By Lee Sustar
It’s time to take stock of the significance of Chicago teachers’ strike that beat back corporate education reform–not just for teachers and other public-sector workers, but the wider labor movement.
But before considering its impact in on future fights, let’s take another moment to savor a labor victory in one of the most important union struggles in many years.
There was the unforgettable Day One, when tens of thousands of red-shirted members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and supporters swarmed downtown, shutting down traffic around the Board of Education headquarters and City Hall in what a local radio news reporter aptly called “an older and more polite version of Occupy Chicago.”
In truth, it wasn’t all that polite, either, if you happened to read the handmade placards and hear the chants directed at Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who began targeting Chicago teachers months before he took office.
Then Day Two–another day, another mass march. After picket duty at schools in every neighborhood of the city in the morning, teachers again swept downtown, this time turning stately Buckingham Fountain on the lakefront into the site of an open-air union rally that conjured the spirit of famous Chicago labor battles of the past.
The following day came the three big demonstrations at high schools on the South and West Sides, in neighborhoods populated predominately by African Americans and Latinos. The hot late-summer sun didn’t deter teachers or neighborhood residents who cheered them on.
And the excitement wasn’t limited to the big protests. Anyone who walked the picket lines at neighborhood schools experienced not just the impressive solidarity among teachers, but the groundswell of support for the CTU among parents and the wider community. Those wearing a red T-shirt from the CTU or the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign were routinely stopped and thanked on the street, while getting friendly honks and waves from passing cars.
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THE MORE support grew for the teachers, the more Rahm Emanuel unraveled.
The man known for his take-no-prisoners approach to politics did his best to whip up a parent backlash with hour-long press conferences during the opening days of the strike. It didn’t work. Sweaty and compulsively gulping from a plastic water bottle, Emanuel’s insulting comments seemed only to inspire more public support for the CTU.
By the time the mayor sought a court injunction to end the strike as the walkout entered its second week, a judge put a finger to the political winds and decided not to act until CTU delegates could meet and discuss the deal.
The details of the agreement have been reported fully elsewhere. But it bears repeating that business publications like the Wall Street Journal are clear about who won this battle: The CTU, not Emanuel.
As White House chief of staff for Barack Obama, Emanuel helped accelerate school deform through the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program. From the moment he opened his campaign to become mayor, Emanuel made it clear that he intended to run Chicago schools on the corporate model–and Chicago teachers would have to submit or else.
But the CTU refused to roll over for Rahm. The union began organizing for a confrontation long before negotiations began, much less picket signs were printed.
When Emanuel and his handpicked school board targeted 17 schools for closure or “turnaround” earlier this year, the CTU joined parents and community activists in a grassroots mobilization to save the schools. This helped solidify connections with groups that could provide critical support during the walkout. Meanwhile, the union leadership–members of a rank-and-file opposition caucus who defeated old guard officials in 2010–campaigned systematically to involve members throughout the system.
All this paid off in a contract that held the line against Emanuel’s aggressive demands. While the CTU had to take a painful concession in reduced compensation for laid-off teachers, the mayor failed to make a breakthrough on the issues that were most important to him, such as imposition of merit pay, heavier use of student test scores to evaluate teachers and fast-track terminations of teachers with low ratings.
Emanuel also had to agree that half of new teachers hired anywhere in the system would have to come from a pool of laid-off CTU members–something he’d adamantly and repeatedly opposed. Then there’s the fine print of the contract that gives the CTU new leverage in key areas, including an anti-bullying provision to help members stand up to abusive principals.
Those are not only big wins for the CTU, but for teachers everywhere who are opposed to their unions’ retreats on critical questions.
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THE LESSONS of the Chicago teachers’ strike apply to the labor movement far beyond one city and one occupation. Here’s a list of some of the main ones:
If you fight, you can win. In the fifth year of a depressed economy, union concessions have become routine. Whether the bosses are budget-strapped state and local governments or profitable corporations like Caterpillar and Verizon, workers are being hammered with pay freezes or outright cuts, reduced pensions and higher health care costs.
