Thousands of Chicago Teachers Union members held a boisterous rally at the Auditorium Theatre on Wednesday afternoon, with many teachers showing support for a possible strike in the fall.
Union officials announced on Tuesday that a strike vote would likely be taken before the end of the year and that 95 percent of the members who voted in a union survey would reject the current CPS proposal. CPS argues, however, that the union is inaccurately portraying the district’s offer to teachers.
“We respect our teachers and the work they do on behalf of our kids every day. They deserve a raise for that work, but our children can’t afford a strike. That’s why we are working with an independent negotiator to find a compromise proposal that fairly compensates our teachers and starts the school year on time,” schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said in a statement.
Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, was among those who spoke at the rally.
“The next time I come back… I want to see a fair contract,” she said. “I come to you for, and with the support of, 1.5 million people. If all those with silver spoons in their mouths can get help, what about the children of this city and the people who educate them?”
Weingarten said that she had just come from a conference on labor-management collaboration an hour away where 100 districts were represented. “But here in the second city of America, we have to rally to even be heard,” she said. “I will come back every time you need me.”
Earlier at the board of education meeting, the advocacy group Stand for Children held a press conference featuring parents who don’t want to see a strike occur.
Michael Butz, who has a son at Disney, said that if the teachers strike, parents will be left scrambling to figure out what they should do with their children. Like many, both Butz and his wife work.
“I am frustrated and disappointed with the rhetoric,” he said. “It does not help the children…. My son wants to be in school succeeding and learning.”
Harold Trujillo, a parent of two, added: “The talk of a strike brings stress to families and to people. In the name of the parents come together in a humble way.”
Stand for Children, which is a national organization with a local chapter, pushed for the passage of Senate Bill 7. The bill establishes a process for calling a strike and requires 75 percent of the teacher union membership authorize a strike. Currently, CPS and CTU are in the fact-finding stage of the process in which an independent arbitrator considers both proposals and issues a report. That report is due by July 15.
Stand for Children Chicago Director Juan Jose Gonzalez said that the organization thinks it is disingenuous for teachers to call a strike authorization vote before the fact-finding report is released.
“It is not true to the process,” he said.
CTU officials have said the high threshold for approval of a strike authorization vote forces them to schedule it before the end of the school year. Waiting until the summer would make it difficult, if not impossible, to get all members to vote. The way the law works a non-vote is essentially a “no” vote.
Gonzalez would not speak to whether the Senate Bill 7 inadvertently created the need for an imminent strike authorization vote. Instead, he insisted the bill’s purpose was to make the process more transparent.
Teachers at the rally were given stickers and hand-held red paper fans that doubled as signs, with check marks in boxes on them — likely an allusion to a coming strike vote – next to the phrases “YES to small class sizes” and “YES to well-funded neighborhood schools.” Popcorn and union T-shirts were on sale in the lobby.
When CTU President Karen Lewis took the stage, the entire auditorium shook with stomping feet. “Why are we here?” she asked the crowd, part way through her speech. “Strike!” someone yelled, and it became a chant – “Strike! Strike! Strike!”
Lewis then mocked CPS officials and Mayor Emanuel. “I think it’s very interesting that the spokesmodel for CPS says we are being too aggressive,” she says. She recounted old anecdotes that accused Emanuel of swearing at her, and made fun of Emanuel saying, over and over, “I want the school day long.”
“They took $600 million out of the capital budget,” Lewis complained. “They don’t intend to fix anything.”
The rally was followed by a 6,500-strong march to CPS headquarters that joined with a protest of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
Amy Dollarhite, a 9th-grade math teacher at TEAM Englewood Academy, said she came to the rally because “our union rep at school told us about this, that it was important for us to come and stand up for our rights.”
She added: “We’d like to be treated with the same respect as any other professionals. I don’t know any lawyer or doctor [office] that stays open more hours without being paid for it.”
Sheila Finley, a teacher at Jamieson Elementary, echoed a concern of many older teachers that “I’ve spent a lot of time and money to be educated and be a better teacher… [but] everything I worked for to earn, like my [stored-up sick] days, I’m going to lose all that.”
As members filed into the theater, a video showed CTU members reminiscing about past strikes, and members stood up and started clapping to an old-style version of “Solidarity Forever.” When “We Shall Not Be Moved” played, the video switched to a slideshow of the union’s leadership. Next, the video segued into pop hits like “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and slideshows of CTU pickets.
CTU Recording Secretary Kristine Mayle argued that Chicago Board of Education members “want to turn teaching into a low-wage, high-turnover profession.”
“I am willing to do whatever is necessary to ensure our members get a fair contract – are you?” she asked the audience.
“Yes,” the theater bellowed.
One video that played had messages of support from leaders of Chicago’s SEIU and UNITE-HERE locals. Another showed parents and other Chicagoans talking about the positive impact of teachers on their lives.
Speakers from 19th Ward Parents and Raise Your Hand also appeared at the rally. Raise Your Hand’s Matt Farmer, in a fiery speech, noted that the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools have seven fine arts teachers. He also quoted the schools’ director criticizing standardized testing and praising teacher unions.
Later, Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery spoke in support of the CTU. “When the current fight is over you will be prouder than you ever have before; you will have more power than you ever had before,” he said, his voice drowned out by cheering.