Chicago Teachers Union Headed for a Strike

Four years ago we covered the successful teachers strike in Chicago.  It looks like they are headed there again this fall.  You can take a look here at WBEZ in Chicago’s helpful graphic on the issues at stake along with the fuzzy math that the district is using to attack teachers with.

Also, I will re-post this article from our friends at Labor Notes.  It is written by CTU teacher Gabriel Sheridan, titled Chicago Teacher: Why We May Strike Again

Chicago teachers are voting September 21-23 on whether to authorize another open-ended strike.

I remember how worried I was as a rank-and-file teacher on the eve of the 2012 strike vote. I thought we’d never get a majority. The overwhelming yes vote by 90 percent of members came as a huge surprise to me—and gave us all extra motivation to unite on the picket line.

Later I learned that the activists and leaders who’d been organizing for the strike vote weren’t so surprised. Delegates were keeping in close touch, tracking our support in each school to make sure we got the 75 percent member vote that we would need to legally strike.

This time around, I’m one of the people reaching out to my co-workers and students’ parents to build support for a possible strike… though that doesn’t mean I’m not nervous.

Our contract has been expired for more than a year. We already voted by 88 percent in December to authorize a strike, and walked out for one day in April.

The union is holding this second vote partly to discourage any legal attacks from the mayor or governor over technicalities—and partly to solidify our solidarity.

PAY CUT DEMANDED

Union Allies

Our April 1 strike focused on more than just our contract. We spearheaded a citywide day of action with other unions and community groups—for instance, supporting organizing at O’Hare Airport and opposing the shutdown of a Nabisco plant.

All the local universities showed solidarity. Many are being hit hard with cuts. Chicago State University, where many African American teacher candidates get their credentials, is closing its doors. I spent half the day at CSU, and half protesting in Chicago’s downtown Loop.

And in August, we teamed up with Labor Notes and various local unions to host a Troublemakers School, where 250 rank-and-file activists attended organizing workshops and exchanged powerful stories.

A Verizon worker told how management couldn’t get the work done during their recent strike—because the bosses barely understand what workers do. A worker from the former Republic Windows and Doors factory described how they occupied their plant and won the right to buy out the company.

Organizing is hard work. But these inspiring stories reminded me how rewarding that work can be.

As usual, the newspapers and TV are parroting the mayor’s line that our pension is the cause of all of Chicago’s financial problems.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel claims he’s offering a 13 percent pay increase. But he wants to eliminate the district’s 7 percent payment toward our pensions, which he insists the city can’t afford.

This makes no sense, since the pension is actually part of our pay. Chicago teachers don’t get Social Security—those contributions are diverted into the district pension system. It’s all we have to retire on.

The city’s payment toward our pensions was originally set up as a stopgap measure at a time when the city was financially strapped. In exchange for accepting wage freezes, we were promised future pension payments. To demand that we pick up the pension cost now is a pay cut, and not a small one.

For years our union has been making the point that there’s plenty of money out there to fully fund our schools. That’s why we’re demanding a progressive tax in Illinois to make the wealthy pay their fair share, and demanding that the mayor fight to recover the money he’s lost to big banks in bad deals.

DOING MORE WITH LESS

Another constant storyline in the news is that teachers are overpaid and don’t work hard enough. But the truth is that teachers put in extraordinary amounts of time off the clock.

We’re in front of students from clock-in till clock-out, except for a one-hour prep period. That’s not nearly enough time to plan lessons, grade papers, and meet with parents. Just helping one student who comes in with a crisis can take up the whole hour.

So everyone comes early or stays late, unpaid. School starts at 8:45 a.m., but I arrive at 6:30 or 7. My colleagues and I meet straight through our unpaid lunch. And every night I haul home big bags of grading.

The pressures have only gotten worse as we’ve suffered wave after wave of layoffs and closings. The decline in the percentage of Black teachers has been stunning. This year the district closed and consolidated schools again, breaking its moratorium pledge. In August it announced 1,000 more layoffs.

