The Chicago Teachers’ Strike and Beyond: deepening struggles in the schools

Here we’re re-posting an article originally published on the Black Orchid Collective’s website, 

 “This aint about money! That’s far from the truth,
they want better work conditions to teach the youth.

Politicians, I don’t trust em, its all in the name
the president, the mayor all want political gain.
Theyd rather put the kids in jail, shackle em wit chains,
then provide an education that challenges the brain.”- Rebel Diaz, “Chicago Teacher” music video 


I am a teacher in Seattle, and I’ve been following the Chicago teachers’ strike closely.  I’m inspired to see any group of workers and oppressed people fighting back.  If I were in Chicago, I’d be on the picket lines.   At the same time, I’d like to pose some challenges about how struggles around the school system can go further, to more directly confront the rampant race and gender oppression reproduced daily in our schools.  The quote above by Rebel Diaz speaks to what’s really going on.  I think the teachers’ strike begins to address some of the problems in public education, but I don’t think we can defeat this oppression simply by supporting or relying on the teacher’s union.

Before I make this case, I’d like to dispel any possible slander or misunderstanding.  To both the left and the right, let me make this clear: I am not siding with the anti-union corporate forces.   Do not use anything I say in the following article as ammunition in favor of Rahm Emanuel against the Chicago teachers.

I also agree with some of the basic points that Leftists have said about the strike, and since they have already been stated in most major Left publications, I’ll simply summarize instead of explaining.   Yes, Rahm Emanuel’s policies show the Democrats don’t care about the working class.  This is nothing new.  Any workers’ movement worth its salt should break all ties from both capitalist parties.  Yes, the strike shows that workplace struggles are still relevant, and that it is worthwhile to organize in workplaces.  Yes, the corporate attacks on public education must be defeated.    Yes, teachers are constantly disrespected these days and it should be no surprise that we are angry and fighting back.

There are many, many problems with public schools, but privatizing them and giving them over to corporate control, standardized testing, drill-and-kill test prep and bureaucratic, automated “teacher proof” curriculum will make all of these worse.

At the same time, I feel no need to repeat the round of cheerleading that the Left and the labor movement are currently engaging in regarding the strike.  I’m happy the strike is happening, but I’m sober and critical about its limitations, and hopeful that students, teachers, parents, and the rest of the working class can overcome these limitations as struggles continue to deepen in the upcoming years.

When I say working class, I mean employed, unemployed, unionized, non-unionized folks; people who do caring work in the home, and folks locked up behind bars.  I mean people of all genders and races – though as I’ll argue, non-white folks, women and gender non-conforming folks, people with disabilities,  and people condemned to the undercaste or “convict race”, all constitute specific castes within the working class.  We can’t simply say “let’s all unite and fight” when these castes are not treated equally and do not treat each other equally.  We need to figure out how to dismantle the specific forms of oppression that each of these castes face, forms of oppression which are unfortunately reproduced in the school system.

When I raise these issues, fellow teachers and union members often get defensive because we are under so much scrutiny from the corporate elites and many of us do not want to air our dirty laundry.  But as teachers, we won’t grow and struggle smarter and better unless the rest of the working class gives us constructive criticism about our struggles.  Aren’t we always telling our students that constructive criticism is a good thing?  Shouldn’t we also apply it to our own lives and struggles? We are used to giving advice to students going through hard times.  I hope we can also listen when the roles are reversed, since our students can teach us a lot about fighting back – especially in working class urban neighborhoods and rural towns.  In fact, as a teacher, I think everyone in the working class should have a voice in our struggles because what happens in the schools affect youth and their parents everywhere.

The Crisis of Care: caring labor in the era of austerity

I’d like to start with some ideas  inspired by Jomo who also writes on this blog.  Jomo worked as a nursing assistant and described the racial and gender struggles going on in the nursing home; she argued that this society steals the time necessary to care for human beings by commodifying care.   Jomo’s piece “Caring: A Labor on Stolen Time” was recently published in the materialist feminist journal Lies.  I think some insights from this piece can also be applied to struggles in the public education system.

