Saturday, October 5, 2019

Strike Flashback 2012: A strike is a stain that never washes off

Storytelling class, Thomas Chalmers Public School
    The Chicago Teachers Union set a strike date for Oct. 17. Instantly I wondered about the last strike, in 2012, and figured I'd better glance at how I covered it. The circumstances that brought about this pre-strike column are worth mentioning: Rahm's press secretary Tarrah Cooper drove me to this school and ordered me to look around, so I could see what was at stake. I knew I was being played, but couldn't help writing about a school I'd never been to. It also shows the difference between Rahm's aggressive approach toward the media, at least at first, and Lori Lightfoot's more laissez faire attitude. While I haven't quite given up on her, I've never heard from her press folks either and don't expect to. Perhaps that is a commentary on how the status of the newspaper has degraded in seven years. Or perhaps the Lightfoot team is not on its game.

     Banners from colleges—Harvard and Michigan State, Howard and Yale—hang from the ceiling in the second floor common corridor at the Chicago Vocational Career Academy on East 87th Street. The idea is that every day, as they come and go, students will see the goal— college— above their heads but not out of their reach.
     "We have 300 new freshmen coming in, so we're really proud," said Principal Douglas Maclin, showing off a new culinary arts center. "Last year we only had 134, so with the new STEM program"—Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, pairing the school with a business partner, in CVCA's case, Motorola—"we nearly tripled our enrollment."
     More than 400,000 students attend Chicago Public Schools, a number difficult to really grasp. If our school system were a city, it would be bigger than Miami.
     That city may—or may not—be plunged into disarray on Monday, when the Chicago Teachers Union is set to strike. That's why I was at CVCA, a last minute push by the administration to try to illustrate what is at stake here.
     It's a compelling argument—the school year just started, the students are learning.
     Of course, others would also be deeply affected by a strike. I count four groups and one person with a lot to lose here. There are the students, of course, who began school Tuesday with a lengthened day and other improvements, such as STEM magnet schools that offer community college degrees—Chicago has five such schools; I visited another, the Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy, so brand new they haven't put up a sign yet.
     There are the teachers, led by their fiery president, Karen Lewis, who passionately points out, and not without cause, that all these advances are also demands—a longer workday, longer work year, without either input from them or a comparable raise in pay.
     There are the parents, who not only want their kids studying but, in many neighborhoods, want them off the street, out of harm's way, and in case of a strike the board and many churches are trying to give them safe places to go.
     Fourth, there is the city, its reputation already flecked with blood because of the murderous summer of 2012, or at least by the media's reaction to it. A city that strikes is not a City that Works. It's never a good thing.
     Which leads to the person, Rahm Emanuel, who wants to avoid a strike, not just because it's bad for students, bad for teachers, bad for parents and bad for the city, but—and he would never admit this, but it has to be true—it would be bad for him, for his reputation. A strike is a stain that never washes off. It could be resolved in an hour and it would still be a strike on his watch. Tap a Chicagoan on the shoulder and ask for a salient fact about the Jane Byrne administration, and after a mention of camping at Cabrini Green, they'll say "school strike" (or "transit strike" or "firefighter strike.") Nobody forgets strikes.
     I'm a good union man, and understand the value of a strike threat. It's designed to extract every dime that tight-wad bosses are willing to pay to have employees keep working. Done right, a strike is a real possibility that's about to happen, really and truly, with picket signs printed and employees in their hats and coats at the door, eyes on the clock. Then it doesn't happen—the clock stops at midnight for the Come-to-Jesus moment, the deal is struck, handshakes all around, the news goes out, a cheer goes up, workers and bosses are grimly satisfied that they got the best deal they could, and everybody lurches onward.
     A strike should be like "Waiting for Godot"—everyone talks about him but he never shows up and then the play ends. A strike that actually occurs means failure. Someone didn't follow the script. Maybe the mayor overplayed his part. Maybe Lewis really does want to pull that pin on the strike grenade, on general principles. Or maybe—I suspect this—she's a better actor than she lets on.
     The longer school day is undeniably a good thing—getting paid more would be nice, but as someone who hasn't gotten a raise in years, I'm one of the many wondering what planet teachers live on. I live on Planet Glad to Have a Job. While I don't want to be suckered by a couple showcase schools, the energy and effort I saw there are undeniable.
     "I really want to be valedictorian," said Kayla Kopplin, 17, a CVCA senior. I popped into Honors Algebra 1, to watch freshmen taking a diagnostic test involving a mosquito who flew 0.6 miles and then had to stop.
     "We did a thinking problem before that—normally I'd have to go straight to test time, and I would have nothing else other than test time," said Megan Payne, a 6-year CPS veteran teacher. "So the extra time allows me to actually get something in that is engaging and talking and the kids are working."
     She has a stoical view about Monday.
     "For me, whatever's going to happen . . . " she said, pausing, "it's going to happen. I'd rather be here in the classroom with the kids."
     I suspect most people feel that way.
                                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times Sept. 9, 2012


  1. My friends is a CPS teacher. She said her mail issue is the lack of a full-time nurse in a school if 2,000 kids. I can't imagine sane. She also has a class size of 32. That's insanity.

    1. When I went to a CPS school in the 1950s & early 60s, all the classes were 35+ kids & no school nurse.
      The teachers did fine then.
      This is a union that's gone berserk, just read about a group of that union's leaders trip to Venezuela & you'll see that the union needs reform or liquidation.
      They don't give a damn about the kids, only the money & pensions [which they don't pay for] & themselves!

    2. And you had to walk barefoot through the snow to school and back home again, uphill both ways, right Clark?

      They "don't pay for" their pensions? That makes as much sense as saying they "don't pay for" their salaries.

    3. I went to school in the northern suburbs, where we had about thirty students (we were always told not to call them kids) in each class, give or take a few. The schools were new, so the rooms were not very large. Thirty-two is an insane class size...insanely LOW to some of us geezers.

      My wife stunned me when she told me about her Catholic school years (five of them) in an Ohio suburb. There were 60-65 kids in each classroom! When she transfered to a public school, that number was reduced by half.

      I was eleven when Our Lady Of Angels burned, roughly a mile from my old neighborhood. The mostly Polish and Italian victims were fairly close to my age, give or take a couple of years either way, which horrified me. I had nightmares for weeks. I am still terrified of being in a fire.

      But I was even more horrified when I learned that 90 of the 92 students who died were in just four classrooms. On the day of the fire, these classrooms held 47, 48, 55, and 57 students, respectively. The numbers would have been even higher had some students had not been elsewhere for a clothing drive.

      To put it a bit bluntly, can somebody please explain to me what the hell that CPS teacher is bitching about?

    4. 1. CPS never closed schools from when I started in 1954, until the Blizzard of 67. But they didn't close them until after 8:00 AM. We found out when a CTA supervisor got on the bus & told us to turn around & go home. I was a half mile from school & 4 & a half miles from home! Suburban districts closed their schools the night before.
      2. They actually don't pay for their pensions, because instead of paying the 9% of their pay, which is half of the contribution, the other half, also 9% is paid by the BOE [similar to Social Security, where you get half of the total FICA deducted & your employer pays an equal amount to SSA], teachers only contribute 2% to their pensions & the BOE contributes 16%!

      Facts, they're a bitch, aren't they?

    5. Pensions are a benefit of the job. To the extent that they're funded out of employee paycheck deductions, they are not be a benefit but something the employee chooses to purchase.

      Yes, facts are a bitch, especially if you have no idea what you're talking about.

    6. Correct, you know nothing about this!
      I'm guessing you're a teacher in CPS or were one.

    7. Nope. I'm not even particularly sympathetic to the union in this case. It just irritates me when I see reflective, unthinking hostility to public employees, especially from someone who doesn't seem to realize that they're not eligible for Social Security; the pension is all they have. It's not their fault if a bunch of politicians mishandled pension funding.

  2. Reminds me of the Hollywood writers' strike a few years ago, involving dozens or at most hundreds of strikers, during which however there was significant collateral damage: restaurants suffered, actors had their gigs delayed, all kinds of people with the most tenuous connection to the industry or the strikers were affected negatively. I have to agree that the only really successful strike has to be one that is cancelled before it begins.


  3. There is the strange case of Joseph Ocol. Joe a math teacher and girls chess team coach at Earle STEM Elementary School in the Englewood neighborhood, coached on April 1, 2016 the day of the illegal CTU walkout. The girls chess team went on to win a national chess competition that year. The Chicago teachers kicked him out of the union, and said lots of nasty things about him, and made sure the union dues were still deducted from his paycheck.
    It gets even weirder. This year the CTU promoted a delegation that traveled to Venezuela, in support of Madura's regime. It's renowned for suppressing dissidents with extreme prejudice. Note, no teacher in the delegation was removed from the CTU.


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