by Lillian Kass
via Labor Notes
In 1987, during the last teacher strike in Chicago, I was 5 years old and just starting kindergarten in a Chicago Public School. I don’t remember a whole lot about the strike – other than having to go to school in July – but I do know that it was just one of a series of lessons I learned about labor and workers’ rights. We boycotted California grapes in my house long after the boycott was officially over; I went to countless union meetings and rallies and “helped” make union buttons; I knew what a giant inflatable rat stood for; and I was taught at a very young age to never cross a picket line. It didn’t occur to me that I would walk one myself – especially as a teacher.
Twenty-five years later, I have taken up the family business – education – as well as the leftist, pro-labor ideology. When I became a public school teacher 8 years ago, No Child Left Behind was already in place, but teachers were not yet under the brutal attack we have been recently. I was proud of my career and never felt that anyone looked down on me for being a teacher. Teaching is a calling for me, not just a job, and I looked forward to consistently improving my practice and being in the classroom for my students for many years.
Today, however, I cannot imagine doing anything OTHER than walk a picket line. The Chicago Teachers Union strike was set in motion by the nationwide push to privatize public education, and by the demonization of teachers that went along with this movement. It was aided by anti-labor laws and union-busting tactics deployed by our new Democrats. My activism was set in motion by my parents, who raised me to think critically and stand up for myself and for others, and who taught me the value of collective action and the importance of workers’ rights.
I knew a strike wouldn’t be easy, but I had no idea how much work it would actually be. During this strike, I have had the privilege and responsibility of visiting the picket lines at ten schools every day to check on morale, distribute materials, answer questions, and assist with logistics. I attended meetings to discuss how pickets were going and to plan future pickets and massive rallies, and I was in constant contact with my schools communicating plans, answering questions, and providing support. It was a lot of work, but it put me in touch with ten times as many people on the ground as I would have otherwise had. I heard about the issues having impact on students and employees at all of our schools: classrooms with no chalkboards and giant holes in the wall, outrageous class sizes of over forty students, illegal special education programming, administrators who intimidate, humiliate, and harass employees, and so much more. I also saw the solidarity on the picket lines, the determination of my brothers and sisters as they advocated for themselves, their schools, and their students in a new way.
As I prepare go back to work, I reflect on the choice I – and thirty thousand other Chicago Teachers Union members – made. It didn’t seem like a choice at the time, because what we needed to do was clear. I realize, however, that it was a choice: a choice to stand up for our rights as workers and as human beings; a choice to demand to be treated fairly and with dignity and respect; a choice to fight for quality public education for all of our students.
Our fight is far from over; in fact, it is just beginning. While we protected many of our rights in our contract, laws in Illinois prevent us from demanding smaller class sizes, services for our students, and better school and classroom environments. The national attack on public education continues as well, with corporate agendas leading the way. We will continue to push back and advocate for better learning conditions for our students.
Perhaps my calling was not only to teach. Perhaps my calling was to teach in this moment, in this time and place, so I could draw on my upbringing, which emphasized the importance of education along with the importance of solidarity. My parents provided me with a strong foundation, but this strike taught me the true meaning of solidarity, and the true significance of today’s fight for public education, in a way nothing else ever could.
Lillian Kass was born and raised in Chicago. She is a special education teacher in Chicago Public Schools, and the Union Delegate for her school.
Image via the Twitter feed of Labor Notes.
Updated (24 September 2012, 12:30): Typo corrected.