Teaching Opinion

Honk If You Don’t Support A Teacher Strike in Chicago

By Marilyn Rhames — September 12, 2012 4 min read
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For the past three days my morning drive to work has become a bit awkward at two stop signs. As I inch closer to the intersections near two different schools, I am beckoned by a throng of teachers in red shirts holding picket signs, chanting, and banging on the metal guard rails that line the sidewalk. They peer into my vehicle, smiling, asking me to honk if I support a teachers strike.

I don’t smile. I don’t honk. I don’t support.

At first, my children on the second row of the minivan were startled. What’s going on? Who are these people and what do they want from us? I explain that they are teachers and they are protesting to demand more rights within our public school system.

But you’re a teacher, too, Mommy.

Yes, I explain. I’m a charter school teacher so I’m not a member of their union. And you’re a charter school student so you get to go to school. But most of the schools in the city are closed.

In an innocent, non-judgmental tone that only a child can achieve, my six-year-old daughter asked, “So where are all the kids?”

That’s the question that bothers me. There are 402,000 students in CPS. About 50,000 attend charter schools and the other 350,000 are locked out of school because of the strike. When the strike took effect on Sept. 10, only 18,000 students showed up to the 144 sites the district provided as a four-hour safe haven. The other 330,000 were unaccounted for. Many parents had to take off work to watch their kids. Some parents took their children to work. Families who could afford it hired babysitters for the day. Some kids went to grandma’s. Still, lots of children were hanging out on the streets.

I saw a teachers strike coming two years ago, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel was running for office. He told me in a teacher focus group that he was not going to pick a fight with the teachers union, but he was not afraid of a fight either. He vowed to take extending the school day off the bargaining table and make it a matter of state law.

Emanuel, though a Democrat, was willing to incite the same kind of protests from unions as Republican Governor Scott Walker did when he pushed for labor reforms in 2011. This indicated a major shift in the Chicago Democratic machine, particularly as it regards to labor and education. Emanuel’s rhetoric and politics were bullish, even upstaging his own CEO of schools Jean-Claude Brizard, at times.

Though Emanuel had brilliant ideas for reform, his implementation strategy created deep wounds of distrust and disrespect within the teaching force.

As a result, 95 percent of the 26,000 union membership authorized a strike months in advance of school starting. To prevent a strike, the city offered teachers (who average about $71,200 a year) a 16 percent raise over four years. The union scoffed. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis made it clear: This strike is not just about money, but respect.

I say that it’s also about power.

Emanuel claimed that only two outstanding issues remain. Lewis said there are 49 points of contention, and the city has only resolved six of them. This strike is not ending, she said, until ALL the union’s grievances are addressed.

And that’s the part that scares me. There is no way massive and complex issues like teacher evaluations, providing wrap-around support services (school nurses, social workers, etc. ) for every school, and the retrofitting of every school building with air conditioning can be quickly resolved at a tired, hostile bargaining table. Not to mention that the city has drained its reserves fund, and it is $665 million in the red!

I’m afraid that any solutions that come from these talks will be short-sighted and made in haste. The motivation behind making long-term, well-thought-out improvements in the system can’t be to end a labor strike—that would be an oxymoron. Now that the union has the mayor’s attention, let the kids go back to school, so logical, efficient solutions can be reached.

So, no, I will NOT honk for the striking teachers (though, as a former CPS district teacher, I empathize with some of their concerns and believe their voices need to be heard). And I will NOT pledge my allegiance to the Chicago school district (though I agree with its overall push for education reforms). I am, and have always been, a STUDENT advocate.

And right now 350,000 students are being denied the opportunity to learn. Or, rather, they may be learning things during the strike that we don’t want them to learn.

I imagine the street gangs in Chicago are taking full advantage of the strike. While teachers take to the picket line and Emanuel holds his daily press conference about how far negotiations have come, somebody’s child is being recruited and schooled by the streets.
This summer in Chicago has been one of the bloodiest summers on record. After all, gangs have waged war in parts of the city, killing more people in Chicago this year than the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan during the same time frame.

Let us get outraged and strike about that.

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.