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Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis: Deal Ending Strike a Victory for Education

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Chicago public school teachers are returning to the classroom today nine days after launching their first strike in a quarter century. On Tuesday, 800 delegates of the Chicago Teachers Union voted overwhelmingly to suspend the strike to put an agreement with the city before the entire membership. The deal calls for a double-digit salary increase over the next three years, including raises for cost of living, while maintaining other increases for experience and advanced education. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis joins us to talk about the strike, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and what this means for education reform across the country. “We’ve been micromanaged into doing things that we know are harmful for children,” Lewis says. [includes rush transcript]

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StorySep 11, 2012Thousands Rally in Chicago Teachers’ Strike, Pushing Back Against Corporatized Education Reform
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in Chicago as part of our 100-city election 2012 tour. Chicago public school students are returning to classes after the governing body of the Chicago Teachers Union voted to suspend its nine-day strike, the first teachers’ strike in Chicago since 1987. The decision came after hours of closed-door talks among union members who had asked for time to review details of their proposed new contract. Union President Karen Lewis spoke to reporters shortly after the vote.

KAREN LEWIS: We are trying to have people understand that when people come together to deal with problems of education, the people that are actually working in the schools need to be heard. And I think that this has been an opportunity for people across the nation to have their voices heard. And I think we’re moving in the right direction.

AMY GOODMAN: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel framed the end of the strike as a victory for the city’s children. This came after he sought a court injunction to force an end to the walkout. Following Tuesday’s vote, Mayor Emanuel said the new contract could bring welcome changes to the city’s public schools.

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: This settlement is an honest compromise. It means returning our schools to their primary purpose, the education of our children. It means a new day and a new direction for the Chicago public schools. In this contract, we gave our children a seat at the table. In past negotiations, taxpayers paid more, but our kids got less. This time, our taxpayers are paying less, and our kids are getting more. Because of the past contracts, teachers and principals had to make false choices about where they spent their time, because there was so little of it. This contract is a break with past practices and brings a fundamental change that benefits our children.

We have been discussing the need for more school time as a city for over a decade but lacked the ability to achieve our primary educational goal. We have been discussing the need for more reading and more recess, for more science and sports, for more math and music, geometry and gym. For as long as I can remember, we’ve been discussing that. Each time, it was postponed or rejected because the changes were considered too difficult. Today, that era and those false choices come to an end.

AMY GOODMAN: Since the 800 delegates of the Chicago Teachers Union voted overwhelmingly to suspend the strike, the agreement will now go before the entire membership. The deal calls for a double-digit salary increase over the next three years, including raises for cost of living, while maintaining other increases for experience and advanced education. This is teacher and union delegate Adam Heenan, who voted to end the walkout.

ADAM HEENAN: I feel like we got something that we can go back to the classroom with dignity with. We didn’t win as much on fair compensation, but we have positions that are going back—arts positions, PE positions. We have a promise to hire a hundred more support staff and social workers, psychologists. We have an anti-bullying clause. You know, anti-workplace bullying is something that, you know, even our mayor is joining in on. And I think that we’re going to go back being able to be advocates for better classroom conditions. We have a parents’ member on each class-size panel. Even though, you know, we fought on class sizes, that was some of the non-permissible material. We fought off merit pay. There’s no merit pay in our system. We were able to fight back on a—on the Performance Evaluation Reform Act, that was designed to get rid of 6,000 union members in two years, and kind of reinventing seniority. I feel really good right now.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined here in Chicago by the woman who led the city’s first teachers’ strike in a quarter of a century. Karen Lewis is president of the Chicago Teachers Union. She’s also part of the union’s Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, known as CORE. She used to teach chemistry at Martin Luther King High School on the South Side of Chicago.

Karen Lewis, welcome back to Democracy Now!

KAREN LEWIS: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is a momentous week right now in Chicago. This is the first morning after the decision the teachers have made to go back. Do you feel you have won this strike?

KAREN LEWIS: Oh, absolutely. I think that teachers across the country realize how important it is to stand up as a union together and fight back against things that are actually bad for children. And I want to tell you that, as we went through the contract, basically article by article, one of the things that got the absolute most applause of the night was lesson plans, that teachers could do their own lesson plans. You know, I mean, it’s like things like this that are making our lives absolutely insane, that we’ve been micromanaged into doing things that we know are harmful for children. So, to finally stand up and say, you know, this is not a good way of doing school, because somebody in an air-conditioned building with a spreadsheet thinks that’s a good way of doing it, this has been a real victory.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about what you believe you have achieved. On the strike end of things, that had to do with salary and other issues like that.

