Victory! But the Struggle Continues

Last night, the House of Delegates of the Chicago Teachers Union, having taken two days to confer with members from their building on the details of the contract presented them by Chicago Public Schools, voted to go back to work. Today (Wednesday), teachers and kids alike will return to classes.

We should make no mistake: this was a victory, but the fight is far from over. First and foremost, the days that the CTU spent on the streets of Chicago — both on picket lines and in massive rallies tens of thousands strong — as well as the solidarity they received from around the country, are unlike anything the labor movement has seen in at least fifteen years. The members of the CTU showed what can be done, what kind of support can be drummed up, when the rank-and-file take the helm and the leadership doesn’t buy into myths of “shared sacrifice.”

Says Jackson Potter, member of the Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators and staff coordinator for the union:

“We feel empowered. We feel stronger as a union. Some elements of the contract weren’t entirely what we wanted on the economic issues, but we won some important non-economic improvements in areas such as professional autonomy, language to prohibit bullying by principals, and an appeals process for teacher evaluation and disciplinary decisions.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has certainly been cowed; even mainstream anti-union rags like the Chicago Tribune have had to admit that overall this was a political defeat for him and his corporate, one percent agenda. He certainly won’t stop, though. CPS has made clear its intention to close 100 schools. The gains of the contract are certain to be chipped away at by management unless the union keeps a vigilant eye.

And of course, working people across the country and the world continue to be given the raw deal. Governments and CEOs continue to take out the persistent economic slump on their employees rather than pay for the crisis they created. But this strike has sent a message to the one percent in the United States, just as the Asturian miners in Spain, the gold-miners in South Africa, and the textile workers in Egypt have to their own rulers. That message is simple: we will not be stepped on anymore.

It has also sent a message to workers in the US that if you fight, you can win. Even before this strike, there had been stirrings of increased labor activity from janitors in Houston to ConEd workers in New York City. Now, warehouse workers for Wal-Mart in California and Illinois (right near Chicago) have gone out, and have openly expressed the inspiration they’ve received from the CTU.

Thanks to everyone who signed and passed around the Artists Stand With Chicago Teachers statement. Teachers repeatedly expressed their appreciation for this project, and to the artists who supported it. There are sure to be more struggles to come in the very near future. We have shown, once again, that artists indeed have a role to play in building a world where working people get their fair shake.

 

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Stand With Me, For Them

The following poem is by Molly Meacham, an English teacher at Lane Tech High School in Chicago.

I had never been small

until I heard how evil I am
for being a teacher. With the lie levels
rising in newspapers, emails,
interviews, announcements,
the steady flood of anti-
teacher propaganda
dissolves dignity,
past patience
until I am in-
visible and
taste of
salt.

Me—
the frightening muse of room 202
is this incredible
shrinking
violet.

I’ve often told students to absorb
environment and squeeze it
into writing, but I, hypocrite, cannot
check my mail without earplugs
and blinders now. There is always a top
story that burns my cheeks ashen,
until I am scattered by breath.

But there’s no headline for me
or for colleagues who’ve sold houses,
who’ve taken loans and grey-streaked temples
to brace for the fight.

These headlines are about these politicians,
their pockets, and their pride. Articles
full of double speak and forked tongue
hissing. The mayor and the board deal students
as playing cards in stacked decks.

They know nothing of the kids themselves:
Her grammar jokes, his zombie impression. That he’s afraid his father
is never getting out of jail and his mom has breast cancer.
That she is the first in her family to go to college
and got a full ride. That he came out of the closet, and his mother is praying
for evil to cease its possession. That she reinvents the world
in the page and then stages it. These kids swirl
in cutbacks, media overload, starved affections, and poetry.
They swear and swagger and smile metal.

The fact these kids are alive and breathing knowledge
in deadly communities is more miracle
than Lazarus rising. And they do—they baptize
their papers in ink and wash drafts clean
with red. They highlight, spotlight, moonwalk. I mean,

they are teenagers…there are mad dashes through
the halls, too many permits and dress code violations.
But they are green and sprouting: dandelions
and dahlias, ivy, wisteria, and willows.

I am a simple gardener, tilling
with words, preparing the ground—
loam, sand, silt, clay. The clay models itself
into familiarity. Into the expression
of understanding that’s unique to each child.

The board wants me to see only numbers,
to measure the kids with percentages,
to see them as payment and value-added.
But I am an English teacher.
Numbers have never been my thing.

I see that their learning is the shape of a yellow raft
on a green river. We are the river dwellers.
There is no salt in our water.

It feels wrong to hate politicians who have never met me,
but they made us feel miniscule—buzzing winged
things like gnats or mosquitoes—for being teachers.
It makes me hunger for Biblical
retribution. And I will be an insect…
in a plague of cicadas. We will be dressed as
a river of blood, a torrent of chant and noise.

There is no poem for this fight, for watching
the mild mannered lose their voices
from screaming chants, feet raw with marching.
Hands, callused for chalk, will be rubbed with new blisters
from holding signs.

If we are faceless, let us be the drought, the blight,
the salt in this freshwater city
so our students will not be nameless, faceless scores
in a city that hunts them for statistics.

We will be living the politics.
Not writing a poem.
I invite you (and ask you) to stand with me,
for them.