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Rebecca LaFlure/MEDILL

Michael Sacco and Carole Ramsden, organizers with the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign, gather donations at a forum Saturday night addressing lessons learned from last month's strike and plans to fight potential school closures.

On heels of strike, teachers union braces for school closure fight

by Rebecca LaFlure
Oct 23, 2012


Rebecca LaFlure/MEDILL

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey told union activists Saturday night that closing public schools could weaken the unionized base of the city.

More than a month after Chicago’s first teachers strike in 25 years, union members are gearing up for what they say is their next big fight: possible school closures.

Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office have remained mum about any school closure plans, but it’s been widely reported that an estimated 100 low-performing and under-enrolled public schools could face closure in an effort to save money in the financially stricken district.

According to CPS reports, 250 schools were on probation for poor performance during the 2011-2012 school year. Many of them have held that status for several years.

Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said CPS officials must release a list of proposed schools to close by Dec. 1. However, CPS also plans to expand its charter campuses—non-union schools that receive some public funding and are privately run.

The strike "really wasn’t just about winning a contract. Obviously that was important, but it was also about building forces on our side to make us more able to fight for things that we know our schools deserve next time,” Sharkey said. “We take work around school closings seriously starting now. We’re not going to wait until the school list comes out.”

Sharkey addressed more than 100 parents, teachers and community activists in the basement of Teamster Hall Saturday night during a forum sponsored by the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign. The campaign organized the forum to discuss how the union organized a large-scale strike and whether CTU’s experience could strengthen the U.S. labor community. But the conversation quickly shifted to charter school openings and potential public school closures, which Sharkey said could weaken the unionized base of the city.

Charter schools’ "main innovation has to do with labor management practices,” Sharkey said. “We see this as a way to undercut the teaching profession, pay teachers less and work them longer.”

Michael Harrington, CTU’s director of union operations, said Tuesday that the union’s chief concern with closing public schools is the disruptions that occur when a school leaves its community, children are forced to change learning environments and educators are displaced.

Union members have already begun working with community partners on a campaign against school closures, and they plan to meet at a Dec. 8 summit to come up with plans for an escalated campaign, Sharkey said.

He said CTU will instruct delegates to hold meetings in their schools with community members in all neighborhoods under pressure of school closures. He expects the Chicago school board to vote on school closures in late February.

CPS and Emanuel’s office did not return requests for comment by publication time.

The school closure issue presents a new set of challenges separate from what the union faced during the strike, Sharkey said. The union can’t legally strike against school closures, so its only power is in organizing opposition to the plan. CPS has cancelled plans to close schools because of public pressure in the past.

Rico Gutstein, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor and founding member of Teachers for Social Justice, said one of the biggest challenges moving forward is persuading people to get involved in an issue that only affects certain schools.

“We have to try to figure out how to continue the strength and the momentum and the energy into something in which some people see as somebody else’s struggle,” Gutstein said during Saturday’s forum.

Still, Sarah Chambers, a CPS teacher at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy, said she thinks the lessons learned from the teachers’ strike will help the union in its next campaign.

"Rahm's more prepared now, but we’re more prepared now,” Chambers said. “I think we’ll be that much more effective."