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At Rally, Chicago Teachers Union President Invites City Hall to Turn Off Air-Conditioning

CTU President Karen Lewis at solidarity rally on September 15

In Union Park in Chicago thousands of educators and supporters of the Chicago Teachers Union gathered for a solidarity rally. People from out-of-state, like Minnesota and Wisconsin, were there to show support. After a two-hour rally, everyone marched to Garfield Park.

There were students, parents and representatives from teachers unions, including the Illinois Federation of Teachers (of which CTU is an affiliate). The leader of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) union in Chicago Pat Camden spoke in support congratulating the union for being out in the streets in overwhelming numbers the past week. A member of a charter school’s teachers union spoke about how the conditions of the workplace in charter schools were terrible and what teachers had to look forward to if they did not prevail. And a strike captain spoke about negotiations where teachers who were fired from schools being shut down to make way for private charter schools are being advocated for so they might be rehired at other schools.

At the end of the rally, Karen Lewis, president of CTU, delivered a speech. She said she was tired and frustrated. She explained the negotiations had produced a framework for an agreement but no agreement, which means the strike is not over. If you read the news reports on the rally, this is what Lewis said.


In addition to these nuggets, she spoke passionately about the love that teachers have for students and why the union is striking. She pleaded with those in City Hall to empathize with what teachers and students go through, and to understand teachers are the foundation, and teachers were not going to sit by and be destroyed because that’s not what’s good for children.

She declared, “I want them to turn off the air conditioning in 125 S. Clark [Board of Education] and work like we work. I want them to turn off the air conditioning on the fifth floor of City Hall and let them work like we work. I want them to turn off the air conditioning at the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation and the Walton Foundation so they can see what our children have to suffer under. I want them to come sit in a classroom with peeling plaster and notebooks and I want them to be evaluated.”

The former chemistry teacher went on to make clear this was not about dodging accountability. She said she wants to be evaluated so somebody can tell her how to be a better teacher. But then added, “While these people have their air conditioners turned off, I want them to not be able to go to the dentist when they have a toothache. I want them to not be able to go to a physician when they are feeling ill. I want them to understand what it means to be hungry, what it means to be homeless and what it means to be uncomfortable when you give me a test.”

The issue of air conditioning is a real problem. Eighteen schools canceled classes this summer because it was too hot outside and they had no air-conditioning. Students were deprived learning opportunities because Chicago could not offer facilities comfortable and conducive to learning.

Lewis continued, “I want to know why, when we ask for textbooks and materials on the first day,” that is considered unreasonable. And, “I want somebody to tell me why asking for more than 325 social workers for a system of 400,000 children is unreasonable.”

On standardized testing, “I want you to tell me why you have to test my kindergarteners five and six times a year when they haven’t even learned how to play.”

She said she was tired of people calling her a thug. She also said she was tired of people suggesting principals should have “complete freedom in organizing their schools.” Musician John Legend was on “Real Time w/ Bill Maher” last night and made this statement. Lewis noted principals have a four-year shelf life. So are teachers supposed to let their schools turn over every four years? And when the next school principal comes in with their ideas, after teachers have committed their time and love, now do what that the principal says because there’s a new principal in the school? How does this promote stability in schools?

Lewis directly rebuked the idea of tying student test scores to teacher evaluations: “Evaluate me. Show me how I can get better. But don’t tell me some random, some test you pulled off of a shelf that a child sits down and bubbles in is going to tell you what I’ve done. It does not.”

She added, “My father taught wood shop and drafting in Chicago public schools, my late father, God rest his soul. And I have his picture on my desk. My father always told me you have to use the right tool for the right job. We want the right instrument.”

Holding up a piece of paper she said, “You see this piece of paper? You all see this? It represents the chart of the experience of the people who make policy about education. Here’s their experience. Here’s their chart. What’s on it? Nothing.” She led the crowd in a chant of the word “nothing.”

Lewis said CTU did not start the fight. They had tried to work with the city. Collaboration is one thing that makes people work better, she suggested. When she works with her sister down the hall, she learns something and she also teaches her something new. “But if you’re going to introduce the market into my classroom, why would I help the sister down the street when I am trying to get something for me? That’s not education.”

The president, whose union ignited resistance against the national agenda for education reform being pushed by corporations this past week, concluded by expressing gratitude. So far, this had been a “beautiful and democratic process with a small d.” She cautioned people.

“A woman came up to me and said she got a text from her principal telling their faculty that they should report to work tomorrow and Monday to prepare their rooms.” Lewis, displaying a flabbergasted look said, “What I want to tell you is, we’re on strike!”

It was a speech given by a woman with great humanity, one who does not serve any special interests. She does not have to obey the agenda of some ideological foundation that seeks to influence the business of education in Chicago. She can talk about what students and teachers experience in the classroom because she and other educators live it. They don’t just manage it and pretend to know what is causing children to struggle in the classroom. They are involved at every level of the learning process and deserve to be regarded as better experts than politicians, education reform foundation presidents, or even school administrators.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."