KAREN LEWIS: Sure, it did, because we are prohibited from striking for just about everything else that other districts in the state can strike for. So it’s about compensation and benefits and procedures. So, we were able to strike over the salary piece. We were able to strike over the procedure of evaluations. And we were also looking to do some other things that, even though they’re not permissible and not strikeable, that we couldn’t settle the contract without. So, that included what the content of the evaluation piece looked like.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to talk about the evaluation piece, but in terms of salary, what did you achieve?

KAREN LEWIS: Well, we fought off merit pay, which was something that they were absolutely adamant about. They wanted to take away our lanes, which are for achievement of advanced degrees. They wanted to take away our steps, which are for experience. And it’s the way we’ve been doing things traditionally for some time. They wanted to replace that with some sort of merit pay piece, or, as they call it, “differentiated compensation,” that would tie to evaluations. And we were adamantly against that, and for a variety of reasons. And that took an awful lot of wrangling. So, in terms of that, you know, I mean, austerity contract compared to what we had before, but at least we were able to maintain this. And when we argued about it, they said, “Well, we’re giving you your lanes and steps.” And I said, “But you need to understand, we had never lost them. So, that was something in your mind that you are giving.” And I think that’s problematic.

We also got a right to recall in schools that—where enrollment drops. If that enrollment comes back up, if they projected incorrectly, then we got the right to recall, which we’ve never had, by the way. So, in many districts, when things like this happen, the right to recall is no big deal. But now we actually have it. So, there are small things. We got an anti-bullying measurement—I mean, an article. And one of the issues about that is that our members have been so miserable in the schools. We’ve had a lot of problems with principals changing people’s programs in order to set them up for failure. It’s like I know of a National Board certified teacher in science who taught seventh and eighth grade science, and she was given a kindergarten class. I mean, this is like an inappropriate—you know, there’s no pedagogical reason for this. So, these are the kinds of things that were going on in Chicago that were really driving people to easily decide to make a decision to strike, so…

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play for you comments by two Chicago teachers who participated in the strike. James Cavallero is a special education teacher in Chicago.

JAMES CAVALLERO: We’d like to see our class sizes be smaller. We’d like to see more wraparound services, so more social workers, more nurses, other services that our kids can get. In special ed, we’d like to see, you know, more special ed teachers hired so that we can really benefit those kids that really need as much one-on-one attention and even in just smaller group attention.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Garth Liebhaber, a fifth grade teacher in Chicago, speaking about the impact of the strike.

GARTH LIEBHABER: We’ve gained dignity. We’ve gained respect for our profession and for our school communities. We have regained unionism and what it means for working people. Today, our struggle has not just been about simply a contract, because a contract is worthless unless there are people to enforce it. This has been about returning power to where it belongs: amongst the working people and the communities they serve.

AMY GOODMAN: Two teachers talking about the strike. We’re joined by Karen Lewis. She is the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, just came out of the negotiations. Their responses, what they have said, what this meant for the teachers, as well as parents and students. What’s been fascinating, watching this from afar and then coming in to Chicago, is the level of support you had, even though kids were out and teachers were scrambling, overall, from the community.

KAREN LEWIS: Yeah. Well, we’ve been working on that for quite some time. I mean, before we ever gained office of the union, we worked very hard against the school closings that had been going on. And we have reached out into the community, worked with parents, worked with students, and when you build relationships like that, it just grows. So, to us, the whole idea of a union movement in school means you have to have all the stakeholders there. And that’s something that’s been missing, I think, from people in general across the country, that unionism has been sort of like the school system: it’s been very top-down.

And the two gentlemen that you actually spoke to are on our big bargaining team. So we had—we had members from all over the city in different areas—high school, grammar school, our paraprofessionals, our clinicians—all on our big bargaining team, so that they could actually see the process of negotiations, that it wasn’t like a little room with just two or three people in it just haggling out, you know? So that made a difference, too, because people felt involved. And it was also the reason why we were not able to come to an agreement on Sunday night, because people had not seen the language. And because of the lack of trust between the staff and management, they really wanted some time to look at that agreement, as opposed to just looking at a framework. So, it took them a couple of days, and it happened.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to this discussion. Our guest is Karen Lewis. She’s president of the Chicago Teachers Union. “Back to school.” That’s the word today all over Chicago. And we’re going to talk about what this means for the country. Chicago is an incubator for what is called school reform around the country. What does this strike mean? Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Rebel Diaz, Rebel Diaz singing “Chicago Teacher.” Rebel Diaz are graduates of the Chicago public schools. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’re on the road in Chicago on our 100-city tour. I’m Amy Goodman.