The mainstream media keeps emphasizing how the teachers’ strike is causing childcare crises for parents who cannot afford to send their kids to daycare and do not have the time to take care of them.    Politicians blame the teachers for this.  Instead, shouldn’t we be asking why so many working class people in Chicago are paid so little and have to work such long hours that they have no way of taking care of their kids without the schools in session?  Shouldn’t we be asking why so many students would go hungry if it were not for school lunches?

This is not the teachers’ fault, or the parent’s fault.   The media coverage of the strike is simply exposing the fact that the whole working class, especially the most oppressed castes within it, have been pushed to the limits by years of attacks by the ruling class (ruling class means the politicians and capitalists, the people who the Occupy movement called the 1%).

The question is, how can teachers support the struggles of our students’ parents so that they can raise their own wages and lower their own workdays so that they can spend more time participating in their children’s’ processes of learning and growth?  Instead of blaming parents for not being present in their kids’ lives, we should be out in the streets backing them up if they try to put pressure on their own bosses to get necessary paid time off to support their children when they are in crisis.  What kind of movement/solidarity network/organization would be necessary to really make this possible?  If I were on the picket lines in Chicago, I’d be passing out flyers summarizing this analysis, and  trying to find other teachers and parents who are interested in meeting up to brainstorm how to build this kind of organization/ solidarity network.

This issue of parental time is central to the strike in Chicago.  The whole drama unfolded when Rahm Emanuel wanted to expand the school day, without paying teachers for the extra time they’re working.   I’m wondering whether this is simply an attempt to re-distribute some of the childcare burden from parents to teachers.  I’ve heard from some parents in Chicago that a lot of better-off parents are supporting the teachers’ in fighting this school day expansion since it will fill up their children’s’ time with more “drill and kill” standardized boring activities, instead of more enriching after school activities.  I wonder if Rahm Emanuel is trying to divide teachers against the parents who are struggling more, and who need the longer school day to cover childcare so that they can work longer hours?

This is just a hypothesis, that would have to be tested through a serious study of the class composition of Chicago, what kinds of jobs folks are working, and how working conditions in those jobs are shifting with the economic crisis.  But, as Loren Goldner outlined in this essay,  I suspect that the economic system in Chicago and the US more broadly is only staying afloat by squeezing more and more out of workers, to the point where it becomes more and more difficult to even reproduce a new generation of workers who can be exploited.  And producing a new generation of workers is one of the main functions of the public school system, as Rebel Diaz pointed out.

Let me break this down and explain it more.  Since we still live in a patriarchal/sexist society, most of the burden of reproducing this new generation of workers falls on women.  Women do the majority of unpaid labor at home to take care of kids, and to begin their early childhood education.  Many of the things that we teachers get paid to do, parents (especially mothers) do for free.  The bosses of the future benefit from this, when the kids grow up to become well-educated, “well-adjusted”, healthy workers.  Yet they do not pay for much of the housework that goes into making that possible, and they undervalue the paid caring labor that also makes it possible, from childcare and preschool workers through teachers, lunchroom workers, and custodians. Selma James pointed this out in her essay Sex, Race and Class, which serves as a powerful feminist critique of housework and of the public education system.  She recently spoke about this on Democracy Now, in reference to debates about housework that have erupted in the US presidential campaign.

The ruling class has responded to the economic crisis through austerity.  Basically, this means gutting the social infrastructure necessary to reproduce the working class, including schools, maternity and paternity leave provisions, health care, and everything else that people use to raise kids.  By cutting back on the reproduction of the working class today, the capitalists are ultimately shooting themselves in the foot because they will not have well-prepared workers tomorrow.  But they claim they have to keep short-term profits up in order to keep the system from crashing.  To do that, they gut the public education system AND push the rest of the working class to have to work longer hours, multiple jobs, etc. at faster paces, leaving folks more exhausted after work, where they have to work harder to take care of themselves and their kids because social services that help with this are also being cut.  And again, these increasing  pressures disproportionately fall on women.

