Two Futures: The Strikes at General Motors and at Chicago’s Schools

Rehmah Sufi,
J Turk,
an IMHO member

Summary: The 2019 strike wave in the U.S. may surpass 2018. Strikes by autoworkers at General Motors and by teachers and support staff in Chicago schools show us that the future of work and of our communities is at stake — Editors

When United Autoworkers members returned to work on Oct. 16, their futures were hardly brighter after six weeks on strike. Disappointment was reflected in the narrow margin ratifying the agreement on Oct. 26. Forty-three percent of voting UAW members rejected it.

A thicket of job tiers, which classify workers according to date of employment and level of compensation, was not cleared. People hired within the past 12 years, in Tier Two, will reach wage parity with higher seniority workers – in four years – but they will not achieve a pension or health care insurance in retirement.  The classifications of skilled trades remain flattened to two – mechanical and electrical – and possibly still outsourced in others. And the temporary employees before the strike have been reclassified as entry-level, replenishing Tier Two. They, however, will be replaced by new temps who will earn under $17 per hour, do without benefits,  and can climb into permanent status by working every day for three years.

On picket lines, concern rather than resentment had been easy to hear for the precarious status of lower tiered and temporary fellow autoworkers. But that solidarity could not face down what remains – a way for General Motors to skim unpaid hours of labor off of the aggregate workforce. Not surprisingly, no recent factory closings were reversed and one plant, the Detroit-Hamtramck facility, was set aside for the transition to electric vehicles. (Seven hundred workers at one location, GM’s Oshawa, Ontario Assembly plant, had staged a wildcat sit-down strike in January against the company and do-nothing union officials.) Overhanging the strike was the diminishing GM workforce under UAW contract, which has fallen from 470,000 in 1970 to today’s 45,000.

The decline is rooted in the decades-long failure of the UAW and the U.S. labor union bureaucracy overall to organize the South and a deluge of automated processes. (See “GM strikers push beyond fairness.”) These impacts mean that a different kind of fight will have to address a fact of capitalist production. Wherever in the world that fewer workers, lower wages, and automated lines prevail in making a car, all other assembly lines must run as fast (or faster) and managers must try to suppress wages. And the inescapable result of reducing the proportion of living labor in relation to “labor-saving” processes is a tendency of the rate of profit to fall, leading to more redundancies or else hell for those still on the job. Resistance is also assured, as the autoworkers confirmed.


Chicago teachers and staff fight for community

Accompanying this tendency is a reduction in the amount of wealth available for social needs — or austerity. It was Chicago teachers and support staff who challenged austerity in a 11-day strike, which ended October 31. The strike by the 25,000 members of Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) Local 1 and 7,500 members of Service Employee International Union (SEIU) Local 73 embraced social development of the community, not just better wages and benefits for the educational providers. Teachers won more manageable class sizes, as well social workers and nurses in every school plus much greater resources to be devoted to special and bilingual education. Also the CTU exercised the right to strike over such non-economic issues, normally prohibited as a basis for striking. But elementary school teachers did not win 30 minutes of morning preparation time. And all teachers – and the students — must live with the terms of the agreement for five-years instead of a more normal three.

In a citywide union solidarity rally Oct. 26, several speakers talked about an emergent community fighting for the future. Roxanna Gonzalez, an elementary school teacher and member of the CTU Latinx caucus (and adorned for Día de los muertos) explained: ” One of big issues we are fighting for is bilingual education. Bilingual education is of utmost importance because 50 percent of all Chicago Public School (CPS) students are Latino. And 20 percent of all CPS students are English language learners. When we win this language in our contract, it will be first time ever in a CPS and CTU contact that there is language to protect staffing and services that our students need.”

Evelyn Davis-West, a Special Education Classroom Assistant (SECA) and member of SEIU, is not unlike other support staff who are mostly Black or Brown and are chronically underpaid, with half earning less than $35,000 per year. She declared, “I am that person who’s there when a kid is most vulnerable — the one with various disabilities, the one there who needs us to give them that hug — to wipe those tears, and help them with that transitioning through and from school” She continued, “We’re standing tall for all — all my SECAs, my bus aides, my bus monitors, my CPS custodians, my security guards, my parent workers.” She concluded, “Mayor Lightfoot. Get on the right foot, right now, because we’re sick and tired of being sick and tired…. Brothers and sisters, I’m standing tall for all. I know time is getting weary. We’ve been standing out and we’re on this battle field. And this is real. We are on a battlefield because we’re fighting for our livelihoods. We’re fighting for our families to have more. And there is money. So Mayor Lightfoot stop it. Beep beep, toot toot, turn loose the loot — right now!”


