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Chicago Public Schools Thu Sep 27 2012
By Dick Simpson
Last week began with the Jewish New Year, Constitution Day and a continuing teacher's strike at the Chicago Public Schools.
Rosh Hashanah celebrates a new beginning and new opportunities. It comes at the beginning of the school year as well — a chance to learn new things for millions of students.
Usually, we overlook Constitution Day, which was Monday, Sept. 17. At the University of Illinois at Chicago this year we celebrated it with a discussion of the First Amendment to the US Constitution by Loyola Law Professor George Anastaplo and the kickoff of a campaign to register hundreds of college students to vote in this year's election.
The First Amendment, on which we focused at UIC's Constitution Day, states in part: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
This last week provided a powerful example of the right to assemble and redress grievances. While the teacher's strike created problems of what to do with our kids who were not in school and while it disrupted traffic and everyday routines, it also aired important questions about the conditions of our schools and what should be done. Are teachers being fairly paid or paid too much? Are there enough social workers to help troubled students? Should we have a longer school day and school year? Are we only teaching to the test? How should teachers be evaluated and rewarded? How can the schools be air conditioned for the longer school year? How many schools will close and what will be the effect?
Mayor Rahm Emanuel said of the originally proposed settlement, "This tentative framework is an honest and principled compromise that is about who we all work for: Our students." But then Sunday, when the teachers didn't vote immediately to accept the contract, he decided to go to court to force them back to the classroom.
There are, of course, winners and losers in the school battle. Because the strike stayed short and ended with a compromise settlement, we all won: The teachers, the schools system, the parents, and the citizens. If had gone longer, the teachers would have lost public support.
As it is, teachers were the biggest winners. They got a substantial raise over time. They got to give voice to their grievances such as overheated schools and lack of necessary resources — books, air conditioning, social workers. They achieved unity among themselves and received the majority of support from the public.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel lost power because he didn't prevent the strike from occurring or settle it by bringing all parties to his office and forcing a compromise as either Mayor Daley had done. Teachers proved that groups can oppose Mayor Emanuel and win even when he threatened law suits and court orders. And Rahm unified labor opposition, which may hurt him in negotiations with the police and firefighters over their contracts and in his reelection in 2015.
Yet Mayor Emanuel retained most of his power, including his iron control over the rubber stamp city council. The mayor and the school board will now be faced with difficult budget cuts needed to meet the costs of the settlement.
The biggest lesson of the week is that unions are not dead nor do they need to be suppressed as they have been in Wisconsin. The right to assemble includes the right to organize.
Thus, it is the beginning of a good new year in which we begin with a reaffirmation of our First Amendment rights. And perhaps, with reflection on what these mean for us in practice.
This column originally appeared in The Chicago Journal.