Welcome to Issue #7 of the Red Star Bulletin!
The aim of this bulletin is to bring Chicago Democratic Socialists of America members a regular round-up of important legislation, committee meetings, and other updates from City Hall, as well as analysis of what this means for our organizing as socialists.
Make no mistake: the City Council is not friendly terrain for us. We must first and foremost continue to build power in the places it derives from–our workplaces, our neighborhoods, and the streets. But we hope to give CDSA members information they need to assess the electoral project we’re embarking on, and to continue building it into a powerful vehicle for working-class politics in our city.
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The 25,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) have now ratified the tentative agreement that ended their two-week strike at the end of October. The union announced that, with 80% of schools reporting, 81% of teachers have voted in favor of ratification.
That margin was significantly wider than the 364-242 vote in the House of Delegates on October 30th to suspend the strike, pending an agreement on making up strike days. This confirms the prediction of some teachers that the scope of what the CTU won would become clearer over time.
Unlike the previous two contracts negotiated since the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators attained leadership in 2010, the CTU was on the offensive in 2019, trying to make progressive gains where it had previously fought off concessions. The question teachers considered was whether the union had won as much as it could, not whether it had avoided setbacks—and that was a robust debate in a union known for its commitment to democracy.
Before diving into the details, it’s worth noting several victories achieved before the tentative agreement. For one, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73 went on strike with the CTU for the first time. The previous Local 73 leadership had often fallen in line with then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel against the CTU; in 2012, it undermined the teachers by settling for a contract weeks before the CTU struck. The unity achieved this year was an inspiration for both unions and a lesson for the whole labor movement.
The CTU also succeeded in breaking the stranglehold of a state law designed to stop teachers from bargaining over anything except wages, benefits, and the length of the school day and year. Basically, the union’s strategy was to refuse to agree on those issues until the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) accepted provisions on “permissive issues” like class size and staffing. With the city unwilling or unable to take legal action against the union for striking over “illegal” issues, the CTU’s strategy succeeded in rendering an anti-union law moot.
This may be the most important lesson from the 2019 strike: Workers have to be ready to defy unjust laws enacted by a political system that serves the bosses—and they can win if they do.
As for the main issues of the strike, the unions didn’t win everything they wanted, but they won a lot:
Pay. The base pay increase of 16% over five years is decent, but the real advances are for the poorly paid paraprofessionals of the CTU and virtually all Local 73 members, where the average salary qualifies as “very low income” by federal government standards. These workers will see total salary increases of as much as 40%, and SEIU members won “steps”—the CPS term for additional pay increases based on seniority—for the first time.
Pay was the predominant question for Local 73’s 7,500 members, and SEIU negotiators reached a deal several days ahead of the CTU, which members ratified almost unanimously. Local 73 won protection for members who chose not to cross CTU picket lines (and many didn’t despite losing several more days’ wages).
In the final days of the strike, CPS agreed to an extra $5 million a year for additional steps for veteran teachers, who previously stopped getting seniority raises (beyond the base pay hike) after 14 years on the job.
Makeup Days. This was a bitter compromise for the unions. Mayor Lori Lightfoot maintained a vindictive posture by refusing to make up any days lost to the strike until that was the sole issue remaining. In the end, the mayor grudgingly agreed to five makeup days. By fighting for education justice demands that benefit all of working-class Chicago, educators sacrificed six days’ pay, which amounts to their entire base pay raise (not counting steps) for a year.
Five-Year Contract. No one in the CTU is happy with the long duration of the contract. Lightfoot was adamant on five years, and CTU leaders and negotiators acknowledge that they accepted the contract length and concentrated on fighting for gains on other issues. The union wanted a three-year contract, which would have seen renegotiation during the next municipal election campaign. The five-year contract will see renegotiation during the second year of the next mayoral term.
Class Size. This was perhaps the defining issue of the strike, and the CTU won the first-ever enforceable caps and a quintuple increase in funding. It’s a telling statement about public education in the neoliberal era—and what it will take to win real change—that despite these gains, many classes in CPS schools will still be well above optimal size.
Class size levels existed in the old contract, but there was no mechanism for teachers to force CPS to do anything about violations, and only $7 million a year in the budget to address problems. The city made concessions only after the strike began, but its first proposal covered only a minority of schools. It took nearly two more weeks on strike to win a total of $35 million for class size improvements. A class size committee to deal with violations will have equal representation from the union, and CPS will be required to respond without delays.
The disappointment for teachers is that the class size guidelines carry over from the old contract: 32 in kindergarten through third grade, 35 in grades four to eight and 32 in core high school classes. That’s still higher than typical class sizes in wealthier suburban districts.
Members of the CTU bargaining team estimate it would take $150-200 million to reach acceptable class sizes everywhere in the system, and the CTU had to strike for two weeks to wring a small fraction of that amount from CPS. This shows that the fight for education justice can’t stop with unions and strikes. To win quality schools, it will take political and social mass struggle by the whole working class for wealth redistribution.
