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Striking for the city we deserve

Tens of thousands filled the streets in Chicago for the April 1 day of protest (Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association)

Gala M. Pierce reports from Chicago on the April 1 day of action that brought together public school teachers with thousands of Chicagoans to challenge the austerity agenda.

April 4, 2016

THE STREETS of Chicago were painted union red once again on April 1 as public school teachers, public-sector unionists, parents and students, and community members participated in a day of action to protest the austerity policies inflicted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner.

The action began early at schools around the city, with picket lines teeming with members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and their supporters. In the late morning and early afternoon, there were protests at other sites, including public university campuses facing budget cuts that could shut them down altogether.

Later in the afternoon came a downtown rally, with an estimated 15,000 people jamming the plaza in front of the State of Illinois building and spilling into the surrounding streets.

It was a show of strength on the streets of Chicago--to demand not only a fair contract for the CTU, not only full funding for public colleges, not only an end to the budget cuts ravaging public services, but something more: A city that everyone who lives here deserves.

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LIKE DURING the nine-day Chicago teachers' strike of 2012--which achieved a dramatic union victory that forced Emanuel and the school board to back off demands for deep concessions--April 1 began with pickets at schools in every neighborhood of the city. Chicagoans headed to work on the rainy Friday morning passed by school buildings where teachers and supporters circled out front, decked out in signature red clothing.

Along with chanting and labor songs, there were impromptu speeches on the picket line by CTU members, parents and students, and other supporters--but speakers found themselves regularly interrupted by honks of support from passing vehicles, especially city buses driven by members of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

The CTU is locked in a showdown with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) administrators, who have repackaged many of the same concessions demands from 2012, along with new attacks. Most drastic of all, school officials want to renege on promised contributions for teachers' pensions, and have CTU members make up the difference--what would amount to a 7 percent pay cut.

But the day of action on April 1 became about much more than the contract demands of the CTU, as important as they are. Teachers took to the streets to confront austerity measures that are inflicting harm on institutions far beyond CPS.

"This particular school year, it started with the pension pickups, but it has grown into something much bigger," said Anna Moraitis, a physical education teacher at Sullivan High School in Rogers Park, where she picketed alongside some 30 other staff members and community residents in the early morning.

In the run-up to the strike, city officials tried to intimidate teachers and scare parents with rhetoric about the CTU's "illegal work stoppage," and they got help from the local media--especially, the Chicago Tribune, which tried to encourage CTU members to cross the picket line in defiance of union leaders who, the Trib claimed, had "[whipped] their members into a froth."

The CTU's House of Delegates had answered back nine days earlier with a resounding vote in favor of the walkout over unfair labor practices--and the picket lines were solidly attended across the city, a sign of the of the determination to fight at every level of the union. And if any significant section of parents were taken in by the Tribune's old-style anti-union scapegoating, there was no sign of it on April 1.

Throughout the day, protesters aimed their message at a familiar target from the 2012 strike: Rahm Emanuel and his handpicked school board, which are responsible for the Chicago school system being "broke on purpose," in the words of the CTU, by siphoning off public funds for private investments and refusing to meet financial obligations that instigated the pension and financial crisis.

But there's a different bad guy on the scene this time around: Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who is holding people across the state hostage by refusing to honor any agreements on the state budget unless the Democrat-controlled state legislature signs off on his "turnaround agenda" to crush public-sector unions.

Throughout the day, people recognized the fact that both Republicans and Democrats have turned their backs on public education and are looking to privatize what most Americans consider to be the best way for young people to better themselves and invest in their future.

"The hope for today is to first raise consciousness about the need for an equitable funding system for Chicago Public Schools and more broadly for public services in general," said Scott Hiley, a history teacher at Lincoln Park High School, as he walked the picket line. "We're presented with all these false choices--we either have to give up our pension or give up our public schools. No, we actually need to tax the rich."

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THE PICKET lines wound down by mid-morning, and CTU members and other demonstrators headed off to a range of protests to underline the point that Hiley made.

On the city's South Side, at Chicago State University--a flagship campus of the public university system, with a predominantly African American student body, where faculty, staff and even administrators have all been issued layoff notices for the end of the current semester as a result of the cuts--hundreds of people turned out for a teach-in called by Black Youth Project (BYP) 100 and a rally led by Citizen Action Illinois. At one point, Kelly Harris, a professor of African American studies, invoked Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam," repurposing it for the occasion as "Illinois Goddam."

There was another protest drawing many activists focused on criminal justice issues in front of the Illinois Youth Center and Cook County Jail--to oppose the school-to-prison pipeline. Participation of supporters of the anti-racist struggle against police violence was notable.

In the Albany Park neighborhood on the Northwest Side, hundreds of people congregated at Roosevelt High School--and then marched to a nearby McDonald's to support low-wage workers organizing through the Fight for 15 movement.

