The Chicago Teachers Union, which in 2012 had one of the biggest and most important strikes of the last decade, is back on the picket line today for a 1-day strike. Like the 2012 strike, this is about more than just a contract. This is a political strike with broad if somewhat vague demands about the treatment of teachers and students, the racial injustice of Chicago, and of course the CTU’s archenemies, Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Rauner. The legality of this strike is questionable, although I’d be surprised to see Emanuel do too much with that. However, the CTU has deep roots in the Chicago community and is receiving a lot of community and labor support. Micah Uetricht explains what is going on.
The union is walking a fine line between the narrow issues they are legally permitted to strike over and those “bigger issues.”
“This [strike] is a call for revenue for funding the schools and social services in this state appropriately,” CTU President Karen Lewis recently told Chicago Tonight, shortly after explaining they were striking over the “steps and lanes.”
The union says that school closings and round after round of budget cuts and teacher layoffs have meant that many schools aren’t able to accomplish their most basic tasks.
“We’re not able to function with this low level of funding,” says Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher at Saucedo Academy. “And the board says they’re going to make more cuts.”
The strike comes amid a longstanding budget battle between Illinois’s Democratic-controlled State House and Senate, and Gov. Rauner. A former private equity mogul and near-billionaire, Rauner has refused to pass a budget for the state without new rules restricting public sector workers’ union rights and has enacted deep budget cuts that have caused numerous social service agencies in the state to close down or drastically reduce services. Illinois is currently the only state in America without a budget.
The union’s demands for increased revenue — a tax on millionaires, a tax on financial transactions like futures and options trades, and a progressive state income tax (Illinois is one of the few states that has a flat income tax) — can’t be won in contract negotiations. Some would require state constitutional changes. That makes a union victory hard to define.
“Victory will be showing a united force — not just teachers and parents and students, but actually creating a movement with other workers from around the city and the state,” Chambers says.
Still, the fact that an American union is going on strike alongside other unions and community groups with broad political demands is almost unheard of.
“[Such strikes] happen pretty much everywhere but the US,” says Professor Bruno. “They’re very common in France, they’re common in Germany and Central and South America. It’s only in the US, because of the historical evolution of labor law, that you can only strike legally under the narrowest of conditions. And a political strike over larger policy issues is clearly prohibited.”
That makes today’s strike “extraordinary.”
The action “hearkens back to the ’30s and ’40s, when organized labor was using the strike to make larger economic and political points and trying to pursue broader economic and social goals,” Bruno says. “We don’t have much precedent for it.”
One of the biggest tragedies of modern politics is Karen Lewis coming down with cancer before taking on Rahm Emanuel. She would have crushed him.