The first step | On Politics | Chicago Reader

The first step 

Thank you, Chicago teachers, for forcing the powers that be to take a small step toward doing the right thing.

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click to enlarge Special ed teachers Tiffany Brooks and Jacquelyn Price Ward and teaching assistant Willie Cousins picket at Bond Elementary. - MAYA DUKMASOVA FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Special ed teachers Tiffany Brooks and Jacquelyn Price Ward and teaching assistant Willie Cousins picket at Bond Elementary.
  • maya dukmasova for chicago reader

To gain some perspective on the teachers' strike that just ended, I thought I'd fire up the old time machine and go back to 1980—January to be exact—when Michael Jackson's "Rock With You" topped the charts.

In other words, a long time ago.

Here in Chicago, the teachers went on strike for ten bitter-cold days because our school system—even more dysfunctional than usual—didn't have enough money to pay them.

That's right, youngsters—CPS went broke and teachers had to strike to get paid.

And still the Tribune's editorial writers opposed the strike and blamed it on the union. Apparently, the Tribsters wanted teachers to work for nothing.

As long as I'm on the topic, it's time for another round of my latest favorite parlor game—Guess When the Editorial Was Written.

We already played this game with the Sun-Times, now it's the Trib's turn. Here we go . . .

Was the following sentence from a Tribune editorial published in 1980 or over the last few weeks?

"The Chicago Board of Education has made its own Procrustean Bed by its spineless surrender [to] the teachers union."

Neither! Some unnamed Tribune editorialist wrote that beaut in 1967, when "I'm a Believer" by the Monkees topped the charts. Proving that the more things change, the more the Tribune keeps manufacturing heartless editorial writers like Stepford Wives.

Now, I must confess I'm as biased as the Tribune when it comes to teachers' strikes. Only I'm on the other side.

My mother was a public school teacher (and a CTU delegate) walking that 1980 picket line. And several of my favorite millennials (thinking of you, Nora and Mariah) were on the latest one. You might say I've been standing with striking Chicago teachers my whole life.

There would have to be some unconscionable CTU outrage for me to go the other way. In this case, it wasn't even close.

Not to relitigate the strike, but . . .

It's a pathetic shame and a civic embarrassment that it took a freaking strike to force Mayor Lightfoot and her CPS appointees to agree to address overcrowding and understaffing in our poorest schools.

Dealing with these issues should have been among the first things on the mayor's agenda when she took office. Hell, it should have been the first thing on Mayor Rahm's agenda back in 2011.

Not sure why Mayor Lightfoot dilly-dallied on these matters. She championed educational equity during April's campaign. As opposed to Mayor Rahm, who was so clueless about the schools when he took office he couldn't even name the top-scoring ones.

Publicly, Mayor Lightfoot talked the right talk about not being antiteacher like Rahm. But privately, it was something else. In the months leading up to the strike, she couldn't even bring herself to meet with CTU officials Jesse Sharkey and Stacy Davis Gates to sort of hammer things out.

Now, I realize CTU played a role in upsetting Lightfoot. The union overplayed its hand in the mayoral election—going too strong for Toni Preckwinkle and too harsh on Lightfoot. Tactically, it made no sense—as everyone knew Lightfoot was going to win.

On the other hand, c'mon, Madame Mayor, you won in a landslide. You should have let it go months ago.

I do want to give Lightfoot credit for having the self-restraint to refrain from taking this strike to the next level and going to court to toss Jesse or Stacy into jail for striking on nonstrikable issues.

Also, I must admit the mayor's communications team did a masterful job of spinning the narrative that the strike was all CTU payback because their candidate lost April's election.

A day hardly passes without someone telling me, "You know, Ben, the teachers just wanted to go on strike."

This talking point—crafted by the mayor's team—is especially common among north-siders of the white liberal persuasion who love Lightfoot as much as I love, oh, Dolemite Is My Name (seen it twice in the last two days).

Nothing against white north-side liberals—you might say I am one myself.

In which case, white north-side liberals, let me ask you this: What CTU demand was not worth striking over? Lowering class size in high-poverty schools? Hiring more nurses, librarians, and social workers for kids who need them the most?

How many years are teachers supposed to shut up, take the money, and look the other way in the face of such obvious educational inequities? Especially as they watch mayor after mayor earmark billions of property tax dollars for upscale developments in already gentrifying neighborhoods. I see you, Lincoln Yards.

With all due respect, white north-side liberals, you're starting to remind me of the southern "moderate" that irritated Martin Luther King.

"Over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate," King wrote in "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice."

I can't say this enough: for years Chicagoans talked a big game about eradicating social inequities in our schools, but until the teachers went on strike that's all it was—talk.

Well, it's behind us now. Except . . .

Over the weekend, I chatted with a teacher who told me about the 35 third-graders in a classroom at her south-side school. In other words, these inequities still exist. It's not like the mayor sent in more teachers to ease the overcrowding as soon as the strike was over.

No, the contract's just a first step—albeit an important one—in the long march for the kind of justice Dr. King was talking about back in 1963. When "He's So Fine" (by the Chiffons) topped the charts.

Man, it's been a long time coming.

So, one more time . . .

Thank you teachers, paraprofessionals, bus aides, janitors, and other CPS employees who had the courage to walk that picket line and force the powers that be to take that first step—kicking, screaming, and complaining the whole way.   v

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