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All for One and One for All: Learning To Build a Social Justice Union

(Image: via Labor Notes)

How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers, a Labor Notes book written by Alexandra Bradbury, Mark Brenner, Jenny Brown, Jane Slaughter and Samantha Winslow, $15.00, 221pages.

According to Citizen Action Illinois, 20 percent of that state’s children presently attend privately run charter schools. While these schools certainly have supporters, critics are quick to point out their flaws: Charters are typically nonunion and cherry-pick the pupils they accept, often casting aside those with learning difficulties, physical or mental disabilities, or behavioral deficits. Critics further lament that the transition from public to private has happened with little opposition from the American Federation of Teachers or National Education Association, something they denounce as shockingly acquiescent.

But the era of union capitulation to management’s demands may be ebbing – thanks to the example of the Chicago Teachers Union [CTU]. Their militance – epitomized by a well-organized, nine-day strike in 2012 – has become a beacon for lackluster unions wishing to activate their members.

How to Jump-Start Your Union will likely become their Bible, an exegesis on what has gone right, and wrong, with the CTU’s efforts to improve schools and better working conditions for the more than 20,000 Chicago teachers, social workers and paraprofessionals who comprise its base. It’s an exciting book, part how-to guide and part inspiring social history.

At a time when unions – especially those representing teachers – are routinely castigated as selfish, the book serves as a potent antidote. As teacher Jen Johnson writes in the foreword, “Teachers unions are not merely protectionist organizations, but can be a progressive force for educational justice.”

The text begins by chronicling the creation of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators [CORE] in 2008. Johnson writes that the Caucus was an effort to inject new life into a moribund CTU. “We were on a mission to defend public education in Chicago,” she writes. Not only did CORE win leadership of the CTU in 2010, but the Caucus went on to lead the first teacher’s strike in Chicago in 25 years.

The strike, of course, has been CORE/CTU’s most visible achievement, but How to Jump-Start Your Union makes clear that this action did not spring up out of nowhere. Instead, it reflected four years of on-the-ground organizing, the hard work of constant meetings with school staff in every one of Chicago’s more than 600 schools. Union activists also participated in a raft of community struggles. For example, CTU joined a coalition that opposed tax giveaways to corporations and financial institutions, an issue that some CTU members initially saw as tangential to education. This was not the only contentious issue the CTU took up. In fact, leaders refused to shy away from topics previously considered divisive and were outspoken in branding segregation in Chicago public schools “educational apartheid.”

Although these stands made some CTU members leery of the union, Mayor Emmanuel’s verbal hostility toward teachers helped build resistance. “Rahm Emmanuel and his corporate friends had created the perfect formula to bring on a teachers’ strike,” the authors write. “By raking teachers over the coals and driving them out of a profession they loved; by closing schools year after year, replacing them with non-union charters that kicked kids out left and right; by shuffling students around the city in the midst of poverty and violence; by adding days to the school calendar for more standardized testing instead of richer instruction; and finally, by telling teachers they would have to work as many as six more weeks with no more pay.”

Despite these indignities, CTU’s leaders did not ram their ideas down members’ throats. Rather, they built support through active listening to the concerns of both the rank and file and the community. Open meetings, debates and discussions were a constant part of the CTU fabric. In public forum after public forum, the emphasis centered on kids – and the education they deserved. The harms caused by increasing class size and slashing funding for art, music, theater and sports programs were continually addressed.

Not surprisingly, these pro-student sentiments led once-skeptical parents and neighborhood activists to support the union. Later, when bread-and-butter issues impacting CTU members came into focus, it was a no-brainer for the community to support the workers’ demands for a decent salary and benefits. After the September 2012 strike began, the authors write, parents and teachers found themselves” fighting side by side on issues the groups were passionate about: smaller classes, more resources for schools, over-testing and racial equity.”

Call it community organizing 101. With that in mind, How to Jump-Start Your Union doesn’t shy away from discussing CTU’s many mistakes and gives readers a clear heads up on potential pitfalls and trouble spots. One of CTU’s biggest gaffes involved its misguided support for SB7, legislation introduced in the spring of 2011. The bill included provisions allowing the state to “make unilateral changes to teachers’ working conditions that previously would have been negotiated.” Among them, each district could impose a longer work day. “Layoffs, previously based on seniority within the school unit, would now be based partly on evaluations, eroding seniority. Evaluations would determine whether teachers got tenure,” the book reports. Even more outrageous, SB7 required 75 percent of CTU members to authorize a strike.

That the CTU and other unions gave a thumbs-up to this antiworker bill left most progressives – and many CTU members – shaking their heads. Teachers Union president Karen Lewis subsequently admitted that she learned an important lesson from this error: “Don’t let legislators isolate you in the pressure cooker atmosphere of the capital. Insist on bringing big decisions back to the members.”

It was a lesson well learned and part of the CTU’s success in activating the membership – 90 percent of whom voted for the strike, while just 15 individuals scabbed – can be attributed to this principle. Even when a new contract had been hammered out by the negotiating team, CTU leaders supported the decision to continue the strike for two more days to give members time to meet and discuss the document.

Unlike more top-down and bureaucratic unions, CTU/CORE understands that the union’s power rests with dues payers. It’s their union – and they know it.

Lastly, How to Jump-Start Your Union emphasizes that the CTU sees itself as an integral part of the larger social justice movement. As the authors notes: “CTU has exposed, if not stopped, the shadowy corporate interests invested in privatizing and monetizing public education – The American Legislative Exchange Council [ALEC], the hedge funds, Democrats for Education Reform – and the corporate self-interest behind self-styled do-gooders like Stand for Children.”

These virulent enemies of public education have limited CTU’s ability to win the ongoing fight for educational equity. Indeed, despite winning a decent contract for its members, the CTU has been unable to stop public schools from closing and being replaced by charters. That fight, in cities across the country, is part of a larger battle against the wholesale privatization of once-public resources.

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