As some of you know, my beloved has been a high school English teacher when she is working for pay (and hopefully will be again), so we have a lot of friends who teach here in Chicago. One of her former colleagues wrote to his friends and family about the impending strike, asking us to consider his views on it. I asked him if I could share his email here because it had information in it that I haven’t seen anywhere else. The author is a person of the very highest integrity–intellectual and otherwise–and I would bet all I had on the veracity of anything that he put in writing. Given all of that, I thought I should share his email here in case you have friends or family or neighbors who think the strike is just about money or that the teachers are lazy or whatever. Maybe you can share this with them. Here it is:
Dear friends and neighbors,
I write to you because of the possibility that my colleagues and I in the Chicago Teachers Union may go on strike one week from today. I want to share with you why I support this strike, and I hope that you will consider my words as you sort through the media coverage and other perspectives you hear about the regrettable impasse that the Board of Education and the CTU have reached. Please feel free to respond to me, to engage me in conversation personally, and to forward my message to other people you know in Chicago who may be interested.
I have been a public school teacher ever since I graduated from college. I’ve spent the last 10 years of my career in Chicago, and the last 6 with the Chicago Public Schools. Wherever I’ve taught, I’ve been one of the first teachers to arrive in the morning and, until parenthood forced me to be reasonable, one of the last to leave. I approach my career more as a calling — a democratic obligation to help level the playing field of our unequal society by working with young people to create opportunities for themselves. I tell you this to clarify up front that I am not a member of a union in order to work less, shield myself from negative evaluations, or otherwise meet my own needs at the expense of my students, as Mayor Emanuel might allege. I am a union member because I believe that the union, more than the Board of Education, will best protect a contract and working conditions likely to attract and retain a teaching force in Chicago that can live up to my democratic aspirations.
While there are numerous issues still on the negotiating table, I want to focus on something that has not received attention in the media. I’d be happy to discuss the other issues with you as well, but I won’t address them in this message. Please know that I don’t agree with everything that my union leadership is asking for, and I don’t claim to speak for all of my colleagues either.
Learning and working conditions
While a strike would be extraordinarily inconvenient and frustrating for all parties involved, the district’s current contract proposals are not calculated to retain or attract good teachers or maintain classroom conditions conducive to learning. In the long run, the district’s proposed contract would thus be more harmful to public education in Chicago than the brief disturbance of a strike. State law does not allow us to bargain with the Board about a whole range of educational issues (like class size and number of courses taught, for example). So when the Board proposes a contract that makes absolutely no guarantees about anything besides compensation and evaluation (which are controversial enough by themselves), the door is left open to unmanageable, unrealistic learning and working conditions. Since the Board refuses to negotiate these issues, the only way the Union can prevent such measures from becoming part of the contract is to strike.
Here’s the language proposed by the Board about their authority; I’ve highlighted the parts that most concern me:
“Employer Authority. The Board retains the exclusive right, authority and responsibility to manage its operations, develop its policies, determine the scope of its operations, adopt a budget and decide the manner in which it exercises its constitutional and statutory functions and otherwise fulfills its legal responsibilities. Except as may be restrained or limited by a specific and express provision of this Agreement, the Board shall not be required to bargain collectively over matters of inherent managerial policy as defined by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act or the Illinois School Code, including, but not limited to, the following areas of discretion: (a) the functions of the Board; (b) the Board’s overall budget; (c) the Board’s organizational structure, including the creation, modification or elimination of departments, divisions, offices, sections and positions and the allocation or reallocation of the work to be performed therein; (d) decisions to eliminate work or relocate, subcontract, contract out or transfer work to a third party for one or more services otherwise performed by bargaining unit employees and the procedures for obtaining such contract or the identity of the third party; (e) decisions regarding the implementation of new technologies and methods of operation and decisions concerning the use of technology to deliver educational programs and services and staffing to provide the technology; (f) the retention of consultants, specialists and other skilled professionals on a contract or project basis; (g) the size and composition of the work force; (h) the selection, examination and classification of new employees and the establishment of hiring standards; (i) the hiring, evaluation, transfer, promotion, demotion, layoff or reduction-in-force, reappointment or recall, discipline and discharge of employees; (j) the educational or training programs provided to employees; (k) the direction and scheduling of employees; (l) the assignment of work to employees whether on a straight-time or overtime basis; (m) production and quality standards, standards of service and performance expectations of employees; (n) the development and implementation of rules, regulations, policies and procedures governing employee conduct, job performance and other conditions of employment; (o) decisions to determine class size, class staffing and assignment, class schedules, the academic calendar, the length of the work and school day, the length of the work and school year, hours and places of instruction or pupil assessment policies; and (p) decisions concerning the use and staffing of experimental or pilot programs.”
The Board’s assertion of “employer authority” threatens to make the teachers’ contract an empty shell of what it once was. It creates the possibility of a principal assigning me to teach, say, 7 high school classes instead of 5. It creates the possibility of a principal assigning me to 40 students per class, or any number at all. Such working conditions would, of course, be my students’ — and our children’s — learning conditions. It would be virtually impossible for a teacher to be effective under these conditions, given the demands of lesson preparation, photocopying, grading, and building relationships. It is equally difficult to imagine my own children achieving their potential under these circumstances.
I refuse to approve a contract that makes these conditions possible.
On this Labor Day, I hope you will take a moment to consider my perspective on the looming strike. One week from now, I hope to be at school, working with my students. But I will strike now if I have to so that I can protect my ability to work effectively with my future students as well.