Special education teachers, nurses, and social workers have been among those hit hardest. A high school with 1,400 students has just a half-time social worker. We’re fighting to get a librarian in every school, and gym class every day.

The same week the district announced the latest layoffs, it held a job fair. Administrators do their best to get around seniority rules so they can hire cheaper, inexperienced staff.

OVER-TESTED

Class size is another perennial problem. The district claimed it was closing underutilized schools, but now the displaced students are crowded in elsewhere. Meanwhile they’re pouring money into privately run charter schools, sometimes inside our own public school buildings.

All these issues are part of our union’s ongoing fight—though they’re not all issues we can legally bargain or strike over.

One issue we’re raising at the bargaining table is standardized testing. None of the private-school or charter-school kids have to endure such a battery of tests. We want contract language against over-testing.

So far, the city isn’t interested—though this is an area where our union proposals would actually save money. The tests are costly, both in required equipment and in teachers’ time. They tie up computers that could otherwise be available to students for coursework.

Meanwhile companies like Pearson are making a bundle developing the tests and selling the curricula and computer programs that go with them.

KNOCKING ON DOORS

So, here we are. The mayor says one thing, and the teachers say another. Parents don’t know what to believe.

Emanuel’s message that “teachers should have to contribute to the solution” can be confusing even for teachers. No one is immune to the media barrage, and not everyone went through the 2012 strike. In my school about a quarter of the teachers are new.

All summer long, the union has been working to clarify the facts. Young teachers in our organizing internship program have been out knocking on doors, engaging members in personal conversation to find out which issues affect them most.

On the doorsteps, members talk about unfair evaluation practices, poor building conditions, lack of supplies, the expansion of charter schools, privatization of custodial work, and inequity in the process for students to get into “selective enrollment” schools, further segregating our neighborhood schools.

These conversations are also a chance to educate each other. Some teachers don’t realize that our union fought for the resources we do have—like the right to basic supplies, computer access, even bathroom breaks.

TALKING TO PARENTS

We’re also making a push to talk personally with parents. If we do have to resort to a strike, parent involvement will be critical.

On a recent morning before I clocked in, I ran outside to pass out union flyers near the playground. You have to be off school grounds, so I stood on the sidewalk. Any parent who took the flyer, I engaged in a conversation.

Some were sweet and supportive. Others were skeptical, so I asked about their concerns—and when they heard about the issues we’re fighting for, they were receptive. The union is the only force standing up for what public education could be.

My next task as an organizer is to remember those parents’ names and keep the conversation going the next time I see them.

The Alliance to Save Our Schools—a joint effort by the two national teacher unions—has arranged its second National Walk-in Day on October 6. Across the country, teachers and parents will gather to celebrate public schools and then walk into school together.

At my school we’ve already held two walk-ins. Parents and teachers made brief speeches, and we even sang songs with the students. It felt powerful and loving, creating the sense that we’re all in this together.

The city has given Chicago’s working-class schools a bad reputation by underfunding them, segregating them, letting the paint peel off the walls. Schools in wealthier neighborhoods don’t suffer like that.

But despite everything that’s stacked against us, the schools in Chicago are good. Every day I see dedicated staff working to make a safe learning environment for kids. With better staffing and funding, just think what we could do!

Gabriel Sheridan teaches second grade. She has taught at Ray Elementary in Chicago for 19 years.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #451, October 2016. Don’t miss an issue, subscribe today.
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REMINDER: PJSTA shirts on Thursday!

Just a reminder to everybody that our opening conference day is on a Thursday, therefore it is expected all PJSTA members will be wearing a union shirt as we welcome each other back to school!

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NYSUT’s VOTE-COPE “Campaign” Highlights What is Wrong with NYSUT

Two years ago, with NYSUT’s failure to oppose Governor Cuomo serving as “the straw that broke the camel’s back” PJSTA members followed the lead of their officers and stopped contributing to VOTE-COPE, the statewide union’s voluntary political action fund.  PJSTA President Beth Dimino has been vocal in describing her reasons for not contributing and this has drawn the ire of many Unity Caucus loyalists.  You’ll surely recall that last year Unity (the controlling caucus within NYSUT) used it’s blog to launch a personal attack at Dimino, labeling her “anti-union” among other things.

So this year NYSUT decided it’d try to step around Dimino in an attempt to solicit VOTE-COPE contributions from the PJSTA membership by sending out a form letter to each of our members asking for us to give to VOTE-COPE this year.  I want to be clear here… I do not have a problem with the leadership stepping around Ms. Dimino to approach our members about this.  The PJSTA membership made a strong statement about their confidence in NYSUT’s political action work when our members made their decisions to reduce their VOTE-COPE contributions to $0.  I would expect that to catch the attention of NYSUT leadership and I would expect them to want to contact those members about their decision.

The problem I have with their tactic comes in their chosen form of communication.  Nearly two full years after reducing our contributions, leadership’s response was to send each of our members a form letter.  There was no attempt to engage our members in discussion about our decision.  No reaching out to gauge our feelings on our statewide union, or to ask how they can better represent us.  No discussions about the broken union structures that lead to disengaged members.  No explanations for why they have generously donated to ed deformers like Andrew Cuomo and John Flanagan.  Just a simple form letter asking us to give them more money.  To be frank I found it insulting.  The idea that a form letter with all the usual rhetoric was going to suddenly sway me was simply astounding.

After reflecting on it, I think this incident really highlights some of the major problems with our statewide union.  Virtually all contact I have ever had with NYSUT is one-way communication where messages from the top are relayed down to me.  There is nearly zero back and forth.  No chance to engage our leaders in discussion about the state of our union.  No visits from the NYSUT officers to our schools to ask questions or to simply listen.  Sending form letters to request greater VOTE-COPE contributions is the very essence of top down unionism.  It’s ineffective, expensive, and does nothing to serve our members.

The fact that this happens is the result of of a broken union structure.  Andy Pallotta’s PAC work has resulted in teachers being held “accountable” via junk science through poorly constructed teacher evaluations over the past several years.  However there is no accountability for Andy Pallotta.  I am not sure whether or not STCaucus plans to run a slate in the coming NYSUT elections, but it doesn’t really matter.  Pallotta will run again for a NYSUT officer position again this spring and he will win.  This will likely be the case for a few of our other officers as well.  They are in a situation where they can’t lose because they will have the endorsement of the Unity Caucus.  In NYSUT’s rigged system of democracy the only thing that matters is the Unity endorsement.  The will of the members won’t matter.  The PJSTA membership’s VOTE-COPE reduction, which essentially amounted to a vote of no confidence in our leadership, won’t even be a blip on the radar when it comes to the election.

This is the type of stuff that turns people off to unions.  This is why it gets easy to become disengaged and apathetic.  I’ve had a lot of discussions about this sort of scenario with members across the state.  I’ll close with the gist of what I put in an email earlier today to one of those members about the only way I see to go forward and the only way that I can see transforming our union…

I think the way forward is to take our focus off of resolutions, leadership positions, and the NYSUT bureaucracy and focus solely on engaging and organizing the rank and file.  I think an engaged and active R&F will ultimately have a greater impact on the state’s public ed landscape than having a great leader at the top working within the same structure that has lead to a disengaged and apathetic membership to begin with.  By grassroots organizing you can ultimately increase your leadership capacity across the state and begin to cultivate local leaders who will challenge for leadership and delegate positions in areas that have traditionally been Unity strongholds (Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Yonkers, UUP, PSC, etc.).  That is how you ultimately might win leadership positions within NYSUT.  More importantly, in the process, you will have organically grown an engaged, fighting union who is more powerful than we have ever knowN it to be.  It is a long slog for sure, with a tremendous number of obstacles in the way, and it requires the sort of person-to-person organizing that is neither glamorous or rapid in nature, but I believe it is the only way forward for us.