In turn, Fight for 15 campaigners joined a crowd of more than 1,000 educators, students and activists at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) for a protest in the form of a New Orleans jazz-style funeral. NEIU is another campus on Rauner's chopping block--1,000 staff members are being forced to take furlough days--one day off without pay each week--to "solve" the state budget crisis.

In the week leading up to the citywide strike, support for April 1 continued to build. Solidarity rallies were held at private DePaul and Loyola Universities and the public University of Illinois at Chicago. The UIC rally brought out about 200 people, with many wearing buttons and carrying signs supporting Bernie Sanders. They were joined by a small contingent of teachers from Phoenix Military Academy. ‬

‪All of these actions culminated with a downtown rally at 4 p.m. at the Thompson Center. Thousands of people--estimates ranged as high as 15,000 and even 20,000 people--packed into the plaza in front of the State of Illinois building and then overflowed into the surrounding streets.

Contingents of teachers wearing red--red hats, red shirts, red scarves, red rain ponchos--carried placards identifying their schools. Many brought their own homemade signs--another echo of the 2012 strike--with careful lettering and beautiful artwork, but a repeat of the same slogans: "Save Our Schools," "Rahm Must Go," Fund Schools Not Prisons," "Strike 4 Justice, Fight for Funding."

Held above the crowd on sticks was a papier-mâché head of Rahm Emanuel, complete with horns covered with dollar signs. One young student cast a spotlight on the issue of racist police violence with a dramatic sign: "How do you have money for CPD to kill kids, but not for CPS to teach them?"

Featured speakers at the rally included CTU President Karen Lewis and Rev. Jesse Jackson, along with Irene Robinson, one of the CPS parents who went on hunger strike last year to keep Dyett High School open; Adriana Alvarez of the Fight for 15 struggle; and Charles Preston, a Chicago State student and member of BYP 100.

Later, the huge crowd set off on a march through the city streets, their chants echoing off the downtown buildings: "How do you fix the deficit? Tax, tax, tax the rich!"

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THE DAY'S sunshine was broken up by rain and even a bout of hail, but demonstrators kept up their resolve and their determination.

"I'm very upset about what I see across the nation--you could call it a nationwide epidemic," said Sara Cryer, a social studies and psychology teacher Sullivan High School. "No one wants to pay to educate poor kids anymore. It's an awful pervasive attitude across the U.S."

Tim Duggan, a professor in the Education Department at NEIU, brought his 15-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter to protest the state budget impasse engineered by Rauner--and the way education has been commodified.

"Rauner and his pals may have to pay more than they've been paying," Duggan said, referring to another touchstone demand of the protests--that the rich be taxed to raise revenues to restore and expand public services like education.

In addition to public K-12 schools and universities, other state and city workers are feeling the budget ax, and many of them came out to support the April 1 action, including members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Amalgamated Transit Union, National Nurses United and AFSCME.

Richard Stowell, a home care worker and member of SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana, said members in his union have been working without a contract because of Rauner's legislative blackmail, and they are being threatened with having health care benefits taken away.

"But it's not just about our contract," Stowell said. "This is about economic justice for people to make enough money to live on."

Students were on hand at every stop along the way April 1. Mathew Santana and Zion Lopez, both freshmen at Roosevelt High School, said they fully supported their teachers' right to strike and said their high school took a while to get "back on track" after the last round of budget cuts. Zion said he lost a math teacher and a reading teacher because of budget cuts at individual schools, along with staff, like a security guard, that was let go. "I want people to hear at the state level that we want to learn," said Zion.

Eliana Nunes, a teacher in São Paolo, Brazil, and teachers' union activist, came to Chicago to bring "solidarity to all the workers who are fighting." Nunes described local struggles against school closures that included student occupations and workers' actions.

Around the city, many people showed their solidarity throughout the day, like drivers honking their horns while passing picket lines. Solidarity messages came in on social media from as far away as Ireland, and many students, community residents and activists attended actions.

This solidarity will be important, because this fight is far from over. The CTU could be on strike as early as May 16. And no one is forgetting that the other side--Rauner, Emanuel, the elite of city and state government--is more determined than ever to impose their cuts, and humiliate unions in the meanwhile.

At Roosevelt High School, and later the NEIU demonstration, CTU Delegate Tim Meegan was joined by socialist Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant. The two echoed the demands of the protests generally and also talked about the need for "a third party that really represents labor in this country," Meegan said.

Meegan, who ran an independent campaign for city alderman in the 33rd Ward and nearly forced a runoff, underlined the message of this day that depended on the actions of people throughout the city:

Don't ever forget our own power. We are the ones that pay taxes. We are the workers. We demand that our tax dollars are spent on basic services that we depend on. The government has a responsibility to release our money and make sure it's spent wisely.

Joe Allen, Lauren Bianchi, Alan Maass, Carole Ramsden and Eric Ruder contributed to this article.