CHICAGO -- Erupting with chants of "Shut it down," a sea of red-shirted teachers, other public workers, parents, community residents and students joined in a massive show of solidarity here on Labor Day as teachers prepare for a possible strike Sept. 10.
Chicago Teacher Union organizers estimated 18,000 rallied across the street from City Hall. It was the first Labor Day demonstration in Chicago in many years and had the full support of the city's labor movement.
The CTU represents 35,000 teachers, assistants, paraprofessionals, social workers, nurses and clinicians in the Chicago School System (CPS). Over 90 percent of CTU members voted to authorize a strike in June. The last strike was 25 years ago.
Over the past year, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Board of Education, an unelected body of billionaires and corporate representatives, have demonized teachers, rescinded a 4% pay hike and tried to impose without negotiation a longer school day without a pay increase.
Emanuel repeatedly stated that the Chicago school day was among the shortest of big city school systems. This charge turned out to be a total fabrication and he was ultimately forced to negotiate.
"He's a liar and a bully," said Karen Lewis, CTU president.
Teachers did not oppose a longer school day but wanted to enrich it with art, music, physical education and recess.
Emanuel and the Board of Education, who want to accelerate the privatization of Chicago schools by doubling the number of charter schools, are now demanding a merit pay scheme and teacher evaluations that are 50% based on student test scores.
This is unacceptable for teachers, who say evaluations can't be separated from school funding and the broader social and economic context. They say these measures are tantamount to breaking the union and imposing low wages and benefits, opening the door to further privatization.
"This fight is for the very soul of public education here and across the nation," said Lewis. "Those who came here to destroy public education have been met with resistance," she said, despite attempts to silence teachers.
After the rally, protesters spilled out into the street and shut down Washington Avenue. This was followed by an impromptu march to the Board of Education.
"I'm here to support public education and demand a fair contract," said Nancy Serrano, a teacher at Hernandez Middle School, where her children attend and her husband is president of the Local School Council.
Serrano, who was energized by the solidarity, said her four children would be walking the picket line with her if there were a strike.
"We don't want to be overworked," said Johann Tabares, another teacher, who rejected the idea that teachers don't work long enough. "They count official hours we are paid," Tabares said. "But they don't count what we put in off hours filling out recommendation letters, grading and planning. Count those and we'll talk."
"There's some great solidarity within our union and the unions throughout the city. It's awesome," said Tabares. "We are also willing to work out a contract that is fair for all. We don't want to strike but we will do what we have to".
The Emanuel administration's confrontation with teachers and public workers has roiled the labor movement and galvanized unity.
"We know the agenda - to scapegoat public workers for the crisis of our city. It wasn't us who caused it," said Henry Bayer, president of AFSCME Council 31. "If we want public services we need resources to do it. The same (wealthy) people who brought the economy to its knees don't pay their fair share in taxes and want to scapegoat public workers."
"What they have in store for teachers they have in store for the rest of us," he said. "We say no!"
Mack Julion brought greetings from the National Association of Letter Carriers. He "confessed" that the union had supported Emanuel for mayor in 2011, to a chorus of boos.
"We booed too," he chuckled. "But this wasn't what we supported when we supported him. We support our teachers 100%. If they are attacking teachers then letter carriers are in real trouble. Shut it down!"
Over the past year, community support for teachers has ballooned. A broad alliance has emerged to stop school closures and privatization.
One of the organizations leading the fight is the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO).
"This fight is more than about a contract. It's about what kind of Chicago we want to live in," said Jitu Brown a KOCO community organizer and Local School Council member. "Do we want to live in a city where workers do good things for the public like all of you or where corporate greed sabotages our work experience every day?"
Photo: Chicago, September 3. John Bachtell/PW