A Force Stronger Than Gravity: NYC YDSA Supports the Chicago Educators Strike

Halsey Hazzard, NYU/CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies

On October 16th, the day before 35,000 teachers and staff in Chicago began the longest public education strike in decades, six members of NYC YDSA — from CUNY campuses Hunter College and City College, as well as NYU — boarded flights to Chicago to join Chicago DSA’s strike support efforts. The strike, which has entered its eleventh day, is the third since the militant, community-minded Caucus of Rank and File Educators came into power in 2010 — and the largest, since this time CTU is going out with support staff in SEIU Local 73. As of today, 97% of Local 73 members have voted to ratify a contract considered by many to be the best they’ve ever had, but are still on strike in solidarity with the teachers as they inch towards their own contract in the face of massive resistance from Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Over the course of the strike, Chicago educators have been subject to slanderous attacks from the Chicago establishment and newly-elected Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who, despite running on a progressive public education platform, has walked back many of her promises and cynically accused the teachers of acting out of selfishness. Yet in the face of this adversity, teachers and educators have held joyous picket lines, flooded the streets of Chicago, and even bravely faced arrest to secure a brighter future for their students (and their students have stood with them!). While in Chicago, NYC YDSA members met — and danced with — teachers and staff on picket lines throughout the city, formed a “flying squadron” and accompanied retirees to schools in need of support, and prepared and distributed meals to strikers, students, and their families as part of the Bread for Ed Campaign, which has raised nearly $50k in the last two weeks.

This strike has been an incredibly inspiring example of the power of a militant, energized rank and file union; with deep ties to the communities they serve, unions can strike for — and win — far-reaching demands for the working class in the face of crushing austerity. Organized socialists have played no small role in this movement, from the founding of CORE in 2010 to the outpouring of support from Chicago DSA members in 2019. And as student socialists –some of us future union members ourselves –it showed us how crucial the labor movement is to the broader working class movement we’re starting to build. Below are reflections from YDSA student organizers — and future rank and file teachers — Jake Colosa (NYU) and Labiba Chowdhury (CCNY) on their experiences meeting students and teachers in Chicago, and how what we learned there applies to the work we’re doing in YDSA across the country.

 

Jake Colosa, New York University YDSA

Most people don’t jump at the opportunity to stand on a picket line at 6:30 in the morning during a cold midwestern fall. Indeed, even fewer would consider going if that picket line were hundreds of miles away, for people they had never met and might never see again. But solidarity, as AFA-CWA president Sara Nelson said at the DSA Convention this summer, “is a force stronger than gravity.” 

So on October 16th, I found myself on a plane headed for a city I had never been to. The Chicago Teachers Union and the Service Employees International Union Local 73 were set to strike the next day, and both YDSA and Chicago DSA were mobilizing for strike solidarity.  A few of my fellow NYC YDSA members had made plans to fly to Chicago, and soon I found myself booking flights, packing my bags, and rescheduling a midterm. Knowing that the struggles of educators and students in one city are the struggle of the working class around the world, I knew that I had to stand alongside the most militant teacher union of the last decade. 

I also knew that this militancy did not happen on its own. It came about as a direct result of rank and file organizing. The Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), which rose to prominence in 2010, pushed the CTU to become a member-led union, with an organizing first strategy, as opposed to the acquiescent approaches that have become commonplace among American unions. This new approach led to the 90% vote to strike in 2012 that inspired a wave of militant educator strikes around the country. Now, as the educators’ strike wave returns to Chicago in 2019, CTU is once again showing that by mobilizing the resources and members of existing unions, especially those in strategic industries like education, healthcare, transportation, and other crucial sectors, we can win the battles that our elected officials are too weak or unwilling to fight themselves. 

While in Chicago, I had the pleasure of spending much of my time on the picket line at Aldridge Elementary School towards the southern limits of the city. Not only did this school suffer from the socio-economic divide between the North and South sides, but also from environmental conditions as a result of nearby steel mills that left pollutants like petcoke behind. Many of its students, 99% of whom are black and come from low income backgrounds, live in the nearby Altgeld Gardens housing project. As the teachers of the school told us, struggling with the effects of living in a disadvantaged community naturally makes for more difficult learning. It was clear that the teachers and staff of the school cared a lot for their students but they lacked the resources to meet their needs.

This lack of resources, too, is not a result of schools in disadvantaged communities needing “extra” resources; it’s a matter of funding schools enough to properly function. One teacher at Aldridge told us that her school only has a nurse one day per week. How are students dealing with ailments from pollutants (on top of the injuries and illnesses that come with being a child) supposed to get medical help at school? Aldridge has a social worker at the school three days a week — an improvement from her one day per week schedule last year — though much of her time is taken up by paperwork rather than working with students. How are students dealing with trauma from the stresses of their community supposed to handle their emotions in a healthy way?  The only special education teacher at the school has the legal maximum number of students legally allowed in her class. How can she attend to the individual needs of her students and help them grow at their own rates? Yet in the face of the egregious conditions CPS educators and students have to put up with, the picket line was lively and optimistic.

