To special education teacher Maggie Sermont, the rationale for a strike against Chicago’s public schools boils down to a simple “enough!”
And more workers are joining the call by showing a willingness to strike, reawakening the nation’s organized labor movement after decades of mostly small gains.
Unions are making a powerful comeback. Americans approve of labor unions by 64%, only two percentage points shy of the highest mark recorded in the past 50 years and 16 points above the low in 2009, Gallup reported two months ago.
Last year, there were 20 major work stoppages across several industries, the highest total since 2007. The strikes and walkouts included a lot of school districts, but also big corporate names like AT&T and Marriott. The number of workers involved, 485,000, was the highest since 1986, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.
The Chicago teachers’ walkout comes as more than 46,000 General Motors workers start voting Saturday on a tentative agreement won after a five-week strike that scored gains for the United Auto Workers union.
As for the Chicago teachers’ action, the walkout followed a string of similar strikes around the country, including ones in conservative states like Kentucky and West Virginia that might not, on their face, seem sympathetic to labor actions by public workers.
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Earlier this year, 34,000 Los Angeles educators struck for six days. Their resulting contract not only raised their pay by 6% but lowered class sizes while creating additional school nurse and librarian positions. In fact, teachers across the country have nabbed win after win.
Now, Chicago teachers are striking, hoping that their timing is right.
“It is really a unique opportunity right now in American politics of unionism and especially the teaching profession,” said Sermont, who teaches at Chalmers Elementary and who is also a union delegate. “We have seen instances of teachers’ unions standing up saying: ‘This is enough!'”
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To those following unions’ newfound power, the explanations seem obvious. Wages for workers are up – median wages for full-time and salaried workers have risen 3.6% to $919 a week over the past year. But it’s not enough for many, especially given the yawning income gap with the super-rich.
“The average person is observing the good economic times, not sharing in it. In fact, they may be losing ground,” said Harley Shaiken, a University of California-Berkeley professor who specializes in work, technology, and global production issues. “It doesn’t do any good to watch the stock market climb,” he said, if you can’t participate in it.
Amid the lowest unemployment rate since 1969 and the overall economic boom, workers are feeling emboldened in ways they never did a decade ago. During the Great Recession, many were “very fearful, very uncertain,” Shaiken said. Now, “the political winds are shifting.”
It’s paying off for workers. Under the tentative contract to end the GM strike, UAW members won pay raises, retained health-care benefits and will see signing bonuses of up to $11,000. The big loss was the inability to persuade GM, which reported $2.4 billion in quarterly profit just as negotiations got underway, to retain production at its Lordstown Assembly Plant in Ohio.
Workers didn’t fight just for themselves, but for their coworkers. Creating a pathway for permanent status for GM’s temporary workers, who earn a fraction of the pay despite often doing the same job, became a big issue in the strike. It was ultimately resolved as part of the package won by the UAW, or more formally, the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America.
“The UAW strike touched a nerve,” said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center in Los Angeles. Paying factory workers differently for the same tasks divides them and “will continually transform middle-class jobs into low-wage jobs.”
For Chicago’s teachers, the issues are different, but the mood is the same. The union wants the nation’s third-largest school district to hire more support staff, limit class sizes and offer higher pay to workers like school secretaries and classroom aides.
“I don’t think we’re asking for too much,” said Dian Palmer, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 73, which represents some of those workers like custodians, bus drivers or special-education assistants. “We’re looking to lift our members out of poverty.”
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Chicago’s teachers, who have been offered a 16% raise over five years, have shown they can attain big goals, said Jane McAlevey, a labor organizer, negotiator and author of several books on labor, including her next, “A Collective Bargain.” She credits the Chicago teacher strike of 2012 with raising up union leaders who won’t back down and showing other teachers around the country they can do the same.
Teachers don’t just walk out and picket, she said. They use their skills as communicators and educators to show Chicagoans why they deserved more.
“It’s workers standing up for themselves,” McAlevey said.
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Contributing: Grace Hauck, Erin Richards
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