The new Chicago teachers’ contract could allow Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to solidify his main reform objective of lengthening what had been one of the nation’s shortest school days and years. He spoke about this on Tuesday.

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: Our elementary students will gain an extra hour and 15 minutes every day and two additional weeks every year. Our high school students will be in front of a great teacher for the extra 30 minutes, just like here at Walter Payton, each day, and two additional weeks each year. For the 6,000-and-plus students who are entering kindergarten, the additional kindergarten students we put in, they will have an extra two-and-a-half years in classroom by the time they graduate high school. That two-and-a-half years of additional education is a new day and a new direction for Chicago’s children and Chicago’s schools.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the former chief of staff of President Obama. Karen Lewis, our guest, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, just after the vote for suspending the teachers’ strike, the first teachers’ strike called in a quarter of a century. Your response to what Rahm Emanuel considers his greatest achievement, the lengthening of the school day?

KAREN LEWIS: Well, I mean, that was his mantra from the very beginning. I think it’s interesting that when he first started out, he claimed that students would have four extra years because, you know, of this horrible, horrible short school day. Now it’s down to two-and-a-half years. You know, we know that quantity is not quality. And from the very beginning, we didn’t actually fight him on this longer school day, because the law gave him the opportunity to impose it. But we wanted to make sure it was a better school day. And a better school day for us included a broad, rich curriculum for our students. We were concerned that the direction of school reform is about standardized testing, so it’s about math and reading all day, which doesn’t engage children. So we wanted to make sure they had art, music, PE, world languages. These are the kinds of things that also stimulate critical thinking. And we wanted to also bring the joy of teaching and learning back into the classroom.

AMY GOODMAN: I was speaking to some people last night who were pointing out that Rahm Emanuel’s own children go to the Lab School, as did President Obama’s. Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, also went there himself. What are the standards of the Lab School when it comes to number of teachers per—the ratio of kids to teachers, the length of the school day?

KAREN LEWIS: Well, I’m not really sure about the ratio. I know it’s a lot smaller than the one that we have—

AMY GOODMAN: It’s a private school here that’s run by the University of Chicago.

KAREN LEWIS: —because it’s a private school. However, I also know that the Lab School has nine art teachers and quite a few music teachers and a real commitment to a rich, broad curriculum. As a matter of fact, when we heard that the mayor was sending his children to the Lab School, we went on the Lab School’s website, pulled down what their educational program looked like, and we said, from the very beginning, we’re glad that Rahm Emanuel knows what a good education looks like, so we’re going to make sure that every child in Chicago has that opportunity, too.

AMY GOODMAN: The role of the Democratic Party? I mean, you’re a union. Unions traditionally support the Democratic Party, but wasn’t it the Romney-Ryan ticket, Congressman Ryan, applauding Mayor Rahm Emanuel and what he was trying to do in this?

KAREN LEWIS: Right. Well, the school reform issue is an issue of billionaire elites, by and large, and it’s very nonpartisan. So it’s no surprise that the Romney-Ryan ticket would support any anti-union, you know, beef that the mayor has. I mean, so, other people that ran for mayor were actually told, “Oh, so, are you going to crush the unions? You know that’s part of your—your in-for-a-dollar, in-for-a-dime with us.” So, I mean, that doesn’t surprise me.

But politically, I really wasn’t thinking about that, and none of us were. We were just trying to build some unity in our union, which had been extremely fractured and kind of moribund for a while. And what we wanted to do was to empower our rank-and-file teachers so that the real work of the union is in the buildings, not in an office downtown. We wanted to go from a service model to an organizing model, so that people that are feeling empowered can also do what’s best for children.

AMY GOODMAN: What about President Obama? He comes from here. Where was the Democratic Party? Where was the president in showing support, expressing support? You had the Republican ticket supporting Rahm Emanuel. What about the Democratic ticket and the president of the United States?

KAREN LEWIS: I don’t know. I mean, nobody contacted us, so I’m not—I mean, again, you know, we weren’t looking for a political solution to this. And I think that there are other ways to deal with the political solution, but in terms of this strike and this aggregation of power to the rank and file, I think that’s kind of threatening to just about every political institution, so I don’t think it really matters.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about a comment made by Bruce Rauner, a wealthy venture capitalist who’s helping lead a drive for more charter schools here in Chicago. He is also a close behind-the-scenes adviser to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. On Tuesday, he said, quote, “The critical issue is to separate the union from the teachers. They’re not the same thing. … The union basically is a bunch of politicians elected to do certain things—get more pay, get more benefits, less work hours, more job security. That’s what they’re paid to do. They’re not about the students. They’re not about results. They’re not about the taxpayers.” Karen Lewis, you’re the president of the Chicago Teachers Union. Your response?