Staffing. The CTU won another historic gain by getting CPS to guarantee some 750 additional full-time support staff positions.
At the top of the list are enough nurses and social workers to have at least one in every school in the district by the end of a five-year phase-in. Other positions will be filled more slowly; 120 of the highest-need schools will get funds to hire for one of three “social equity” positions: a librarian, counselor, or restorative justice coordinator.
Prep Time. At the House of Delegates meeting, the most-often-voiced argument for continuing the strike was the city’s refusal to yield an additional half-hour per day of prep time for elementary school teachers. Emanuel took away this prep time when he lengthened the school day, and as a result, most teachers come in at least a half an hour before their students to prepare for the day, but they aren’t paid for their time.
According to bargaining team members, this was another issue where CPS dug in from the start, falsely claiming that teachers were trying to reduce classroom time rather than simply get paid for their labor. Lightfoot reportedly said at one point that she would let the strike go on for a month and still not yield on prep time.
Housing. Lightfoot and the media heaped abuse on the CTU for raising affordable housing as a contract demand, despite 18,000 CPS students—6% of the total—suffering housing insecurity or experiencing homelessness. The CTU’s persistence paid off with a strong gain: Full-time coordinators in schools where more than 70 students are experiencing homelessness, and increased stipends everywhere else, plus greater access to city housing services, free transportation, and free clothing for students and their families.
Immigrant Rights. Lightfoot and the city agreed to strengthen the sanctuary status of schools early in the negotiations, but the strike won first ever provisions guaranteeing the rights of English language learners and students requiring bilingual services—a big step in a district where the largest single group of students is now Latinx.
No More Double Duty. Counselors, classroom assistants, and other paraprofessionals won contract language which prevents principals from pulling them off their regular duties. This was a particularly important demand for special education classroom assistants represented by Local 73, who say they are routinely ordered to leave their assigned students and monitor lunch and recess, do clerical work, and even clean up classrooms.
Privatization. The CTU won a provision mandating no net increase in charter schools. But this contract doesn’t contain a moratorium on school closures, which Emanuel agreed to in 2016. This could be missed if Lightfoot follows Rahm’s playbook and tries to make up for what CPS conceded in the contract by pushing through closures.
There are many more contract provisions that represent gains for educators: more money to help special education teachers with increased workloads and a guaranteed pool of special ed subs; a reversal of a 0.8% increase in union members’ share of health insurance premiums; a greatly expanded sick-time bank; grading and assessment autonomy; sorely needed extra money for CPS athletics programs; and not last and definitely not least, guaranteed nap time for pre-kindergarten students.
The CTU and SEIU have made it clear that the struggle for education justice won’t stop with the contract’s approval, and the battles to come are already looming. Case in point: the Chicago Tribune raised the threat of layoffs and unilateral cuts in a Sunday front-page article claiming that CPS doesn’t have the money to pay for the contract, especially when a recession hits.
Back in 2012, Emanuel was humiliated when the CTU stood up to his bullying, but he took his revenge the next year with the largest mass school closures in history, and he continued finding ways to take back what he had to give up in CTU contracts. If Lightfoot follows the same path, the CTU will have to figure out how to fight back, including possible strike action against unfair labor practices.
Beyond this, there is the larger struggle to win far greater resources for public education. Even with more state money going to Chicago schools, CPS is still drastically under-resourced by the state’s own standards of funding “adequacy.” Educators in Chicago can help lead this bigger fight, just as teachers and school workers did in both red and blue states over the past two years. The experience of the strike, especially in building up the confidence of a new generation of teachers, will be important.
Critics of the suspension of the strike and the new contract are right that workers have the most leverage on the picket line when they are fighting for a just contract. But by itself, this is a narrow understanding of the tasks of trade unionism.
First of all, there are the day-to-day shop-floor struggles, not only to enforce a contract, but also to respond to the countless issues, grievances, and opportunities that arise; and the left-wing radicalization that has produced the significant growth of a socialist left opens up possibilities for unionists and unions to raise their hopes and expectations—and initiate struggles no one can foresee now, just as no one could foresee the 2018 red state teachers’ revolt after the CTU’s 2012 strike victory.
Whatever happens next, Chicago teachers and school workers will be stronger for the victories they won in 2019—and so will the whole labor movement.
News broke earlier this year that federal authorities had raided the home of a longtime ComEd lobbyist who was also a close confidant of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. Authorities were beginning to investigate at least $10,000 in direct payments from ComEd lobbyists to a former Madigan aide who had been dismissed for sexual harassment.
Now those suspicious stories have grown into a full-blown scandal that’s not only rocking Illinois politics, but also revealing the web of clout and corruption that keeps ComEd in control and reminding us why we need to #DemocratizeComEd.
As an investor-owned utility, ComEd and its parent company, Exelon, are incentivized to maximize profits however they can; and because the Illinois energy market is heavily regulated, how they pursue profits—and how much profit they are able to squeeze out—depends in large part on what legislators and regulators allow. So ComEd and Exelon (“the most politically potent company in the state,” according to Crain’s) buy access to, and influence over, the people who are supposed to represent the interests of Illinois residents.
