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23 October 2019

Down With Democrats’ War on Public Education!

Victory to CTU/SEIU School Strike!

OCTOBER 23—A sea of red and purple has washed over Chicago as some 32,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and Service Employees (SEIU) Local 73 enter the second week of a popular strike to defend public education and improve the working conditions and livelihoods of teachers and school staff. Their determined fight is also being waged on behalf of the students, with demands for reduced class size, more librarians, counselors and nurses, increased school funding and affordable housing. The education unions are up against the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) administration and newly elected Democratic mayor Lori Lightfoot. Crying that there is “no more money” in the budget, the mayor tried to strong-arm underpaid and overworked teachers and staff back to work, and into overcrowded classrooms. The two unions must stand strong together until all their demands are met!

At mass strike rallies, chants of “Get up, get down, Chicago is a union town” echo through the streets. Lightfoot grotesquely blames strikers for causing “economic hardships” to families. But there is widespread support for this important labor battle among the working and poor people of Chicago, not least black and Latino students and families, who know full well that teachers are going to bat for them. In “Segregation City,” as elsewhere in this society built on racial oppression, the black population bears the brunt of the very real hardships of unemployment and police terror, which the Democratic Party city rulers are responsible for.

It’s not only about striving for decent and quality education in a profit-driven system that condemns millions of youth to segregated and run-down schools. It’s also about combating austerity measures, union-busting and dismal conditions affecting working people across the board: poverty wages, inferior housing, exorbitant health care costs. The salaries of numerous CPS workers are so low that their own children qualify for free lunch programs. Meanwhile, many in Local 73—which includes special education classroom assistants, bus aides and some custodians—take on second jobs just to make ends meet.

During the strike, the SEIU Local 1 leadership has had its school custodians report to work. Authorizing scabbing is a betrayal of all SEIU members, as well as the CTU. Picket lines must be honored. One out, all out! In order to maximize the collective strength of the unions, there should be coordinated struggle among school employees, which a common contract expiration would facilitate. Joint struggle could also lay the groundwork for consolidating one single union within the city school system.

The fact that campus security guards are also part of SEIU Local 73 undermines the union. Security guards are mistakenly viewed as fellow workers, especially because many come from poor black and minority communities. But security guards are an arm of the administration, to be used against teachers, school staff and students. Their job is to act as auxiliaries to the capitalist state, that is, the repressive apparatus made up of the cops, courts, prisons and military that defends the profits and rule of the tiny exploiting class over the working and oppressed masses. School cops and security guards have no place in the labor movement.

During a strike, the question is posed sharply: who are the workers’ friends and enemies? The CTU and SEIU have as class allies the rest of city labor and working-class Chicago. The capitalist Democrats, who posture as the “friends of labor” when convenient, are on the opposing side. They are a party of the bosses and bankers, along with the openly racist and anti-union Republicans. For nearly a century, the city’s Democratic Party administrations have perfected the art of war against the unions, and enforced the segregated conditions of the ghettos and barrios. The much-hated Rahm Emanuel, a protégé of Barack Obama, systematically gutted the Chicago public education system through school closures, teacher layoffs and funding cuts. Notwithstanding Lightfoot’s self-declared “progressive” credentials as a black lesbian, this former federal prosecutor, who enforced racist “law and order,” is a fitting heir to every past strikebreaking mayor.

Labor officialdom’s loyalty to the Democratic Party has only weakened the fighting strength of the unions. Some union bureaucrats, such as American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten, are themselves Democratic Party hacks. CTU president Jesse Sharkey and the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), while presenting themselves as a different kind of leadership, preach the same faith in representatives of the class enemy. Over the years, CORE has endorsed hundreds of Democrats and funneled millions of dollars to their campaigns. CTU leaders have celebrated recent visits by Democratic Party candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

For all their anti-establishment posturing, these “progressives” just want the votes in order to run American capitalism. All wings of the Democratic Party work to ensure the smooth operation of that system based on exploitation and oppression. Working people need their own party, a multiracial revolutionary workers party, to fight for their own class interests and for a society where workers rule. Such a party would champion the cause of black freedom, as well as women’s rights and full citizenship rights for all immigrants.

