Striking teachers march to East St. Louis School District 189 offices

Starting at 10 a.m. Friday, a crowd of teachers, parents, students and other supporters of Union Local 1220 marched from East St. Louis Senior High School to the District 189 office at 10th and State Street.

They chanted loud and long, “You want work. Fix our contract.”

“When do we want it?” the leader on the bull horn shouted. “Now,” came the lion-like roar from the crowd.

Some in the crowd carried African drums that set the beat for marchers as they stepped one foot in front of the other and pounded the pavement as they marched. As they did, they called on district officials to end the strike and give them what they want.

Motorists laid on their horns in support of the teachers. Some pulled over to watch the crowd as it made its way to the district office, where administrators sat inside. No one came out of the district building. And union members stayed off of the school’s parking lot. But, in front of the building they stopped and, at the top of their voices, they collectively denounced the district’s silence and what they called unwillingness to negotiate fairly and equitably.

Martha Young, a former parent and grandmother with children in the district, believes the district has the money to give the teachers what they’re asking for. Initially, Young believed the contract was decent and she supported the district’s position. But after she looked closer, “percentage wise, it is unfair,” she said

“The union wants everybody to get the same amount. Some get 1 percent. Some 2 percent and some get 3 percent,” Young said.

She said she worked for the government, and it took her 18 years to get to the top of her pay grade. Young said she believes the stalemate between the union and the district will go on until “parents say enough is enough.”

“When parents say it’s time for our babies to get back in school, the union and the district will get back to the table and negotiate until it gets worked out,” Young said.

And Young said the district amassed its fund balance by not giving the teachers raises for the four-plus years they have not had a contract.

“You’ve got to give them the money. Yes, I think they have the money,” Young said.

Young said she is surprised pastors and community leaders have not come out to assist. She wants the pastors to get involved.

District 189 Superintendent Arthur Culver last met with Union local 1220 leaders Thursday afternoon for one hour. He emerged from that meeting to say there was no deal.

No new negotiations were scheduled Monday. Teachers were expected to meet with a representative of the American Federation of Teachers.

Dave Comerford, spokesman for Illinois Federation of teachers, said there was no deal because the district refused to budge from where they have been since the strike started. Culver said he had no more money to put on the table. And, both sides said the children are the No. 1 priority. They called on each other to get the students back in school.

Culver said he is “anxious and willing to get back to the table and discuss what it will take to settle the contract dispute on a 21-step scale.”

Comerford said there has been no movement from the district, and the union has not reached out again to schedule a meeting.

“Nothing’s changed,” he said. “Students cannot return to school until the strike ends. When will it end?”

Culver confirmed that this month, 21 students have transferred out of the district. But, he said he is not sure that all of the transfers are a result of the strike. Culver said every year some students transfer. Next week, district officials will look at the transfers and compare them to last year at this time, he said.

City Manager Alvin Parks was confronted by some of the striking teachers and a former Union Local 1220 member, who is standing with the teachers. They walked into City Hall carrying their signs, announcing they were on strike against the district and denouncing the district’s refusal to grant them the contract they feel they deserve.

Afterward, Parks said, “I can’t tell you how much of a negative the strike has on the entire community. Kids are running in and out of stores and, in some cases, are not doing the right thing. I pray and hope for all of the teachers at the district, the administration and anybody whose not a teacher who’s affiliated with the union, that everybody can come together and stay together until the situation is resolved.”

Recalling a strike in the district in 1970 when he was a fourth grader at Dunbar Elementary, Parks said, “They were out for two months. It was the worst school year of my life. I knew I was supposed to be in school doing the things I needed to do. I got behind.”

Parks said children need structure.

“They need constant reinforcement of academics and guidelines. When you are not getting it, you are being crippled,” he said.

Asked whether he felt the strike would end soon, Parks said, “It appears they are not close, which tells me there’s a major miscommunication or lack of communication taking place. I just want everybody to come together and iron it out, don’t get up from the table until they get something that everybody can reasonably be happy with.”

Parks, when prodded for his feelings about students transferring out of the district, said, “It’s not just the students transferring, it’s families choosing to relocate as a result of what’s now two weeks and a day, and we can’t afford to lose anybody else.”

He said the crux of it is the district is trying to be fiscally responsible and appreciative of the teachers by compensating them. They are the first line of communication with the students.

“That’s where I say come together . Stay together,” Parks said.

Jerreka Beck, a parent in the district said, “I don’t understand the district. It’s ridiculous. I love my teachers. They need to put the kids back in school. It’s affecting them. It’s about their education. This is frustrating. It makes no sense”.

Beck said she believes the district can afford the contract the teachers want.

“They need to pull it out of their pockets and pay them,” she said.