Consider just some of what we’ve learned. In June, ComEd and Exelon disclosed a federal grand jury subpoena concerning their lobbying activities. In September, authorities raided the office and home of State Senator Martin Sandoval (whose daughter just happens to work in Government Affairs for ComEd), searching in part for “items related to ComEd [and] Exelon,” and soon subpoenaed ComEd again as their investigation grew. Later that month, the Illinois Senate was served with a search warrant for items related to ComEd and Exelon, four unnamed Exelon officials, and issues such as utility rate increases. Just a few weeks later, Exelon CEO Anne Pramaggiore—who previously led ComEd and is believed to be one of the unnamed individuals—abruptly retired. Finally, in October, yet another investigation into ComEd and Exelon—this one from the Securities and Exchange Commission—was opened.
Now the fuller picture is coming into focus. A bombshell WBEZ report detailed how ComEd uses “shadow lobbying” to win influence and favorable government action away from the public eye, hiring politically connected companies and contractors in under-the-radar deals. For example, ComEd paid lobbyist Jay Doherty—the President of the City Club of Chicago, where the city’s business and political elite gather to discuss public affairs—some $530,000 in lobbying fees, plus an additional $3.1 million for “business consulting,” believed to be pass-through payments for others doing little or no actual work.
Additionally, ComEd paid over $277,000 to a power washing company owned by a former precinct captain for indicted Alderman Ed Burke who also maintains close ties to Sen. Sandoval. The company also paid hundreds of thousands more directly to Burke’s law firm to help lower their property tax bill and to provide “business consulting”. They paid over $764,000 to a company with close ties to Sen. Sandoval and to Mayor Lightfoot’s floor leader, Alderman Gilbert Villegas, as well as $5,000 per month to Villegas’ lobbying firm. Millions more went to companies associated with former Mayor Richard Daley’s patronage chief, the wife of former Governor Jim Thompson, and others. All of this comes on top of the campaign donations ComEd and its executives regularly shower on lawmakers, including Attorney General Kwame Raoul and Mayor Lightfoot.
Further, a recent Tribune report shone a light on “one of the most exclusive rites of passage in Springfield: Democratic lawmakers and top staffers to House Speaker Michael Madigan leaving state government to push the utility giant’s agenda in the halls of the Capitol.” This year alone, ComEd’s lobbyists included eight former Madigan aides and two lawyers who still work for Madigan, as well as former State Representative Toni Berrios, the daughter of former Cook County Democratic Party Chairman Joe Berrios; former State Rep. Lou Lang, Madigan’s one-time deputy leader; and a former top aide to the late Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka.
This is the kind of influence that got legislators to approve a $520 million bailout in 2016 for two Exelon-owned nuclear power plants even while social service agencies and public education were starved for funds, and to okay an additional $2.6 billion in vaguely defined ComEd capital investments each year for the next four years—with all of that, plus profit, paid back through increases on our energy bills.
As socialists, we know to expect this kind of behavior—legal or not—from profit-oriented firms, and we know that liberal good-government reforms, such as preventing lawmakers from lobbying for two years after leaving office or requiring additional financial disclosures, may change how ComEd wields influence, but won’t stop it from happening.
Ultimately, the question of how we manage our electrical distribution depends on who has the power to control it, and we demand democratic control of this basic necessity, particularly as the climate crisis becomes more acute. #DemocratizeComEd is not just about putting people and the planet over profit; it’s about putting working people in charge and empowering us to determine the future we want, democratically and transparently.
That is why we are fighting to make the electrical grid city-owned and controlled by a board directly elected by the people, not by a for-profit company that buys political influence. This is why we are pushing for openness and transparency every step of the way, beginning with the city’s recently announced feasibility study.
Red Star will continue monitoring this scandal as it unfolds.
Community Thanksgiving Day Meal
Thursday, Nov. 28th, 2019, 10am-12pm, at Tabor Lutheran Church, 3542 W Sunnyside Avenue.
Thursday, Nov. 28th, 2019, 12pm (Jazz Concert)-1pm (Meal), at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 3857 North Kostner Ave
The 40th Ward is offering internship opportunities for students!
- Constituent Services Intern
- Policy/Economic Development Intern
How to Apply: Include a cover letter, resume and two references to Jessica Peters at Jessica.firstname.lastname@example.org. The application process is ongoing and the intern schedule is determined by individual student availability. Typical commitment ranges from 10-20 hours per week.
The Red Star Bulletin was conceived by Ramsin Canon and is a project of the Political Education & Policy Committee. This issue was drafted by CDSA members. Special contributions were made by Rebecca Burns, Pat Chesnut, Tina Groeger, Nick Hussong, Charlotte Kissinger, Alan Maass, Leonard Pierce, and Sveta Stoytcheva. Graphics were contributed by Patrick O’Connell. If you would like to contribute to the Red Star Bulletin or have any feedback, email email@example.com.