 

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Beth Dimino Letter to NYSUT Officers

Dear NYSUT Officers,
On behalf of the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association, I wish to alert you to our concern about your approach to the NYSUT/PSA negotiations. It appears to the PJSTA that you are needlessly and recklessly creating a dispute with the bargaining unit and, as a consequence, threatening the services provided to the PJSTA on a daily basis. We ask that you treat PSA with the respect it deserves and work diligently to find solutions to this contract dispute that will not imperil the delivery of NYSUT services to my local by the PSA staff.

The PJSTA is also concerned about your misrepresentation of NYSUT’s financial situation at the most recent Representative Assembly, where no mention of any pension crisis was mentioned. I know that the officers are provided routine reports on the NYSUT pension as required by law, so we are confused as to why the long-term pension cost suddenly became a crisis. Your actions leave the PJSTA wondering where the truth lies and whether we can trust your financial representations to your dues-paying members.

It is our expectation that you work with PSA in a way that would be viewed as a model to the labor movement and refrain from adopting the tired and unproductive behavior of our worst employers. We demand that you work to conclude this contract dispute in a way that will not further embarrass that PJSTA and will not interrupt the crucial services that PSA members provide.

In Solidarity,

Beth Dimino, PJSTA President

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Summer Musings Part II- Examining Our Union Structures

empowering_teachers

Last week I published my “Summer Musings Part I” post in which I posed a number of questions…

As I begin to wrap my head around the idea of the 2016-2017 school year, I do so with the question in mind of how do we raise teacher voice across New York State and beyond?  How do we empower our members at the very grassroots level?  How do we better engage our membership at the local, state, and national levels in a way that allows the members to drive the union agendas?  How do we create union cultures that encourage membership participation and what exactly does that participation look like?  How do we create times and places to facilitate discussions among the rank and file about what our unions are vs. what they actually should be?  How do we build more democratic unions and how do we overcome the obstacles that stand in the path of union democracy?  How do we turn our unions from passive unions or unions who simply mobilize around top down mandates into unions who have rank and file organizing at the very heart of their operation?

Like our many readers assuredly have (haha), I’ve been giving a good deal of thought to those questions over the past week or so.  Several of those questions tend to overlap with each other, so I am not necessarily going to write to each of those questions, but more share some of the thoughts that have been running through my head as I ponder those questions.

One concept that I keep coming back to is the concept of union structures.  It seems to me that the structures of our unions, in many cases, are prohibitive to what a union’s goals should be.

An empowered rank and file should ultimately be the result of of a membership who has had ample opportunity to engage with one another and with union leadership on what their shared values are and on what they expect from their union in regards to those values.  These opportunities for engagement should be frequent, whether they be causal or formal meetings, and should allow for deep and meaningful thought and discussion from all parties.  They should allow for participants to ponder the causes of issues that effect our schools and communities along with the long term implications of these issues or potential plans of action.  Meetings such as these, with no dominant voice, rather a respectful exchange of ideas from all participants, allow all members to have a greater role.  They allow the union to move forward as a collective, organized around a set of shared values, rather than as a leadership pulling a membership along.

In smaller locals like ours it is more common to witness these sorts of structures.  While the PJSTA certainly isn’t structured like my ideal scenario above, we do have regular building meetings where members are free to express concerns and share opinions.  Our leadership is in the schools every day, not only available to have personal and informal conversations with the membership, but in the trenches teaching with the same working conditions that our members are.  As a vice-president who is largely tasked with coordinating our local’s organizing endeavors, it is my personal goal to move us more in the direction of my stated ideal above.