In 2016, the subservience of Sharkey and CORE to the Democratic Party led to the squandering of a golden opportunity to curb the attacks on education and rouse the city labor movement to its feet in defense of itself and the black and Latino masses. Early in the year, both the CTU and the Amalgamated Transit Union were working without contracts, and teachers were ready and willing to hit the picket lines. Then-mayor Emanuel was on the ropes, having covered up the cop killing of black youth Laquan McDonald. But CORE pulled the plug on strike action, accepting City Hall’s claims of financial distress and refusing to make waves for the Democrats in an election year.

Four years prior, in 2012, the CTU membership had been waging a solid strike for nine days, only to have its CORE leadership criminally push through a settlement that left key issues unresolved. The door was left open for Emanuel to impose the Obama administration’s brutal “school reform.” Schools in poor neighborhoods were shuttered and union jobs lost, while non-union charter schools were set up around the city. These charters have served as clubs against public schools and organized labor.

In the current contract negotiations, the city has agreed to an extension of the existing moratorium on new charters. However, the goal should be to get rid of the charter industry, bringing its teachers and staff into the public school system. The way forward is to unionize all charters and provide union protections, wages and working conditions. Teachers at recently unionized charters in Chicago have engaged in strike action, including CTU members at Passages Elementary this week. Unity in struggle of CPS and charter teachers would give a big boost to further organizing drives.

The question of affordable housing has loomed large in the strike against CPS. The CTU is demanding housing assistance for teachers and additional school staff to help students who are either homeless or at risk of eviction. Such demands, which have Lightfoot seething, speak to a deeply felt need in a city where rents are skyrocketing and some 17,000 students are without permanent housing. Education doesn’t exist in a vacuum: housing instability and general misery at home directly impact students’ ability to learn.

But the “social justice unionism” promoted by CORE, like everything else it does, is a form of Democratic Party pressure politics. CORE would have teachers believe that Lightfoot, who presented herself as an advocate for public education, should be made to live up to her “campaign promises.” In so doing, the union tops falsely portray the capitalist rulers and working people as sharing common interests, a viewpoint embodied in the widely heard refrain: “Lori Lightfoot, get on the right foot!”

In fact, as far as the capitalist masters are concerned, Lightfoot is on the right foot. Her job is to balance the city budget on the backs of the working class, black people and the poor. To that end, she now has the assistance of none other than Jesse Jackson Sr. He was invited to mediate contract talks by Sharkey, who praised the Democrat for having “broken countless labor stalemates.” Jackson has broken them all right—in favor of the bosses. His long anti-labor track record includes the sabotage of earlier CTU strikes, in 1973 and 1983.

There is a burning need for quality, integrated housing and education for all, including bilingual programs that ease the way for non-native English speakers and give other students more opportunity to learn a second language. Such demands, though, are not going to be granted by placing faith in the “good graces” of capitalist politicians, but must be fought for through a broad mobilization of workers and the oppressed, independent of and in opposition to the Democratic Party.

In this Democratic Party stronghold, black and Latino youth are deprived of resources and treated as criminals under the Boss Daleys and Harold Washingtons alike. The ruling class as a whole has little besides prison and menial jobs to offer these youth, and has no interest in spending money to upgrade inner-city schools or in paying decent wages to teachers to educate them. The money and resources are there, but they will not be used to fully provide for working people and the poor short of getting rid of the capitalist order.

The CTU has a history of combativity and is in a good position to spark wider class struggle uniting black, Latino, Asian and white workers against the city rulers. What is posed is forging a leadership of the unions that is committed to breaking all ties to the Democrats and fighting it out class against class. Such a leadership would help build a workers party capable of bringing the working class to power. Only then can the productive wealth of society be seized and put to the common good.