So I wonder: was the Rahm Emmanuel’s proposal to extend the school day an attempt to pit teachers against mothers? Was it an attempt to lessen the crushing burden on mothers by transferring a small portion of their unpaid labor onto teachers by extending the school day without paying them more?  If so, we need to take a stance against pushing  the sole responsibility for reproducing society onto teacher or mothers, and need to build comprehensive, supportive communities where people collaborate to raise healthy, free children.  Neither teachers or mothers can do this alone, but the logic of privatization means that both are  loosing sleep trying to do it against all odds.

Most workers seem to sympathize with the teachers – no one would gladly accept a major increase in the work day without getting paid for it, so it’s understandable why the teachers chose to fight this. But could we reciprocate this support by uniting with parents on a class-wide basis to reduce the workday, starting on a case by case basis and building toward a mass movement against stress, demanding more free time and time to spend together in meaningful human interaction?  To be clear, I’m not saying that parents should just cut down on waged labor in order to take up more unwaged labor at home so that teachers will have it easier. That would be a sexist argument – given the gendered division of labor in many homes,  I’d basically be telling women to do more housework.  No, I’m saying that the stress faced by mothers is severe and needs to be confronted, and they need support from the rest of the working class.  Instead of building that, Rahm Emanuel’s proposal transfers some of their stress to teachers, many of whom are also women.

To confront this, teacher and parents could demand a reduction in work hours and raise in wages for parents, plus optional after school educational programs in which more teachers would be hired at the same wage as current teachers so that teachers are not expected to work longer for free – or, parents could be hired to collectively run these programs based on their own priorities, with the same wages, job conditions, etc. as teachers so as to avoid divide-and-conquer.

However, this optional extended school day should not involve drill and kill exercises, and instead should involve opportunities for discovery and creativity (which we should push for in the entire school curriculum).  Building a healthy community to raise kids means refusing to make our classrooms a place where students are warehoused and bored to death because they are being treated like a surplus population while their parents are being treated like machines on the verge of breaking down.

After all, the crises they are facing are interwoven with the fact that we teachers  are being treated like a mix of a prison guard and a service industry caring laborer expected to smooth over social contradictions through smiles, de-escalation techniques, and a caring demeanor which can be evaluated through rubrics, cameras, and observations by management.  While the Taylorist time-study experts continue to study our student’s parents in their workplaces, speeding up their pace and making them work faster and faster, the education reformers study our time, using their  iPads to count how many times we smile at our students in a 45 minute period, hoping that this commodified care will somehow contain the explosive boredom of the next generation of (non)workers.

Confronting white supremacy in the schools

Just like these struggles are not gender-neutral, they are also not colorblind.  Anyone who thinks that Obama ushered in a post racial society should just spend 45 minutes in the lunchroom of any large urban school district.

As Jonathan Kozol (2005) has documented , the schools are increasingly segregated, possibly as much as they were under Jim Crow.  Except in many,  it is the worst of both worlds – non-white students are in underfunded segregated schools, but with majority white teachers instead of teachers from their communities like under Jim Crow.  To be clear, I’m not saying all teachers are white, or that all white teachers are racist.  But the fact is, there are many white teachers in non-white schools who do have a trouble relating to and respecting working class non-white youth. Numerous books have been written about this, such as Lisa Delpit’s 1995 text Other People’s Children.    The corporate school reformers use this fact to attack teachers’ unions, claiming they protect incompetent and racist teachers.  This allows them to create the Astroturf illusion that they are leading a grassroots civil rights movement to raise educational achievement through teacher accountability.   The teachers unions are fighting this.

