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Parents, activists discuss potential strike

At a raucous town hall meeting Wednesday night, a diverse group of activists showed their support for the Chicago Teachers Union.

Attendees of the event sponsored by the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign filled the pews at the Chicago Temple, which is located downtown. Across town, a much smaller event featuring retired teachers attracted teachers wanting more information about the looming strike.

Among the speakers at the Chicago Temple were Jitu Brown, who is in the midst of a battle with CPS over the closings of many schools in his community of Kenwood-Oakland, and students from Social Justice High School who are upset that their principal was removed.

The meeting also highlighted two groups of parents who support the teachers union.

“Badmouthing, belittling and disrespecting teachers is disrespecting my kids,” said Erika Clark from Parents 4 Teachers. “The struggle is not just about the contract. A good salary [and] smaller class sizes are all good for our kids. It is about a vision for education.”

The teachers union earlier announced the filing of a 10-day strike notice and has recently made a concerted effort to forge ties with community groups. But it is unclear how the threat of a strike, or an actual strike should it happen, would be received among parents in general.

The earliest that teachers could go on strike is September 10, at the start of the second week of school.  Groups such as Education Reform Now and Stand for Children have put parents opposed to a strike in the public spotlight. They also have been critical of teachers for keeping the threat of a strike looming.

However, at an event across town, three retired teachers said that they would rather see a strike after the first week of school than before school starts or half way through the school year.

The meeting, held in an old Chicago Park District facility on the South Side, was one of series called “Winning CTU Strikes: Voices from the Past, Preparing for the Future.” A handful of teachers and school staff attended the meeting.

Leandres White recalled that during the strikes of the late 1970s and 1980s, she learned how important it was to forge ties with the community.

Without those ties, in 1980, she and other Chicago Vocational High School teachers had to get into their cars and drive to a restaurant several blocks away to use the washroom. “It was a little distance,” she says.

After that, she said, they made sure the community was on the teachers' side so they would open up their homes for support.

Allowing students to come back to school for a week will allow teachers to hand students lesson plans and give them assignments, said George Schmidt, who publishes Substance News, works for the union and is a member of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators.

Schmidt said in strikes during the 1970s and 1980s, he gave his Manley High School students the assignment of walking down the Magnificent Mile and finding out what were the most expensive items.

“It was a real eye-opener for them,” he said.

Many of the past strikes were in January or December, after prolonged negotiations fell through. But in 1987, union activists told then-President Jacqueline Vaughn that they wouldn’t go back to school in September without a contract, Schmidt said.

That 1987 strike lasted 19 days and the teachers union has not gone on strike since.

Patricia Knazze, who worked at Ray Elementary among other schools, said that children were curious about strikes and end up learning a lot about the history of labor.

Like many current CPS teachers who are younger, Knazze was nervous during her first strike. “I started to wonder whether this profession was really for me,” she said.

But over time, she became convinced that the strikes helped win better working conditions for teachers, which led to better learning conditions for students. One improvement was class sizes. When Knazze started teaching, there were 48 students in her class. Today, that number is virtually unheard-of.

The union members who came to the meeting were mostly there to become more informed about the current situation. A clerk at a South Side school said when she heard about the filing of strike papers, she realized the situation was more serious than she thought.

Parents at her school don’t seem to be talking about the strike much. The teachers mostly want to see the contract resolved, but will follow union leadership, said the clerk, who is part of the CTU.

Danielle Barfield, a special education teacher at Chicago Vocational, said financially she doesn’t like the idea of a strike.

But she and her friend Krystal Garrett said they think that teachers need to insist on being respected.

“I am tired of being stepped on and being treated like we don’t matter,” Garrett said.  

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