A Minute With...

Steven Ashby, an expert on labor's new strategies for resisting corporate union busting

9/26/2012  8:00 am

Steven Ashby is a professor of labor and employment relations at the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois and the author of the 2009 book “The Staley Workers and the Fight for a New American Labor Movement.” In an interview with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora, Ashby, an expert on labor’s new strategies for resisting corporate union busting, discusses the aftermath of the Chicago Public Schools teachers strike.

Neither side got all that it wanted, but who were the winners and losers in the strike?

Steven AshbyThe Chicago Teachers Union was the clear winner. On compensation issues, the union got a 7 percent raise over 3 years, instead of the original offer of 2 percent, and retained “step and lane” increases based on experience and education. It stopped merit pay, which would have given the district unilateral and unfair power to reward and punish teachers it deems worthy or unworthy. It prevented a significant raise in health care costs to employees.

But the strike was never really about compensation; it was about learning conditions in the schools – a “fight for the soul of public education,” as CTU President Karen Lewis put it.

The union won the hiring of 600 additional teachers in art, music, physical education and other subjects. As the union said, it isn’t just about a longer school day, which was the issue that (Chicago) Mayor (Rahm) Emanuel was seemingly fixated on. It is about a better school day.

The union sought but did not succeed in pressuring the Chicago Public Schools board to reduce class size. But the contract would maintain limits on class size, successfully pushing back on the mayor’s threat to remove all class-size limits. The union also won the addition of a parent for every local school council’s class size committee so that in every overcrowded school, parents and teachers have a way to fight against classes packed with 35 to 50 students.

It has been little reported, but the board agreed to put it in the contract that textbooks will be available to students on the first day of school. It is outrageous that for years teachers too often have had to wait weeks into the school year for their students to get textbooks.

The union did not win an increase, as it ardently sought, in the number of social workers and nurses in the schools. But should funds become available, such as the much-debated option of a Chicago casino, the board agreed to increase their number. And the union will continue to demand that all schools have a library; currently, 25 percent do not.

Now that the strike is over, can we expect to see Mayor Emanuel pushing for more charter schools?

Yes. There are 95 charter schools in Chicago with 53,000 students – privately run, for-profit ventures that are publicly funded and have no transparency. Chicago newspapers report that Mayor Emanuel is intent on closing 100 schools in the predominantly African-American south and west sides, and reopening 60 as non-union charter schools over the next five years.

The purpose of charters is not to improve education – multiple studies show no consistent gains over public schools. The purpose is to eliminate the union, hire predominantly young teachers straight out of college who can be paid less than experienced teachers and receive no pension, and who typically leave the charter school after a few years.

Do you foresee other unions in Chicago – namely, police officers and firefighters – being more aggressive at the bargaining table, knowing that another strike wouldn’t look good for the Emanuel administration?

Chicago police officers, firefighters and transit workers’ unions are all negotiating contracts with the mayor. None, however, can strike. But all are emboldened by the success of the teachers strike. In a rare appearance at union rallies, Michael Shields, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, gave a rip-roaring speech at the Labor Day rally initiated by the CTU, praising the union’s mobilization of its members during the contract negotiations.

From the teachers’ perspective, the strike worked. What does this mean for teachers unions nationally and for the labor movement?

The education “reformers” – heavily backed by money from wealthy donors – have been making headway in gutting teacher union contracts and privatizing schools. Labor also has suffered many setbacks in recent decades, and public sector unions have been under attack for the past two years.

So teachers nationwide watched this strike closely. The success of the seven-day CTU strike will undoubtedly encourage teachers unions across the country to stand their ground and escalate their efforts to defend public education.

But unionists across the country noted that the foundations for the teachers’ victory were laid over the past two years, as the CTU launched a “contract campaign” to educate, organize and mobilize its members. Every school established an organizing committee. Every member was talked to, their concerns discussed, their activism encouraged. In May, the union put 6,000 teachers in the streets of downtown Chicago. In June, the union overcame a unique anti-CTU law, Senate Bill 7, and turned out 92 percent of its members to nearly unanimously give the leadership strike authorization. And during the strike, nearly all of the 26,000 teachers participated in enthusiastic, daily marches, picketed daily at schools, and met regularly to discuss strike issues and actions.

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