Chicago teachers showed us a different way. Striking doesn’t automatically guarantee a victory, of course–the International Association of Machinists were recently defeated in a six-week walkout at Caterpillar. But failing to fight back only guarantees a further retreat.
Union members must not only be mobilized, but organized. In the last 20 years or so, the “mobilization model” of unionism has become the norm for progressive labor organizations. Holding big protests and building alliances with community and social movement groups have become fairly common tactics for many unions.
But there’s a difference between sending busloads of workers in matching t-shirts to a protest and a systematic effort to build organization inside and outside the workplace. The CTU’s internal organizing operation was directed at making the union a responsive and effective organization at every school site–and when it was time to hit the picket lines, the effort paid off.
Social movement unionism is essential, especially in the public sector. Since the mid-1990s, once-insular unions have been more likely to engage with community and faith organizations and various social struggles. Labor’s support for the Occupy Wall Street movement last fall was another important step in that direction.
But the CTU has gone much further. The group that leads the union, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), took up the fight against school closures years before they won office, and that that work continued afterward. While the fight to save the 17 schools earlier this year failed, the union deepened its ties to community groups opposed to the closures–and those organizations supported the CTU at contract time. Crucially, the CTU spelled out its alternative vision for public education in Chicago in a document titled “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve” that called for full funding, smaller class sizes, and an enriched curriculum.
Local unions don’t have to accept concessions pushed by national union leaders. By opposing merit pay and defending tenure rights, the CTU stood firm where its national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), has retreated.
Negotiations in Chicago began with negotiators for the school district pushing a copy of the New Haven, Conn., teachers’ collective bargaining agreement–a so-called “thin contract” that strips away teachers’ job protections won over decades. AFT President Randi Weingarten was personally involved in negotiating that deal in New Haven, which she called a “model or a template.” The CTU said no–and used the strike weapon to hold the line.
Public-sector unions don’t have to accept givebacks just because Democratic politicians demand them. Democratic Govs. Jerry Brown of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York have both extracted major concessions on pay and benefits from public-sector unions. Labor leaders went along, arguing that it’s better to make some sacrifices than have someone like Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker trying to eliminate collective bargaining rights altogether.
The CTU said no way–and by doing so exposed the fact that Democrats are just as committed as Republicans to attacking teachers’ unions in the name of “reform.”
Public-sector unions can lead the wider working class in the fight against austerity. Ever since Scott Walker packaged his union-busting bill as budget reform, Republican and Democratic officials alike have claimed they had to squeeze unions to benefit the taxpayers.
The CTU strike turned that argument on its head, winning popular support by arguing that the real problem was the city’s priorities of tax cuts for business, instead of money for education. To withstand the current onslaught, public-sector unions everywhere will need to follow the CTU’s example and point out how the services they provide benefit the entire working class.
Union democracy is essential to rebuilding a fighting labor movement. Like most unions, the CTU invests enormous formal power in its president. But the CORE team that leads the union sought, from the beginning, to maximize union democracy. The union’s executive board, a rubber stamp when the conservative old guard ran the union, has come alive. House of Delegates meetings are lively forums for debate and discussion of union policy.
CTU delegates made the decision to extend the strike into a second week in order to have time to discuss a tentative contract agreement with members at each school site. Over the next two days, delegates at hundreds of schools conducted open-air meetings to discuss the pros and cons of the deal. It was a lesson in union democracy that should be learned throughout the labor movement.
To be effective, strikes need to shut down operations and put pressure on the boss. The CTU stunned Rahm Emanuel by abandoning the old practice of rotating two-hour shifts of all-day picketing at empty school buildings. Instead, the CTU’s constant mass rallies reinforced a sense of solidarity among members and galvanized community support.
Of course, striking teachers don’t face the same possibility of permanent replacement and threats from strikebreaking security firms that factory workers do. Still, the CTU strike can be an example for unions in any industry: Mass pickets and solidarity can exert pressure on the employer–and the greater the solidarity, the less the risk that scabbing operations or court injunctions will succeed.
The list of lessons of the CTU strike could go on and on. But for a labor movement starved of success for so long, that’s an excellent start.
This article originally appeared in Socialistworker.org