I am not for the Astroturf billionaires program of attacking teachers.  Their program includes things like merit pay, which might siphon many of the highest performing teachers into majority white schools with higher test scores.   But we need to understand why these rich white men actually have support among some working class communities of color.  And the reason is clear.  There really are some racist teachers in our schools, and the school system does tend to track the less competent teachers into majority non-white schools.

How can we deal with that, without siding with the corporate attacks?  The Left tends to be divided on this – either close ranks with the teachers’ unions and refuse to air the dirty laundry in public, or blast all teachers as irredeemably privileged white people who don’t care about youth of color .  Neither of these perspectives is acceptable. Instead I propose:

1) we need  to hold our own coworkers accountable for challenging white supremacy in each others’ classrooms

2) we need to aggressively challenge racist policies, cultures, practices, and interpersonal interactions in the schools

3) we need to support students and parents who are struggling against white supremacy

4) we need to support racially equal hiring practices in terms of who gets to become a teacher in the first place.

There are probably many other strategies as well which I am missing, and I’d love to hear folks’ thoughts on this.

While we do this, how do we address the fact that majority Black and Latino schools are facing more severe budget cuts, overcrowding, and closures than majority white schools?  It’s great that the reform caucus that took over the Chicago Teacher’s union prioritized supporting actions in the Black community against school closures.  That’s why the Chicago city government hasn’t been able to divide teachers against the Black community as easily  (also, apparently  many of the teachers most directly affected by the concessions the city is demanding are Black).

But is this enough?  How can we go farther?  How can we get to the point where there are regular strikes, walkouts,  and job actions against racist school board policies, with leadership not only by teachers but also by non-white parents and students?  Can this be organized in the framework of the teachers’ union, or would it require a more expansive organization, a class-wide committee that consists not only of teachers but of a significant section of the multi-racial working class?  The group Advance the Struggle recentlyproposed this approach to labor struggles on the West Coast waterfront. I think it could also be relevant in public schools.

How do we address the fact that vicious forms of discipline are (re)emerging in the schools, from increased police surveillance to students being shackledlocked into solitary confinement rooms, etc.?  Often this is focused on students with disabilities, showing the institutional ableism still built into the system.  Non -white students with disabilities are often targeted more for this sort of thing.  Every teacher I have talked to has heard horror stories like this. When are we going to come out boldly about this, and organize job actions against it?   Would we strike against these policies too,  if that’s what it takes to stop them?

This summer, I’ve been part of a campaign to block county funding for a new juvenile detention center that will lock up many of my future students.  While passing out flyersfor this campaign in the South End of Seattle, I met two parents who said their child had been put in the juvenile jail after a teacher tried to grab a paper out of their son’s hand and in response he accidentally struck the teacher.  Their son is a young man with disabilities.  He ended up with felony charges. The teacher did not want to press charges, but the administration pushed it.  This sort of thing breaks my heart, and it’s the kind of struggle that I’d really be willing to put time and energy into.   It’s the sort of thing that I’d enthusiastically walk a picket line around.

I am not at all dismissive of the issues that the Chicago Teachers’ Union is fighting around.  I come from a family of  teachers and grew up in a small house with open sewage running in the basement; I worked in the dining hall kitchen to help get through college while my parents stressed – I’m still paying off my loans, and I’d love to have adequate pay and job security to help with that!

However, despite those struggles, I am relatively privileged compared to the rest of the working class.  There are so many hoops that you have to jump through to become a teacher, and these privileges helped me get through them.  No matter how compassionate or intelligent you are, you have to certify and prove it, which takes a lot of money and time and obedience to unwritten, unspoken, culturally biased rules of professional etiquette. I’ve met many intelligent, radical youth of color from the ‘hood who read on the bus or on their break at McDonalds, often about themes like the Black Power movement, which their teachers never taught them in the classroom.  Many of these youth face pressure to either make money in the streets, or go to college and pursue a career that is more lucrative than teaching.  I believe these youth would make better teachers than some naïve missionary-minded white person from Yale who thinks he is going to save Black kids from themselves by joining Teach for America.  Raising the pay of teachers, and giving us more respect, will make it easier for these youth to become teachers in their communities if they want to.