Often where structures really start to become problematic are in larger locals, like the ones often found in cities, and in our statewide and national unions.  The larger the union, it seems, the more problematic we find the union structures.  Let’s take NYSUT, our statewide union, as an example.  I am wracking my brain and I can’t, for the life of me, recall a time that NYSUT asked me, as a rank and file member, what issues were important to me.  I can’t recall a time where they have provided space for in depth discussion between members on the issues that we face or on more philosophical ideas about how our union should function.  Virtually all of my interaction with NYSUT throughout my 14 years as a member has been different varieties of one-way communication.  I have received mandates from the leadership on what I should fax or email, what I should say to my elected officials, who I should vote for, or scripts I should read to others on the phone.  This is literally the opposite of empowering.  Rather it sends the message to me as a member that my ideas and opinions are inconsequential and that engaging me isn’t important.  I simply exist as a tool to do the bidding of our leadership.

In January I emailed NYSUT President Karen Magee with questions along these lines and I was basically told it was none of my business.  There have been very few times in my career when a NYSUT officer has visited our local and when they have it was never to engage the membership, only to talk at them and then usually ask for an increase in VOTE-COPE contributions.

When I attend the RA as a delegate most of the discussion centers around resolutions brought to the floor.  Precious little debate takes place before a Unity Caucus member typically calls the question to shut down discussion and then the motion is voted on.  If you are not first on line (out of more than 2,000 delegates) at a microphone to speak, it usually means you don’t get to speak.  In general the resolutions are fairly meaningless to the general membership anyway (Quick, count how many NYSUT resolutions have impacted you in the classroom?  I bet you can count them on one hand!)  The rest of the RA typically consists of the VOTE-COPE guy asking us to give more VOTE-COPE, and maybe a candidate our leadership is pushing who talks at us (this year it was Hillary Clinton).

I can go on and on about the issues I have with NYSUT, but I don’t think that’s necessary.  Clearly NYSUT is very top down in nature and it’s entire structure stifles discussion about the issues that effect us and does more to encourage members to disengage than it does to empower them.  The same can be said about the AFT on the national level.

What I find to be most appalling is that these sorts of structures typically tend to be by design.  I don’t believe that the leaders of NYSUT and the AFT are necessarily interested in hearing from the membership.  I don’t believe that they are actively seeking out ways to empower and engage the rank and file.  I don’t think that they have any interest in establishing rules that make our unions more democratic.  To do any of these things would be to put themselves and the power that they have accrued at risk.  It would endanger their seat at the table.  To be honest, there are not many people who would want to give up salaries of hundreds of thousands of dollars, expense accounts, double pensions, and seats at national conventions.  The bigger problem is the structures that are put in place allowing these leaders to run our unions as they do for an indefinite period of time without having to answer to the membership in a meaningful way.  When you allow those in power to make the rules and create the structures, these are the sorts of situations you find yourself in.

There are no easy solutions to this problem and there are no shortcuts.  Electing new leadership (virtually impossible in NYSUT because of the elections rigged in favor of whomever Unity Caucus endorses) isn’t a real solution due to the likelihood of new leaders falling into the same traps as previous ones due to the fact that they are operating within the same flawed structure.  Any structure that relies upon humans resisting the temptation to be bought off is likely doomed to fail.

In June I was sitting in a meeting with members of other locals and the topic of our flawed leadership came up.  How they haven’t done enough to help us in regards to certain issues. While I agree to an extent, I don’t find the individual leaders to be the problem.  It isn’t Karen Magee, Andy Pallotta, or Mike Mulgrew.  It’s the union structure that has allowed it to happen.  You can plug in virtually anyone and get very similar results.  Which is why the answer is not changing leadership.

I firmly believe that the answer to the problem of our union structures begins in our schools at the worksite.  It starts with building new structures within our buildings and locals that are more democratic in nature and that empower our membership.  When we create organizing unions that emphasize democracy and teacher empowerment we create an extremely powerful union and the leadership ultimately doesn’t matter.  It isn’t easy and it isn’t glamorous and it is often tedious.  But it is the most important work that a union can do.  If this sort of work were done extensively statewide, our statewide union would ultimately change.

So join me this year in working to reshape your unions.  We’ll be working on ways to better engage members in deeper discussions, identify shared values, and empower members.  Feel free, as always, to share your ideas with us!

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