Chicago Teachers Confront the Crisis

Jackson Potter

Teachers have led the way in the struggle for economic and racial justice in Chicago. The current crisis demands that we prepare for the worst while taking crucial steps to fight for a just future.

The day before Governor Pritzker closed all the schools in Illinois, from March 17th through March 30th (now closed through April 20th by the Mayor), I asked all of my students how many had parents and relatives laid off or facing reduced working hours due to the Covid-19 outbreak. In every single class someone talked about recent job losses within their immediate families. After a week in, more and more working families are facing looming uncertainty and assured economic devastation.

As the virus was silently raging and schools were still open, virtually no schools received any increase in cleaning supplies, custodian staff or lysol wipes to maintain hygienic conditions in our classrooms. One of my students shared online during the second week of quarantine, “My dad got laid off of work just yesterday and he is also tired of being stuck at home.“ Most students have not responded to emails or assignment posts in part because some do not have internet service or a chromebook that should be provided by the district. 

While most teachers across the country have been relatively unscathed, continuing to be paid under quarantine, it won’t last. For instance, our pension systems lost more money in the last three weeks from the collapse of the stock market than it did during the combined crises of 9-11 and the 2008 financial meltdown, ensuring cut-backs and layoffs without a mass infusion of revenue.

Without a doubt, Mayor Lightfoot will try to roll back advances from the recent strike and reenact Rahm’s austerity measures with calls for “shared sacrifice”  while bailing out the hotel industry and Magnificent Mile at our expense. Like Daley and Rahm before her, Lightfoot will take her lead from the Civic Federation and Commercial Club of Chicago, who will sharpen their knives for vicious pension cuts, massive public sector give-backs, and tax breaks for the wealthy. All workers in Chicago and beyond stand to lose ground unless we wage an aggressive and transformational agenda that spurs a broad range of social forces into action. 

As a result of the twin crisis from a botched response to a global pandemic and the ensuing sharp economic downturn, educators have to step up efforts to advance a class-wide offensive for economic and racial justice as conditions worsen. Already the Chicago Teachers Union and a coalition led by the United Working Families, have broadcast a powerful set of demands that prohibit deep cut-backs and help school children and families with vital supports, by providing things like free internet, living wages, healthcare and guaranteed housing. 

One way for teachers to thicken networks of collaboration and collective action with parents and students in this moment is to increase our communication around economic hardship, potential evictions, foreclosure threats, water and utility cut-offs, ICE raids, etc. This will let us to track and respond to the attacks on our overwhelmingly Black and Latino students while staging rent strikes, building unemployment councils, enacting mutual aid outreach and blocking evictions, even as we fight to secure permanent economic rights.  

A great number of Chicago residents face a bleak future of rising insecurity. We must prioritize a Chicago Public Schools jobs program that under- and unemployed parents get deputized to increase the workforce for union custodians, special education and bilingual services, homeless outreach, social workers, school nurses, etc. Additionally, we need a real government jobs program for a local Green New Deal and a Chicago charter for a federal bank to get funds from the Federal Reserve to directly employ Chicagoans of all stripes, retrofit our grid to clean energy and municipalize the utility system away from Com-ed’s private control. These types of demands will be useful at the local, state and federal levels simultaneously. With summer-break fast approaching, educators can pledge to protest and/or engage in mass civil disobedience to demand policies that will move the country towards an equitable and sustained economic revival. 

This is a moment when we must advance our best thinking on Medicare for All, mandatory sick leave and massive investments into universal pre-k to lighten the burden on working families. Conversely, we cannot afford a recovery for the 1%, big corporations and banks that leaves out workers and families who are the heart and soul of the economy. To this end, there must be a commitment to transfer wealth from those who have benefited the most from the last 30 years of economic growth to restore order, fairness and justice in the US.

Jackson Potter is a co-founder of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators in 2008, current co-chair of CORE, trustee for the Chicago Teachers Union and a history teacher at Back of The Yards High School.

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