However, what happens when these future teachers start teaching those Black Power books in class, and face disciplinary actions for it?  Will the teacher’s union defend them?  What if they try to meet up with parents and students to decide on curriculum priorities that make sense for the community, instead of for corporations and paternalistic white foundations and nonprofits?  What if we all decide on this curriculum together, and start collectively implementing it? Will the teachers’ union defend us?  Right now, most of the  adoption committees that choose which textbooks to buy are stacked by administrators, and their hand-chosen teacher representatives from each building.   What if teachers, parents, students, and community members organized to put pressure on these committees to choose texts of our choice?

What if we support emerging students’ unions or anti-racist student groups that are leading walkouts against police repression in the schools?  Will the teachers’ union defend us – or the students leading the walkouts?

If not, can we push the unions to do these things?  Or do we need to build class-wide committees that are more inclusive, and less constrained by labor law and bureaucratic union structures which tend to limit possible struggles to issues of wages, working conditions, and benefits, instead of also including questions of how the schools are run and who makes decisions?

I’d opt for the latter.  While the progressives and socialists who built a union reform caucus to take  over the Chicago Teacher’s union are certainly doing some things better than the previous bureaucrats, I don’t see them moving toward these kinds of struggles, which I think are absolutely urgent.

Convict Race and the School to Prison Pipeline

I’ll also emphasize that the divisions are not just Black and White. New technology has replaced workers with machines in key industries, leading to rising youth unemployment and the rapid expansion of the prison system to control groups that the capitalist system regards as “surplus populations.” This  has created a new undercaste in America.  Because of white supremacy, this undercaste includes a disproportionate number of Black folks, but it is multiracial, and it does not include all Black folks.  Once you get caught up in the criminal “justice” system, you get labeled as an ex-convict, and face legalized discrimination in housing, employment, education, relationships and sexuality, etc.   Black and white prisoners who rose up together in the Lucasville prison rebellion called this undercaste a “convict race”.  This is a brilliant insight.

Just like the schools reproduce white supremacy and race, they also reproduce this “convict race”.   Youth get tracked based on early disciplinary infractions, and their records build.   Parole officers check up with teachers and administrators about students.    Students get labeled “good” vs “bad”, and unfortunately many teachers gossip about and mock the “bad” students in the faculty lunch room, sharing misinformation about them that reinforces prejudices and leads to discrimination in the classroom, disrespect, unnecessary escalation of small conflicts, referrals to the office, and suspensions.  Eventually the “bad” kids get labeled (or actually become) gang members whose names are submitted to gang databases.   Students get pulled out of schools to do time in jail and fall behind in credits.  At a certain point, they get demoralized and drop out, and face few job prospects without a degree.  If they choose to hustle to get by, they face prison time, a record, further job discrimination, and the cycle continues.

This caste discrimination demands a response as serious as the  Black Power movement’s response to white supremacy, and of course, since white supremacy is not gone yet, the two struggles will have to go hand in hand.  The schools will be one of the frontlines of these struggles.  And anyone in the undercaste, or in non-white communities, will have every reason to ask teachers: “which side are you on”?

I know readers might be asking why I am focusing on all of this long term stuff when the immediate issues of the Chicago teachers’ strike are still not resolved.   Shouldn’t we deal with the urgent issues first?  My response to that is the following: most of my students are part of that undercaste, and because I listen to them, respect them, and take them seriously, I know these issues are urgent.  Millions of teachers in working class neighborhoods and towns know this as well.   Youth are already rebelling against the police, prisons, parole officers, and school disciplinary systems in a variety of increasingly sophisticated, but fragmented ways.   A mass movement against all of this is most definitely on the horizon.  If it does not break out soon,  it will most likely break out sometime this decade.  I have no idea how this will unfold and I don’t claim to be able to predict the future, but I do know that teachers should start thinking early on about what we will do when this happens.