KAREN LEWIS: I actually know Bruce Rauner. I met him when I first took this job. And he was actually quite impressed with me and invited me to join a board that he was on. He and I also went to the same undergraduate school. And so—

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you go to school?

KAREN LEWIS: We both went to Dartmouth. I’m a few classes ahead of him. And so, we’ve seen each other a variety of times. And he’s always made it clear that he did not believe in unions or any collectivism.

I mean, the problem is, he has the wrong idea of what this union is. Now, that may be so for other unions, but we purposely tried to change the culture of union so that the union is about education, is about empowering teachers and paraprofessionals and clinicians. And as a result, the union officers took pay cuts, significant pay cuts, so that we can have an organizing department, so that we can have a research department, so that we didn’t do the union the way the old union was done, because those days are over, because then people like Bruce Rauner can separate the union from the teachers. And this is where they’re wrong. They’re absolutely wrong, and they acted that way the entire time, because they didn’t understand what we were really doing, which was organizing our members, not about the whole—yes, we have to negotiate for whatever, but that’s not our main focus.

So our main focus is trying to make education better, because we feel like we can solve some of the problems. The longer school day was a hot, buttery mess until we sat down with them and said, “OK, look, you can’t afford to pay us this entire length of day, because the arbitrator told you that, so here’s a way to figure this out by staffing up so that you can save some money.” We actually brought that to the board, because they were clueless. They were absolutely clueless in trying to figure out the problem. We’re teachers. We’re problem solvers. And for—Bruce Rauner has to remember, I’m two years out of the classroom, so, for me, not a bureaucratic union hack. Sorry, that tag just won’t hang on us.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about that, your background, chemistry teacher at Martin Luther King High here in Chicago, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators. Explain what CORE is and where you came from.

KAREN LEWIS: Right. Well, we were sitting around a table, literally, eight of us, reading about the school closings in Chicago and understanding that this was basically a real-estate plan—and it still is, by the way—and not an educational plan. So, we were trying to figure out how do we actually use our voices to attack that? We read—we did book clubs, literally. We started as a book club. We read Shock Doctrine.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein’s book.

KAREN LEWIS: Yeah, Naomi Klein’s book, which was very helpful to us to kind of put in perspective what these people were doing and how they amassed this power over the last 30 years. And then, all of this started in Chicago at the business school, right? So we started just trying to take off small bites of the apple by going to the school closing hearings, demanding that the Board of Education come to these hearings. They weren’t. And again, we have an appointed mayoral-controlled board. They’re not accountable to anyone. And they’re certainly not accountable to the community.

When the community would come and beg for their schools, this is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen in my life. Children, teachers—and not so much teachers at first, but parents and community members begged for their schools. And that fell on deaf ears. So people felt completely unempowered, that if a decision was made, it was made, and there was nothing you could do about it.

Well, in the first year we started this, we got six schools taken off the hit list. That had never happened before. We changed the way the Board of Ed did things. The board members actually came to the schools. And we said, “You should at least come to the schools you’re going to close and look these people in the eye and explain to them why.” And that had never happened.

AMY GOODMAN: What happens when a school closes? Where do the kids go?

KAREN LEWIS: It depends, you know. A lot of times the kids will go to another school, or some just get lost in the shuffle. I mean, none of this stuff had been taken into consideration. They had no plans for closing a school and doing anything appropriately for the children. They had no plans of bringing the faculties of the two schools together to have some conversation so there’s some continuity of instruction for children. But none of that, and no safety plan. So, you know, Chicago is a pretty dangerous place, as you may have heard, and this—absolutely no plan for how are we going to get kids safely through different territories. None of that was ever—and when we bring this up and we beg them, “Don’t do this. It’s a mistake,” and they just absolutely ignored the community. And this year, there were parents from more affluent communities that got ignored. So, I mean, there was this whole kind of feeling of the Board of Education is completely unaccountable. There’s something wrong with this.

AMY GOODMAN: Actually, on the issue of accountability, before the vote to suspend the teachers’ strike, Mayor Emanuel spoke about the need to hold teachers and principals accountable. Let’s go to that clip.

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: I want people to understand, this is a crux of whether we’re going to make any improvements in our education of our children and create a culture where people are held accountable for the results. And these principals, like the others who signed the letter, are being clear that one of the goals they want to—they chose this. They want to be held accountable. They expect to produce results. To do that, they have to be able to also choose that the teachers that work in the building—third grade, fifth grade, what class it is—these individuals are trained. Some of them are former teachers, now principals, as in Dr. Hines’s case. And it’s a key issue about which direction we’re going to take and whether we’re going to have a school system built for accountability that holds our principals accountable—in the schools, rather than downtown, making the choice.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Karen Lewis, your response?

