Friday, April 01, 2016

Chicago Teachers Hit Picket Lines, Shift to Rallies at Colleges
Chicago Teachers Union stages one-day walkout

Juan Perez Jr. , Marwa Eltagouri , Leonor Vivanco and Jeanne Kuang
Chicago Tribune

After spending the morning on the picket lines, some Chicago Public Schools teachers on Friday headed to college campuses to join allied forces in protest of budget cuts and the lack of state funding for education as part of the "Day of Action," which will culminate in an afternoon rush-hour rally at the Thompson Center in the Loop.

Classes were canceled Friday for the more than 300,000 public school students because of the one-day walkout. Instead, teachers and their supporters marched in front of their schools, offering chants, playing instruments and pumping signs — one offering the ultimate Chicago slam: claiming Gov. Bruce Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel use ketchup on their hot dogs. All of it aimed at drawing attention to the failed contract negotiations between the union and CPS as well as the budget stalemate in Springfield that could further cripple the already cash-strapped school system.

Teachers are joining two colleges in their struggles to continuing operating without state funding by picketing on the campuses of Northeastern Illinois University and Chicago State University, a Far South Side public university that declared a state of financial emergency and faces layoffs of its employees.

At Northeastern late Friday morning, a New Orleans-style funeral march of sorts unfolded with mourners carrying gray tombstone signs, a skeleton in a coffin as well jazz musicians marking the death of higher education.

Northeastern student Natalia Rokita, 25, is doubly affected by Friday's strike, as her son is a kindergartener at Farnsworth Elementary, a CPS school in Jefferson Park. "It's a shock to me that people don't want to fund public education, because people rely on it, especially in Illinois and Chicago," said Rokita, who picketed on campus for funding for both her son's education and her own.

Earlier in the day, about 40 teachers picketed outside Roberto Clemente High School in Humboldt Park, and by 6:45 a.m. a chant was in full-swing: "Who do we love? Teachers! Who do we love? Clemente kids!"

The teachers on the picket line make up about 95 percent of Clemente staff, said Tom Keddy, the school's union representative and a special education and history teacher. He grinned as cars whizzed by the teachers, honking their horns in support. One passenger poked his own cardboard sign out from the car window; it read, "Parents stand with teachers."

"All this support, it already gives us a sense that people understand what's happening," Keddy said. "Of course we'd prefer to be inside teaching the students. We don't take these things lightly. But they understand it's for us and it's for them."

Speakers at the event used the opportunity to target Rauner, Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools administrators.

"The mayor, why is he not doing everything he can to help with the funding (schools) need?" said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, during an interview with the Tribune. "And the governor — the reckless disregard of this governor is reprehensible," Weingarten said.

On Friday, mayoral spokeswoman Kelley Quinn emailed a response to Weingarten's criticism: "Mayor Emanuel and (school district CEO) Forrest Claypool have pushed harder for more funding than anyone in the state, and have consistently asked CTU to join the city in Springfield," Quinn said. "While we appreciate any support we can get to fix a broken state funding system that penalizes poor and minority children in Chicago and around the state, we hope that Randi's support lasts beyond a 24-hour news cycle."

Rauner issued a statement Friday in response to the strike, saying: "It's shameful that Chicago's children are the victims in this raw display of political power. Walking out on kids in the classroom, leaving parents in the lurch and thumbing their nose at taxpayers — it's the height of arrogance from those we've entrusted with our children's futures."

Rauner and Emanuel have been locked in a broader battle over state financial help for Chicago, with Rauner calling on the mayor to help him pass his pro-business, union-weakening agenda at the statehouse.

The governor also has said that CPS has been mismanaged financially for years and that the district already benefits from "special deals" that aren't enjoyed by other school districts across the state. He's called for a state takeover of the troubled district and repeatedly suggested bankruptcy as an option, further stoking his fight with Emanuel.

The crowd of Clemente teachers Friday not only chanted but also played maracas, tambourine sticks and cowbells to draw attention to their message.

"This is much bigger than us, than the teachers," Keddy said. "It's for the community. We want good schools. We want good, public schools."

He said teachers at first were worried about how families would react to the strike and whether the teachers' efforts will be effective. But he said community support has been overwhelming, and he is confident the strike will yield some level of action by city or state government leaders.

"If it's as big of a demonstration as we expect it will be, I don't think (local leaders) can ignore it," he said.

But some spots didn't have that to big of a union presence yet early Friday morning.

Behzad Raghian, of Evanston, showed up at the Stephen Gale Community Academy in Rogers Park, about 10 minutes after picketing was supposed to start at 6:30 a.m. and was on his own until a trickle of teachers and others began arriving. Raghian, a lawyer, said he does not have children in CPS but came to support the teachers. "The teachers are the only people standing up for the students," he said.

Meanwhile, Friday's strike ate up plenty of mornign rush-hour radio time, as local stations took calls from listeners looking to speak their mind on the walkout.

"This has been a long time coming," a caller from the South Side said on WGCI-FM's morning broadcast. "The teachers are only putting the ball in the government's court," she said. "As a homeowner and a taxpayer, you're sitting up on a hill with a six-figure salary — but where are my tax dollars going to educate my child?"

A suburban caller, though, wasn't certain about the union's tactics. "I think that it's right to protest," she said. "But I think that there's a better way."

"I think they have a bigger responsibility to the children," the caller said. "You're also setting an example for the kids that, you know, it's OK to miss school."

A week ago, the school district canceled classes for a furlough day.

Not long before Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis was scheduled to arrive at a picket line at King High School in the North Kenwood neighborhood, the radio station Vocalo blared "Chicago Teacher," a pro-union hip-hop jam by Rebel Diaz.

A lot of the discussion about the one-day walkout has focused on whether it's legal. While the teachers union has said it is, CPS has said it's not. That's prompted questions about whether some teachers may cross the picket line.

During a Friday morning visit at one South Side School, Lewis didn't talk much about how many union members might have crossed picket lines due to some controversy within CTU's ranks about the merits of Friday's strike. The union president, though, acknowledged some of her members may have just elected to stay home.

"Here's the deal: I don't think anyone's crossed the line," she said. "They might not have come to work, you know, and I don't blame them — it's kind of like a, depressing overcast day and, you know, maybe they didn't feel like walking picket lines. But that's OK."

On Thursday, CPS officials said they wouldn't seek to discipline employees who take part in the one-day strike, but district officials said they will launch a legal challenge to what they've maintained is an unlawful walkout by the CTU.

The Tribune's John Byrne and Kim Geiger contributed.

Twitter @PerezJr

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