Which side are we on?

I’m not presuming that the teachers currently on the union picket lines will automatically fall on the wrong side of these questions.  That would be sectarian, pessimistic, and dismissive.  But I also do not have any concrete reason yet to believe that they will automatically fall on the right side just because they are striking now.  I hope that through their experiences of struggling against the city government, they look deep into how the system maintains itself.  I hope that through their experiences marching with Black parents against school closures, they hear folks’ stories about youth incarceration and trauma at the hands of the school-court-parole office- prison-industrial complex. I hope this prompts them to open up dialogue with their students about these issues.  And I hope that paves the way for the upheavals that are certainly on the horizon.

If I were in Chicago, I would be attempting to catalyze (speed up) this process through organizing on the picket lines.  I would be passing out flyers summarizing the key points I’ve raised here, looking for teachers, parents, and students who are interesting in building an independent classwide committee that could begin initiating deeper struggles against white supremacy, the school to prison pipeline, and the gendered crisis of care that I outlined above.  We would then begin meeting and collaborating on developing a strategy together.

In Seattle, I will continue organizing against the incarceration, detention, deportation, police brutality, and surveillance that my students face.  I hope to continue supporting emerging youth organizers as well as parents who are fighting for their communities.  I hope to find teachers who are interested in doing this as well.  Once enough of us come together, we could start building class-wide committees of parents, students, and teachers to initiate organizing campaigns and direct action in the schools.  Here are some of the sorts of things we could do over the long haul if we built up enough power to carry it out effectively:

  1. we could work with students and parents to develop curriculum that actually challenges all forms of oppression, and meets the specific needs of our communities.  We could implement this in all of our classrooms simultaneously, instead of the drill and kill test prep exercises we’re expected to do.  In a sense, we would be occupying our own classrooms.  In some cases this could also lead to joint student-teacher  testing strikes.  If students or teachers are disciplined for this, we could mobilize our various schools and communities around the city to protest or strike, and get each others’ backs. 
  2. we could put pressure on curriculum adoption committees to demand that they buy the books and materials we want to buy, instead of texts chosen to meet corporate priorities.
  3. we could work with parents to self-organize in their workplaces and to demand from their bosses the paid time off necessary to support their kids’ through difficult hurdles in their growth and education.  If the bosses don’t give in, or if they retaliate against the parents, teachers and students could mobilize to picket their businesses.  Eventually, we could build toward city-wide “strikes against stress” like the movement for the 8 hour workday during the late 1800s. 
  4. students could record and document their criticisms of particularly racist or ineffective teachers and could bring this to the classwide committees.  Then, students, teachers, and parents involved in these committees could pressure those teachers to sit down with us and develop a plan for how to overcome these problems, with students taking the lead.  Instead of going to the administration to discipline them or fire them, we could apply the pressure ourselves, autonomously from the administration.  
  5. we could organize protests and strikes against school closures and austerity budget cuts, especially ones targeting non-whites schools.   Mass movements like this are happening in Montreal, Chile, Greece, and around the world.  Why not here? 
  6. When they try to close schools, we could occupy them and parents, students, and teachers could run them together as Freedom Schools, like what happened recently in Oakland. When this happens, we could try to overcome the narrow professionalization of teachers by creating opportunities for parents and students to also teach, with support and help from current teachers.  The eventual goal would be a new society in which learning happens throughout the community and is not segregated into boring, alienating, and authoritarian classrooms. 

Again, these are just suggestions, and fuller strategies would have to be worked out by hundreds of teachers, parents, students, and the rest of the working class.  If you are interested in exploring how to make this happen, please contact me and let’s build together.Book references (all online references were hyper-linked in the text instead of listed here):

Delpit, L. (1995). Other people’s children: cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: The New Press.

Kozol, J. (2005). The shame of the nation: the restoration of apartheid schooling in America. New York: Crown Publishers.