Teacher union leaders staged a charged rally in downtown Chicago yesterday punctuated by Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis asking the assembled crowd, “What are we here for?” and the crowd chanting back, “Strike!”
Kristie Mayle, financial secretary of CTU, did say that the union is still negotiating with the Chicago Public Schools over a collective bargaining contract that expires June 30. But the clear message yesterday was one of fierce acrimony toward Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Also, speakers portrayed CTU on the front line of a national battle to preserve labor union rights.
“This is a national fight,” Lewis said. “Nationwide everyone is facing the loss of their collective bargaining rights.”
Lewis and other labor leaders, including American Federation for Teachers President Randi Weingarten, spoke before an assembled crowd of about 3,900 CTU members in a packed auditorium, which could not hold an estimated 1,200 members who waited outside.
CTU has about 25,000 members, and CTU vice-president Jesse Sharkey said yesterday that a vast majority of membership is prepared to strike. Under a landmark Illinois education law passed last year, 75 percent of membership must approve a CTU strike for it to go forward.
Lewis focused not on differences with CPS and Chief Executive Officer Jean-Claude Brizard, but instead Emanuel, of whom she did a mocking impersonation. Lewis also relayed the story of Emanuel, “cussing me out,” in a meeting over extending the school day. A central issue in contract negotiations is how much teachers will be compensated for a longer day.
“Rich people are writing the laws,” Lewis said of the mayor. “Rich people who never send their children to public school are now making the policies.” Emanuel enrolled his children at the University of Chicago laboratory school.
Lewis slammed the mayor for presiding over a more violent environment for teachers. “There is a 66 percent increase in the murder rate since Emanuel became mayor,” Lewis said.
Mayle articulated specific contract issues. “We need smaller class sizes, and time to teach instead of administering standardized tests, more social workers and counselors,” Mayle said. “We need libraries in every school.” Another request several speakers made was a richer arts curriculum.
Weingarten promised CTU members that, “I will come back every time you need me to.” The national union president focused on what she sees as elected officials – such as Emanuel – not properly respecting teachers.
Rev. Jesse Jackson also spoke, reminding the audience that problems in education policy go beyond feuds between Chicago city leaders and teachers. “They say they can’t pay the teachers,” Jackson said. “Well, where did the money go?” He answered that some of it went to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and also the bailout of Wall Street banks.
After the rally, about 5,000 CTU members took to the streets where they met up with protesters meeting outside the Chicago Board of Trade to protest CME Group, Inc. financial exchange.
Here's a look at some of the scenes from yesterday's CTU rally and march: