Sunday, September 23, 2012

Chicago teachers push back "reform" agenda

Chicago teachers ended their strike and returned to classrooms this week. The strike was particularly significant - this was the first teacher union in the US to make a significant push against the corporate reform agenda. It was the first teachers strike in Chicago in decades.

The Chicago board was seeking a number of concessions that have been introduced in other US cities including merit pay and reducing teachers' rights to recall when they lose work due to a school closure. While merit pay was dropped from the table, the recall provisions were scaled back, a concession on the part of the union.

But the success in fighting merit pay is important. Many US teacher unions have accepted forms of merit pay. Not only is this detrimental to the strength of their organization, by pitting their members against each other over salary, it also legitimizes the concept of merit pay when a teacher union agrees to it. (I have written before on the issue of merit pay, or see Alfie Kohn's excellent: The Folly of Merit Pay).

Moreover, although the school day and year was extended, there was a pay increase for teachers when the city faces a deficit situation. This is also important, as it represents a successful push back from making working people pay for deficits created by lowering corporate taxes and bailing out banks.

Perhaps a most important factor in the Chicago teachers strike was how it ended. A tentative agreement was reached early in the weekend. A Sunday meeting was then held with the "House of Delegates", who represent teachers in schools. At this meeting, the delegates voted to extend the strike until teachers themselves had the opportunity to look at the deal and give feedback to their delegates about whether to accept it. Thus, the strike did not end until every teacher in every school had the opportunity for democratic input. This is the outcome of a transformation in the Chicago Teachers Union after several years of rank and file organizing by teachers in schools against a bureaucratic union leadership that was not responsive to teachers. So while some certainly will question and disagree with ending the strike with concessions still in place, there was more involvement of the membership in the decision than just the leaders.

The corporate reform agenda represents an unprecedented attack on unions, on public education, and is emblematic of the drive to privatize. Other teachers unions have mistakenly lent this agenda credibility by accepting moderated versions of the "reforms", including merit pay, vouchers, charter schools, trigger laws, evaluation based on testing, to name a few.

The significance of the Chicago Teachers strike is that this time, ordinary teachers insisted that their union take a position opposed to these measures and instead in favour of public education, quality schooling, smaller class sizes and the rights of teachers to fair and reasonable pay and working conditions.

Hopefully, this will be a model for other teacher unions to build on.

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