KAREN LEWIS: Well, I mean, the whole accountability movement is a disguise for pushing forth another agenda. Here’s the problem with the so-called principal accountability and flexibility. In Chicago, the shelf life of a principal is about four-and-a-half years. So, the question to us is, are we going to just have a lot of turn, every four years or so? Now, that means—that’s the average, so we have less than that on some ends. The days when the principal was in the school for a significant period of time, knew families, understood the neighborhood, those days are over. So, what they’re doing is turning through principals, and then they also want to turn faculty through that, too. So there are some schools where you have absolutely no veteran staff and nobody in the middle part of their career, but they have brand new teachers. So second-year teachers are mentoring first-year teachers. That is a plan for disaster, quite frankly.

So, you know, a lot of the whole—we want to know who is accountable for destroying neighborhoods? Who is held accountable for the lack of stability throughout the city that has all of these other implications? So, the whole accountability movement is just geared in one direction. So, where is the accountability upwards? Who loses their jobs for the hot mess they create for the rest of us?

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, have other teachers’ unions around the country been calling you?

KAREN LEWIS: Absolutely. They’ve not only been calling us, they’ve been sending us letters of support. They’ve been sending us, actually, money. Local 2, the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, sent us $10,000, I mean, for our solidarity fund. It’s just been amazing. Boston took out an ad refuting Rahm Emanuel’s, you know, “Oh, why can’t we just settle like Boston did?” I mean, it was just a really wonderful outpouring of support—

AMY GOODMAN: But are they going to—

KAREN LEWIS: —not just from the country—

AMY GOODMAN: Are they turning to you for what they can do in their cities, like around issues of what’s called merit pay?

KAREN LEWIS: We haven’t talked about it yet, but I’m sure those conversations are going to get started, because I think we have changed the conversation in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of school reform nationally and what even that term “school reform” means? The person who is hailing this is Arne Duncan from—former head of the schools here, now secretary of education, the whole Race to the Top, as they call it.

KAREN LEWIS: Yeah. We’ve never liked it, and we’ve never liked those programs. We found them to be extraordinarily destabilizing. And also, the idea of the market approach for public education, as far as we’re concerned, tramples on democracy. You know, public schools are the place where you get to learn about democracy, and it’s been trampled out. And Chicago has the potential for that. We have local school councils of elected parents and community members and staff who are supposed to choose principals, evaluate principals, look at how the discretionary funds are spent. And the local school councils in schools that are very high-functioning, the local school councils are also high-functioning. But in the schools that aren’t so much, you find those aren’t functioning as well, and it’s due to a lack of training and will.

AMY GOODMAN: And evaluating teachers according to these high-stakes tests?

KAREN LEWIS: Well, that is something that the law requires now, so it’s not like, you know, we had a choice around it. But what we didn’t like is that the mayor and CPS decided to pile on and add extra—

AMY GOODMAN: Chicago Public—

KAREN LEWIS: —extra things that were not in the law. So, I mean, and that’s part of what we see. There is like this whole thing about, “Oh, I’m tougher on my teachers than you are,” you know, like it’s some kind of competition amongst the elite to have who’s the baddest person in the room. But, you know, my concern about all of this is that we care about kids because that’s the work we do. And this mayor has said he cares about students. I would like to hope that he does. I know that he cares about some of them. But 25 percent, he told me, were never going to be anything, never going to amount to anything, and he wasn’t going to waste money on them. So, if we decrease wages for everybody across the board, then we see that, and we see those lack—that lack of resources coming into play. All of this makes perfect sense when you understand what their calculus really is.

AMY GOODMAN: Karen Lewis, you were a stand-up comic. Was there anything funny about this strike or what you see coming?

KAREN LEWIS: Well, I mean, I find humor in just about everything, to be perfectly honest with you. It’s how I get through the day. No, there have been some funny moments, but, by and large, this has been absolutely serious. I think the sea of red and the show of support—I mean, there’s something to be said when people are bootlegging your T-shirts, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about the red T-shirts.


AMY GOODMAN: And they’re going to wear them back in the schools today.

KAREN LEWIS: Oh, yes. We told everybody, walk together. Meet each other in the parking lot and walk together as a union back into the buildings.

AMY GOODMAN: Karen Lewis, I want to thank you for being with us. Karen Lewis is president of the Chicago Teachers Union. She led the city’s first teachers’ strike in a quarter of a century and is part of the union’s Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, known as CORE. She was a teacher in the Chicago schools, a chemistry teacher at Martin Luther King High School on the South Side of Chicago. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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