I wrote this piece as two separate mini-essays, but they are too closely linked to post separately. The first part explains the importance of Unions in general. The second explains the opportunity that presents itself right now, on Monday afternoon, the eighth day of our strike.
Part One: Why Unions Matter
A world in which the scale of our interpersonal connection is small enough that love would guide us and keep us from exploiting one another is a thing of the past. When life was harder, and people were nobler, we had this. The days of small communities, interdependence, and first-hand knowledge of our neighbors' pain are no longer. Today's world is built upon industry and upon the concept of large scale, so that success requires and stems from benefitting from, and using others whom one does not and cannot know.
Since the onset of industrial society, we have seen two sorts of power emerge; one is automatic and the other is created. The automatic power comes from capital. Those with land, money, connections or other resources automatically control those who don't. They do so without concern for the people they control; for they do not know them and thus cannot love them. It's nothing personal. The large scale that precludes love creates a buffer between owner and worker that allows the owner to get as much as they can from their worker without guilt. It is to the owner's clear advantage to pay and treat his worker as poorly as he can, to the point that the very human dignity of the workers is a neglected. (For poignant demonstrations of how this process works systematically, spend some time with John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.)
The created power in the industrial society is that of the people, joined together. When the people refuse to heed the bidding of the powerful unless all of their members and paid and treated well, a great equalization occurs. And somehow, interdependence replaces exploitation as the creative force. Skipping over love entirely, the system of collective bargaining makes the powerful treat their workers well, without even knowing them. So unions are important because they create the possibility for industrial society to go on producing on a large scale, allowing for the participation of the powerless, while protecting their dignity.
The Chicago Teachers' Union's fight against Chicago Public Schools has been a classic struggle between powerful employer and its labor force, with an important twist. The powerful in this case are the mayor, and his wealthy appointees of the school board, many of whom are tied to charter schools. The labor force, though, is not primarily interested in protecting itself.
The Talk on the Picket Lines
From the inside of this contract dispute, I have noticed a shift from normal, self-serving, contract negotiations to something that I think is truly significant. In the case of this strike, the teachers are fired up not about how they are being treated, but about how their students have been treated over the years. The media talk is about pay and evaluation. But on the picket lines and at the rallies, these issues are perfunctory.
From deep inside the union, conversations like this e-mail exchange between two teachers after yesterday's union meeting are common.
Teacher 1: This contract is more of the same old thing that (union) leadership has brought to us for years. I believe there are many of us who are willing to sacrifice wages for improved working/learning conditions. We need to make sure the union leadership and other factions of the union hear our voice. I'm curious what your take is on what is going on (i.e. how did the other representatives present feel about where we are at right now and why do you feel it wasn't resolved today?).
Teacher 2: One thing i can say is that the union body, many at least, seemed that they don't want something unless it truly starts to address many of our concerns. There was a strong calling to not end the strike.
So what does Teacher 1 mean about working/ learning conditions? Why did Teacher 2 hear a strong call to not end the strike when we've already been promised a decent pay raise and scored some sizable wins already?
Among teachers, this strike has become a lever for true education reform. We are convinced that Charter schools are a terrible solution to our education problems, and that investing in struggling schools instead of starving them of resources is what our city's kids deserve. The school board's agenda to close, restaff and charter off our most needy schools on the South and West sides is clearly self-serving and short-sighted. Anyone who has worked at an all black school in Chicago can tell you that the veteran black teachers who work in these schools are some of our city's most valuable resources. They are heroes, and our school board's intention is to systematically replace them with a cheap and poor imitation. There is a buzz among the teachers to stay on strike until we have assurance that our brothers and sisters on the South and West side will keep jobs when their schools are closed down later this year.
The other issues that truly impassion us, manageable class sizes and adequate social work and nurse services, are related directly to our kids. As CPS shows consistently, the appointed board is either misinformed of what true education reform should look like in Chicago, or they are corrupt. And right now, in the middle of September in Chicago, we have leverage to fight for the kids of this city against the powerful and ignorant/corrupt. There's no telling when we'll have this sort of power again. With the city's current plan to chartering off neighborhood schools to corporations, we may never have it again.
The politically neutral comment we always get as teachers is, "I hope the two sides work this out soon." And we do too; we can't wait to get back to our students. But we can't help but wonder if there's a chance to be truly heard and make some real inroads for our parents and students who have no political voice. We can't help but wonder if the media attention we could gain from holding out and sacrificing our raises for our students would show the world our true priorities and spin our mayor's agenda on its head.
In a large city where we all benefit and suffer from systems beyond our comprehension, it's easy to shake our heads and say injustice has to be this way. But really, it is fun, and maybe even healthy to hope. And this strike ain't over yet.
Let's keep watching.