The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) ended its standoff against the Chicago Public Schools on Tuesday, September 18 after a week-long strike that raised tensions in the city and nationwide. The negotiations meant 350,000 children were able to return to class, with tentative cooperation reached between the two sides that ended immediate lawsuit and labour issues. While the agreement fails to satisfy the teachers’ full demands, the provisions can be read as a symbolic victory for the teachers, serving as a reminder of the assertive power of united labour unions.
The union posted a copy of the agreement on their website, and noted the duration of the teachers’ campaign: beginning in November 2011 and concluding with the seven-day strike. On October 2, the agreement will be proposed for ratification, resulting in permanent three-year contracts for the teachers under the new set of agreements. "We feel very positive about moving forward. We feel grateful that we have a united union, and that when a union moves together we have amazing things happen," Karen Lewis CTU’s president, said of the agreement, as reported by NBC News.
The most contentious issue of the strike centered around Chicago Mayor, Rahm Emanuel’s campaign promise to improve Chicago classrooms, in part through the implementation of standardized student testing to ‘weed out’ low-performing teachers. This method would threaten teachers’ job security regardless of their placement seniority. The CTU argued against this approach, claiming it does not adequately reflect classroom effectiveness and instead negatively steers lesson plans towards a rigid style of teaching.
These tests function as a part of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top reforms. The Democratic Party has extended standardized testing to include all grades and subject areas, in order to evaluate all teachers and improve public education standards.
The opposition to the reforms takes issue with the corporate interests of privatized companies that disregard the economic needs of Chicago’s public school system. The use of public money to fund privatized, sectarian education complicates the notion of teacher accountability, while simultaneously creating a socioeconomic divide between the students of Chicago’s public and private schools. The transference of public to private wealth is one issue that calls for the financial restructuring and proper funding of public educational institutions in order to ensure that sufficient resources and opportunities are available to all students. The union and its supporters maintain the stance that poor teachers do not necessarily undermine students’ educational success as much as these social and economic divides.
Another concern is the notion that ‘learning companies’ such as Pearson are benefitting from these stiff approaches to educational reform at the price of jobs and personal economic stability for teachers.
While the terms of the contract granted victories to both sides of the issues, union president Karen Lewis said the deal was seen as good, but imperfect. Teachers gained annual raises and won the right to neutrally appeal poor ratings resulting from the reforms’ standardized tests. The contract is overall in the teachers’ favor; the CTU will still be subject to standardized testing, the tests will only comprise of thirty percent of the teachers’ overall evaluations. These measures also helped teachers retain more autonomy, allowing greater control over their own lesson plan formats. Furthermore, laid-off teachers will get fifty percent of new school job openings.
In spite of longer school days and more working hours for Chicago’s teachers, the agreement is in many ways a victory for the CTU as it re-positioned the teachers as crucial participatory voices in the reconfiguration of the public education system. The CTU’s first strike in twenty-five years was victorious as a reminder of the power of organized labor in countering national and statewide reform movements. The movement’s impact extends far beyond the immediate changes in Chicago’s schools, and has spurred a necessary appraisal of educational reform and the power dynamics between the city and its workforce.