Today, the Chicago Teachers Union is on strike. A one-day unfair labor practice strike, with the goal to bring attention and awareness to the funding issue. Lots of rallies are going on around the city in coordination with other groups and unions. I spent two hours this morning on a picket line, walking up and down the street in front of our school.
It’s strange. I’m home now, and if this were any other day, I’d be using this time to get ahead on lesson planning, grade some late assignments, etc. Because I never stop working at 3:15 pm. I’m at school from at least 6:45 – 4:30 pm, often coming earlier and staying later. I work on weekends. I worked last Friday while I was at the mechanic waiting for my car’s oil change to be finished, even though it was a furlough day and I certainly wasn’t being paid. (I might have small issues with work/life balance- but teaching takes so much time.) But I’m not working today because I stand with the CTU, and I believe in public education.
I’m striking today, even though I personally feel conflicted about the timing and the issues that we’re striking for and whether this strike will really accomplish anything. (Does Gov. Rauner care? Will this convince him to put through a budget that funds public education?) It was also a confusing mess of communication from the union- first, the union was calling for a strike when CPS said they would pull pension payments on April 1. Then, it switched to a “day of action” after CPS backed down on the pension thing (for now). Which then turned into a “work stoppage”, which was then changed back to a “one day strike”, all within a very short time frame. But the House of Delegates voted for a strike, so here I am, not working.
My thoughts on all of this are also influenced by the recent news about the Supreme Court’s 4-4 split on Friedrichs vs. CTA. The Atlantic article that I linked mentions (at the very end) how states that have gotten rid of agency fee laws have seen declines in union membership, such as in Wisconsin and Michigan. And Illinois does have agency fee laws, which is why I joined the union in the first place- if they are getting my money (and bargaining on my behalf), I might as well have a vote in what they do. I was never very pro-union before I started teaching (I don’t know that I had any real views on unions at all), and I’m not 100% pro-union now. But I see the purpose and power of the union, and in a city that gives the public very little control over public education (the school board is appointed by the mayor, not sure how much control/power the local school councils actually have, they certainly have no real control over the amount of funding the school receives), the teacher’s union is the one very big voice that can advocate for teachers and students. And in a large, diverse but still somewhat segregated city, I can’t imagine what kind of a hot mess the schools would be without the union. When I think about the school systems in Wisconsin and Michigan- well, that’s not a road I want to see Illinois go down.
I was talking about the strike day with some friends over the weekend, and someone (who I don’t know very well and isn’t a teacher) said, somewhat flippantly, “oh, you guys should just get out of CPS”. I think my response kind of took him by surprise, because I was offended to be told to just leave the city. The implication is “it’s not your problem”, and that kind of thinking is what got us here in the first place. I don’t really fault teachers for leaving CPS, because it’s a messy school district to work for. There are a lot of problems in CPS, and there are no easy answers. But to just tell teachers to leave a failing school district is not a solution. There is no easy solution, because fairly funding schools is a hard issue to discuss. “Fair” does not always mean “equal”, but that’s easier to see if you’re the one with fewer resources. If you have plenty of resources, why would you give that up and risk having not enough resources for the sake of others? If one school can get by on the per-student budget given by the district, why can’t they all? (Never mind the fact that the funding deficits are often made up by parent organizations and facility rentals.) I work at a nice school, and I certainly don’t want to give that up. But I recognize the issues and the disparities, and I’m uncomfortable with the disparities. So I stand with the union, because the problems at other schools are my problem, because they’re the problems of my city.
I’d like to have a careful conversation about this, acknowledging both the difficulties and realities of the situation, but it’s hard. I’m often left with more questions than answers with these kinds of issues. So instead of working, I’m finally reading Diane Ravitch’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System“, which has been sitting on my bookshelf for the past three years. It seems like an appropriate book for today.