Chicago Teacher’s Strike Vote: Union Democracy In Action

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Chicago, IL - I sat in the House of Delegates of the Chicago Teachers Union on Wednesday night waiting to be counted as a yes vote for our April first strike. I was number 39 out of 486.

It is not common to be called out individually to vote at our union. Most of our motions are passed through open outcry – we are usually that united. But this night was different. A division of the house was called and voting members of the union were asked to go to opposite ends of the hall in order to physically represent their vote.

At the beginning of our debate on whether or not to strike on April 1, I was the first to speak. I called for the strike to be approved by a two-thirds vote – not the usual 50% plus 1 per our union rules. It was imperative that the CTU walk out of the meeting with a super majority yes vote. There is no way to build a successful strike with a divided house.

The educators who opposed the April first strike had very strong arguments and were given an equal opportunity to speak. Many wanted to go out longer and felt a one day strike would be ineffective. Others wanted to wait for the fact finding to be completed May 16, and to go out on an open-ended contract strike then. The argument was also made that the union had not communicated clearly to members and that many educators were uncertain if the strike would be successful.

The leadership of the union understood this, and Karen Lewis said from the podium that she respected those who spoke in opposition and voted no. A vote to strike is never taken lightly, and there will always be those unsatisfied with the outcome, but this is what the democratic process looks like.

After the division of the house was called all non-voting members and visitors were asked to leave the hall and the doors were shut. We then commenced in moving to the side of the union hall that corresponded with our vote. It was a shuffle and a gathering of mixed emotions and strongly held views. But as I sat watching my brothers and sisters cross to the no side, I heard no harsh words – no cajoling or arguments. This was done with dignity and respect.

Our union has truly transformed. In earlier times this would have been a circus.

As the opponents to the strike were counted one by one the house came to order. There were 124 no votes. The yes votes commenced and when 248 was reached many wanted to stop counting. But in light of this historic decision, we counted until the very end – 486.

The strike vote passed by 80%. This is a powerful statement.

There are many educators who disagree with the strike. That is a fair to say, and this has been tossed around and overplayed by news sources in the city. There are many shades of no on this issue.

There are divisions among our teachers. Divisions that cut through our city by design.

Harsh realities.

My school is one of those places on the dividing line. I teach on the north side of Chicago in a predominantly white and upper middle class neighborhood. While not everyone at our school is rich, many children live in condos with views of the lake and million dollar homes.

When our school budget was cut by $103,000 the shortfall was made up through parent fundraising. I applaud the parents who work hard to keep our school afloat. I condemn a system that is not willing to fund an equitable education for all of Chicago’s children.

Organizing the teachers and parents at our school is difficult when we have not directly born the burden of the district’s and Rahm Emanuel’s inability to adequately seek funding for our schools– yet. A school cannot fundraise itself out of a disaster.

In many schools around Chicago teachers experienced losing their colleagues through the recent cuts. When a teacher leaves a job they do not simply pack their personal effects into a banker’s box and walk out the door. Most teachers need a U-Haul to pack up all the materials they have personally brought into the school. And they leave behind them grieving children (losing your teacher is akin to losing a parent) and colleagues who must take up the additional workload.

In these schools which were cut to the bone, the argument to strike for revenue was easy. It is not a coincidence that the argument is harder at schools on the north and northwest side where race and class divide us on lines that were construed by injustice in the first place.

You will hear stories of teachers and parents who disagree with the strike. You will read news articles that amplify this message and comment sections in our Chicago papers that promote this injustice and often pure hate of teachers and children.

The facts remain – our city is divided, our children are suffering, and the Chicago Teachers Union has a vision of the world that makes this not so.

Join the strike on April first.

Michelle Strater Gunderson is a 29 year teaching veteran who teaches first grade in the Chicago Public Schools. She is a doctoral student at Loyola University in Curriculum and Instruction.