After Chicago success, union leaders spread their message


Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, addresses the crowd during a rally Sept. 15 in Chicago. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)
September 21, 2012

Union leaders who won gains after striking in Chicago are hitting the road, spreading the message that effective changes in public education can’t be imposed by mayors or governors and must be made in collaboration with communities.

“Real public education reform comes from the bottom up with teachers, parents and communities and kids working together to make all of our schools thrive,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, at a raucous gathering of union members Friday in Washington. “Teachers have been told to implement policies without their input and then are blamed when the policies don’t help children. . . . The recent actions of Chicago show what happens when teachers and parents stand together.”

Over the next several months, the union will be holding town-hall meetings in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Tampa, New Orleans and St. Paul, Minn.

The room frequently erupted into chants of “The people united, will never be divided!” and “They say cutback, we say fight back!”

The teachers said they felt vilified by political opponents and blamed for a broken public education system.

Weingarten said the union will cull ideas from its town hall meetings and create a plan for improving public schools. “We’re going to take that agenda to statehouses and to Washington, and we’re going to talk about real education reform,” she said. The American Federation of Teachers is the country’s second-largest teachers union, behind the National Education Association, and represents educators in most urban school systems.

Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union president who led 26,000 teachers and school workers through the successful seven-day strike that ended Wednesday, told the crowd that unions in other cities should “learn the lessons we have learned” and build public support to push back against educational policy changes that are underway across the country.

Polls in Chicago showed that the union received an unusual amount of backing from parents, considering that the walkout left families scrambling to cobble together day care and alternative activities for 350,000 students in the country’s third-largest school district.

Labor leaders say that public support, which the Chicago union had built for years leading up to the strike, gave them leverage at the bargaining table against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s team.

It is unclear whether that support would have deteriorated had the strike dragged on for a significant period.

But by the time the strike ended, the union won concessions from the city in the controversial areas of job security and the use of teacher evaluations tied to student test scores. The union successfully fought back against Emanuel’s plan to award merit pay, instead keeping the more traditional structure based on educational attainment and experience.

“The strike was the first phase in our long struggle for the soul of public education in the U.S.,” said Lewis, who was cheered and applauded by an adoring crowd of labor and community activists gathered at the AFT meeting. “Hopefully, the leaders of this country will understand that public education belongs to the public!”

After her remarks, Lewis was swarmed by union leaders and activists who wanted to hug her or pose for a photo with her.

“I just love her,” said Barbara Pointer, 74, a Chicago community activist who had come to Washington to hear Lewis. “She’s a very strong woman. And just look what she did!”

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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