Inspired by teachers and school staff

Other public employees are already drawing inspiration from the CPS strike. Tracey Abman of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31 said that thousands of members in her union work for the City of Chicago. She declared, “Thousands more live here and work for Cook County, state government, city colleges, state universities, and non-profits…. Your neighborhoods are our neighborhoods. Your students are our children and grandchildren. The kids you teach and support in Chicago Public Schools are the same kids AFSCME members serve in the Chicago Public Libraries, the same kids we protect at the DCFS [Department of Children and Family Services], the same kids we provide with WIC and SNAP [both supplemental nutritional programs] benefits at DHS, the same families that support all other public service work that AFSCME members do. So like you, our public service members know firsthand how critical staffing and resources are to provide adequate services to those we care for.”

She drove home a common theme in the rally: “Your struggle has already made a difference in the lives of Chicagoans by using your powerful voice to put the issue of equity and fairness for every neighborhood front and center. In fact, we too are fighting the mayor who is seeking to   further privatize our city’s mental health clinics. We believe like you that these services need to be available in every community in Chicago.” The point was poignant because former Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed community mental health clinics and was also responsible for closing dozens of neighborhood schools over fierce protests.

A teacher from Passages Charter School was delighted to report that after striking for four days, teachers there won a first contract — the day before the rally. That contract supports special education needs and includes protections for immigrant children as well as a needed pay raise. She said that when the operator of Passages was going to hold a fundraising gala, the strikers were going to confront donors with the conditions in the school. They settled the next day.


On the picket lines

During the strike, CPS made robocalls and left parents messages that they could send their kids to school if they needed to because school administration would be there and would feed the kids breakfast and lunch. Teachers, knowing parents have it rough, did not discourage kids showing up. In fact, at schools across the city, groups of parents organized food and coffee drop-offs. Transit workers were able to mobilize more support from the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) leadership for the teachers’ strike this time around, compared to the 2012 teachers strike. The president of ATU Local 241 announced that bus drivers should let strikers in red (the CTU color) and purple (SEIU) ride free of charge. Teamster Union drivers refused to cross picket lines at school (just like they did at GM facilities during the UAW strike).

It was with a sense of solidarity, common in all the recent U.S. teachers strikes, that a special education teacher at a northside elementary school said she was in touch with someone in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which was on strike earlier this year. Even after a strike there, compensation for special ed teachers in LA, with comparable training and years of service, was ten thousand dollars less than in the Chicago schools. But they won a cap on class sizes and adding full-time school nurses and librarians.

A staff worker at Volta Elementary said that she arrived here as a refugee. She saw the strike as the opportunity to support students in the way that people supported her when she was struggling. It was a very powerful sentiment and represented the huge amount of political consciousness manifested during this strike.

One teacher said the support they received from the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Alderwoman, Rossana Rodriguez, was worlds better than the problems they encountered when they struck in 2012 and when the Democratic Party machine Alderman, Richard Mell, was running the ward where her school is located.


Coming to a community near you – a strike

The 2018 strike wave may be surpassed by the one this year. Besides the Chicago teachers and GM autoworkers, teachers struck in school districts in Mendota and Addison, Illinois; in Dedham, Massachusetts; and in Berkeley, California (the latter a wildcat strike). Others on strike this year include sanitation workers at Republic Services in Marsfield, Massachusetts and Evansville, Indiana; bus drivers in northern Virginia; copper workers for ASARCO in Arizona; Battery Wharf hospitality workers in Boston; Santa Clara County, California service workers; Burgerville fast food workers in Oregon, and assemblers at Mack Truck. Teaching assistants in Decatur, Illinois; Kaiser Permanente mental health clinicians, and the Little Rock, Arkansas teachers are poised to strike as well.

Yet decades of anti-labor laws, pro-corporate policies, an end to the welfare state, and a labor union bureaucracy unwilling to wage class war have pulled ever inward the boundaries of what’s possible for U.S. workers. In these realities are reflected the mass of workers who cannot bargain collectively, very real under- and unemployment, and a painfully restricted range political options. These limitations weigh heavily on GM workers and such limits are being challenged by the Chicago teachers and school staff. When the unorganized and the currently organized rise, they will also redefine unions or create new associations to overcome those limitations.


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