Though I was only there for three days, my experiences in Chicago had an outsized impact on me. From a young age, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. However, as I began to think about the cost of higher education, and following anecdotes from members of my family, I was pushed to believe that I was destined for something “greater” than teaching. This is why I began school with an engineering major, as if some job at a major corporation was more valuable than preparing the future and giving disadvantaged students a leg up in a world that systematically denies them opportunity. Through conversations with friends and learning more about the rank-and-file strategy, I realized how wrong those beliefs were. I realized that I want to do work that not only fulfills me, but also puts me in a position to effect change at a systemic level. Before standing with educators in Chicago, I was pretty sure that I would end up becoming a teacher. The strike destroyed any reservations I had. Now, I am certain that I will be a teacher, I will push my union to fight austerity, and I will always stand with fellow educators and workers in this struggle. Solidarity forever.

 

Labiba Chowdhury, CUNY City College YDSA

After spending only 3 days in Chicago, I still don’t think I fully understand the CTA train lines, but there is one thing I do understand: the working people of Chicago are a united force to be reckoned with. How could I not fall in love with Chicago as the city streets echoed with the demands for justice of public school workers, students, and their families? My heart leaped with excitement as I felt the energy of tens of thousands of people united in the streets and aware of the power that they hold when they withhold their labor collectively. 

Generally during my time in Chicago we spent our mornings at picket lines, then helped prepare meals and hand out food to strikers and students with Chicago DSA’s Bread for Ed, and finally at around noon we went to the rally in the Chicago Loop. As we marched along, we came across students leading chants and calling for change with an energy I had never seen before. These high school students stood with the confidence of experienced leadership. They have been on the front lines of organizing, searching for sources of healing for their communities.

We started talking, and conversation after conversation, my heart filled with joy. The determination, courage, and outstanding organizing journeys of these students reenergized my sleep deprived and burnt out body. 

We spoke with Diego Garcia and Aziz Hsouna from a charter school in the south side of Chicago. Diego and Aziz told us that their charter school teachers were not unionized, but they and other students came out to the rally and picket lines for their school staff and faculty who were not able to be present. They had already been organizing around issues that directly impact them and their community in the south side of Chicago: gun control, gang violence, and abolishing ICE. We listened to them as they spoke about the organizing that they had done: campaigning for former gang member and community organizer Berto Aguayo for alderman of Chicago’s 15th ward, anti-gun violence work with March For Our Lives, and anti-gun and anti-gang violence work with their own organization, Fuerte. Diego spoke about the disparity between the resources and funding provided for schools in the south side compared to the more affluent north side. They go to underfunded schools where they are treated like prisoners, but they know how to fight back. Diego and Aziz told us about how their school didn’t allow students to go to the bathroom unaccompanied, so they ran a successful campaign to overturn that policy. Though still in high school, these seasoned and talented organizers know the power of collective action.

We also spoke to many students who had never organized before, but were energized by the strike. A sophomore named Allen told us about how he came out to support his teachers because he knew that they were fighting for him. Talking to Allen and seeing him proudly holding a strike sign made it clear that this strike was in itself an educational experience for everyone involved. 

Out of the fifteen high school students we spoke with, every single one supported Bernie and was interested in getting involved with at least one of YDSA’s priority campaigns. After hearing from them about the kind of work they were interested in, we were left with a few questions about next steps. How can we support them in their organizing work? What can Chicago DSA do to support these student organizers? Our experience showed us that as an organization with the intention to build a mass, working class movement, we should work to draw in student organizers who are already doing amazing work. YDSA members become DSA members — it’s a natural pipeline for leadership. But to put it really simply, I want to support these amazing students because they’re all bringing positive change to their communities and deserve to be supported as they collectively organize their communities. Look at what they’ve accomplished organizing on their own, what would happen if we gave them the support of a national organization?

We talked to Chicago DSA leadership, and they agreed to appoint someone from their executive committee to act as a liaison to high school students, to help support them and connect them to DSA and YDSA organizing. YDSA is encouraging DSA chapters across the country to appoint a YDSA liaison amongst their leadership to coordinate with and support students interested in starting YDSA chapters. If you are in a YDSA chapter, reach out to the DSA chapter in your vicinity and ask them to appoint a liaison. If you are a member of a DSA chapter, reach out to your leadership about selecting a YDSA liaison. Chicago was only one example of the powerful moment we’re in, and shows how important it is for DSA and YDSA to canvass colleges and high schools across the country, connect with student leaders, and build YDSA chapters that will fuel the future of the socialist movement.