Chicago Teachers Union school closures, strikes hold back K-12 chess champs

Chicago Teachers Union school closures, strikes hold back K-12 chess champs

Students on Joe Ocol’s chess teams already face life challenges, but the Chicago Teachers Union adds to them by repeatedly threatening their historic successes. Voters face a choice Nov. 8 to either strengthen union militancy or put students first.

The students on Joe Ocol chess team are once again winners at a national level, despite poverty, family struggles and the Chicago Teachers Union.

Students at Ella Flagg Young Elementary School are twice as likely as their peers statewide to be homeless, at 5%, and from low-income homes, at 98%. Some chess team members come from single-parent households or are in foster care.

But they are the only students from Chicago Public Schools to qualify for the prestigious Chess in the Schools Tournament in New York City, where they placed second in May.

Students at Ella Flagg and across CPS have faced additional hurdles in recent years from Chicago Teachers Union strikes, pandemic work stoppages and refusals to teach kids in person. The union has kept chess team members home from school and chess practice.

When CTU held a last-minute walkout on Jan. 5, Ella Flagg math teacher and chess coach Joe Ocol attended school anyway so his kids could practice.

“While it’s good to get salary increases or additional perks, why did they have to make the kids suffer for that? Why leave the classroom, go to the picket line and neglect the students with no teacher? There’s no point being a teacher if there’s no students, and if you’re not teaching, why be with the union?” Ocol said.

The walkout cost students five days and was the CTU’s third work stoppage in less than three years. The dispute was over COVID-19 testing and remote learning, although Chicago’s top health official and other large city schools saw no need to suspend in-person learning.

“There are other ways to bargain. You don’t dangle the plight of the kids in a fight where kids and parents have to suffer,” Ocol said.

It wasn’t the first time CTU got in the way of the young chess champions. When CTU held its 2016 strike, one week before Chess Nationals, Ocol chose to cross the picket line to coach his chess team at Earle STEM Academy.

“It is my duty to be with my kids. I joined CPS as a teacher, not as a union member. So, my role first and foremost is to be a teacher, to be with my students inside my classroom,” Ocol said. “My loyalty to the union ends where my commitment to the students begins.”

Ocol was expelled from the Chicago Teachers Union, but his team went on to win the all-girl national title against 64 schools. Ocol and the Earle STEM academy team met President Obama, had their success archived in the congressional record and received recognition from Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Then, CTU’s 2019 walkout canceled a district-wide match against other CPS students. Ocol still chose to be in the classroom.

Now, Ocol has joined CPS teachers and parents to stop a union power grab which would allow unions to keep kids out of school over virtually anything. Billed as a “Worker’s Rights Amendment,” Amendment 1 would grant government unions unprecedented bargaining powers as a “fundamental right,” including the powers to strike over virtually anything and to override voters and state lawmakers.

Amendment 1 would place four provisions into the Illinois Constitution that together would severely weaken taxpayers’ voices in state government and make it easier for government union bosses to make unaffordable demands in collective bargaining contracts that would trump state laws.

Ocol and the plaintiffs argue Amendment 1 attempts to usurp federal labor relations law, which makes it unconstitutional.

“The union has played too much politics. Students and parents have to suffer due to these political games. I believe that the union’s unbridled use of its power needs to be checked. This is one reason I joined the lawsuit against Amendment 1,” Ocol said.

Teachers’ unions in Illinois have already threatened to strike 164 times, then actually taken to the picket lines 48 times in the past 10 years, according to annual reports filed by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.

Bargaining under Amendment 1 would be expanded beyond just wages, hours and working conditions to include broad new subjects, including public policy decisions. It would strengthen CTU’s militancy and ability to make demands regarding its social agenda on housing, immigration, “restorative justice,” wealth redistribution and defunding the police. Lawmakers and local leaders would be virtually powerless to stop these demands.

“The people using the union — for their own political gain — are the problem,” Ocol said. “The Chicago Teachers Union has become too powerful, and it is becoming even more powerful. I fear that if Amendment 1 passes, the union will have limitless power.”

Ocol won’t let CTU come between him and his students. Voters on Nov. 8 must decide whether to stand with Ocol and his future chess champions or with union bosses.

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