybe forget that you’re part of this bigger system…But the workers have a lot of power because we have our labour…and that’s sometimes the only power we have, but it’s a really big power.

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