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A leader of the Chicago teacher strike speaks out

Sarah Chambers speaks out
By staff |
October 31, 2012
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Sarah Chambers (center), a leader of Chicago teacher strike
Sarah Chambers (center), a leader of Chicago teacher strike (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee/Chicago Indymedia)

Chicago, IL - How is Sarah Chambers feeling after the historic victory of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike? “There are two ways to answer: I’m tired, but I’m excited to be in such a union and such a movement of people, all marching for the same reason.”

Chambers is the youngest member of the bargaining committee that led the CTU in September. Fight Back! interviewed her for this story.

Fight Back!: You spoke of the strike as marching. The CTU held a series of downtown marches, with 20,000 to 35,000 members and supporters in the seven days of the strike.

Sarah Chambers: Some people thought we were crazy to have marches downtown after picketing all day at the schools. But we found that those rallies and marches made people feel powerful. We also held neighborhood marches during the strike. And before the strike, we had a day when 20,000 teachers were flyering throughout the city.

The strike changed so many people. For example, the non-tenured teachers weren’t involved and didn’t see why they should be involved just one month before the strike. Once the strike was on, they became some of the most involved.

Fight Back!: What convinced the union members that they had to strike?

Chambers: People saw with the “turn arounds” and school closures that the School Board and Mayor Rahm Emanuel were trying to privatize the schools. At Saucedo Academy where I teach, when we held the vote to authorize the strike, we had 100% support from our members.

Fight Back!: Mayor Emanuel targeted the CTU when he was running for office two years ago. Then he got the state legislature in Springfield to pass a special bill to prevent a teachers’ strike that applied only to Chicago, requiring 75% of all union members to approve the strike instead of the normal 51% of those who vote. How did that affect the union?

Chambers: Senate Bill 7 backfired. The leaders and activists in the union knew we had to get that vote. At my school, I talked with every teacher. Then over 100 schools held mock votes. At Saucedo, only one person voted no.

Fight Back!: How did you accomplish building the unity to do this?

Chambers: In my school there are a number of teachers with more than 20 years on the job. They were in the strikes in the 1980s. They said they have never seen this much organization. They have never been more informed. This is not the top down union that CTU used to be. The leadership of the union is from CORE (Caucus of Rank and File Educators), which is a rank-and-file reform movement.

Two summers ago I went to a five day contract action team (CAT) training. I learned to set up the CAT at my school by choosing one teacher from each grade level, one counselor and teacher’s aide. We made sure to include diversity in age, race and subject areas. When the strike hit, these members became the strike lieutenants. With our contract members being spread throughout the building and an email listserv and phone tree of the whole school, we were able to disseminate information on upcoming events and union news.

The team also planned actions to grow our unity and power. We started small by getting everyone to wear red. Later we had bigger actions. We created our own flyers and had information pickets outside our building. We also involved our Local School Council (LSC) by writing a letter to ask for support in our contract demands, such as smaller class size.

All of these actions helped us to become more organized and prepared us for the strike. Of course, there were obstacles. We had some parents who would sometimes sabotage our actions. In June, the team had set up a community forum to have a discussion around the strike. We flyered for multiple days and spoke with parents outside after school. They seemed excited to attend, but when the day came for the community forum, very few parents came, maybe about 20. We found out later that certain parents had gone around to all the parents the day before and told them not to attend and spoke against it. Luckily, we were able to reach out to parents with one on one talks after school.

Fight Back!: Before the strike, when did you start to think you could win?

Chambers: In May when we held our first mass rally. We had a hall that held 4000 and we were afraid we wouldn’t fill it. We filled it to standing room only and more came until we had a crowd of 2000 union members and supporters outside. We didn’t plan to march and then we took the streets anyway.

Fight Back!: How did you organize during the strike?

Chambers: While on strike, every morning we had a discussion around what the day was going to look like, set up stations and had discussions around which contract proposals they could live with and which ones they would stay out for. At the end of the day, we reflected on what went well, what we could change for the next day and which supplies we should bring for the next day.

Overall, my picket line was a lot of fun, morale was high. People brought their babies and puppies, we blocked a truck from dropping off supplies to the building.

Fight Back!: Do you think that other workers have learned lessons from this?

Chambers: Look at all the other teachers’ unions in Illinois that have gone on strike following our victory. People saw that we pushed back against the bully who tried to steamroll us. They said, “We can do it, too.”

Also, working people in the city saw that we were fighting for our jobs, dignity and livelihood, but also for public education, for the needs of the schools in poor neighborhoods. When they spoke, the leaders of the union pointed out, the schools being closed are on the South Side not the North Side; they talked about poverty, and about the Black and Latino kids being hurt by the policies of the School Board.

Fight Back!: What lessons did you learn?

Chambers: Well, I think that Emanuel felt bruised and battered by the end. That shows the power that we have when we fight.

Also, this strike showed what we’re up against, not just in this city but around the world. The 1%, they want to privatize everything. For example, the School Board here is filled with capitalists.

Finally, after this strike, an organizational structure is in place in our union. When attacks come, such as school closures, we have lieutenants in place in the schools, to fight.

Sarah Chambers will be among the honored guests at the 20th annual People’s Thanksgiving fundraiser for Fight Back! newspaper on Dec. 1 in Chicago. For more info: http://www.facebook.com/events/476580712373165/?ref=ts&fref=ts