Karen Lewis, in her first term as local president, led Chicago teachers through their first strike in 25 years, protesting issues that underscored untenable working and learning conditions for teachers and students.
The seven-day strike ended after teachers got school officials to agree to provide students with textbooks on a regular basis, to allow teachers to write their own lesson plans and to reduce the weight given to standardized tests in teacher evaluations, among other victories. Though teachers in New York are barred from striking under the Taylor Law, lessons can be learned from the experience in Chicago. NYSUT United asked Lewis:
1. How did you achieve public support during the strike?
We made relationships with community organizers by going to their meetings and listening. We turned out people to their actions, starting small then increasing our numbers. We held a meeting on a blizzardy Saturday morning in January, when Board of Education members announced which schools they were going to close. Five hundred people showed up.
The board members never came to the schools and heard the pleas of the community. We demanded that before they make decisions, they bear real witness. That started a change in the way school closings were handled.
They acknowledged it had been handled badly. They met with us and community organizations, so that added cement to our relationships.
2. What is CTU doing to keep the support of parents?
We have some provisions in our contract that include parents. We have a class-size monitoring panel that consists of a retired teacher and a retired principal. Now we added a parent from the school. We continue to hold forums to include parents in our issues.
3. How do you counter the accusation by critics that teachers are resistant to change?
Critics continue to try to separate the union from the teachers. We believe the teachers, paraprofessionals and the clinicians ARE the union. We fight for what’s best for our children, and a deep rich curriculum that stimulates them, not institutionalized test prep factories.