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Learn From the Teachers: Chicago Strike Showed What a Union Is For

The sight of tens of thousands of striking teachers marching through the streets of Chicago in September 2012 was a much-needed shot in the arm for a sagging labor movement.

The sight of tens of thousands of striking teachers marching through the streets of Chicago in September 2012 was a much-needed shot in the arm for a sagging labor movement.

For more than a week, the Chicago Teachers Union went toe to toe with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city’s political and financial elites – fighting them to a draw at the bargaining table and besting them handily in the battle for the city’s hearts and minds.

In perhaps the most impressive strike since the UPS walkout in 1997, Chicago’s educators demonstrated that the strike is still labor’s most powerful weapon.

In the process, CTU upended the conventional wisdom that public employees and taxpayers are inevitably at odds. The teachers branded Chicago’s public schools “educational apartheid” and talked openly about the racial inequalities built into the mayor’s plan – proving that unions can tackle thorny social issues head on and still win support from both members and the public.

A Different Kind of Union

Just as important, the CTU experience showed how a run-of-the-mill union can be transformed with the right combination of rank-and-file organizing, tireless work, and confidence in democracy.

CTU’s leaders took office in 2010, swept into power by an energetic reform movement, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators.

For years before they were elected, CORE activists had led by example – organizing teachers to fight school closings, pushing back on punitive policies, and working side by side with parents and community organizations.

This book tells how these activists transformed their union from the bottom up, and built to a strike that was about more than bread and butter.

A How-To Handbook

For anyone inspired by that kind of organizing, How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers (Labor Notes, 2014) is a quick read that gets the blood flowing. For those in the trenches themselves, it can be used as a handbook. It’s a manual that shows “how they did it” so that anyone can figure out “how to do it” in their own union or workplace.

CTU’s organizing model is revealed in detail. Chapters 3 and 4 show how the CORE caucus was forged in battles against school closures, and how it ran for office and won.

Chapter 5 details the painstaking work of building the union back up at the grassroots, in each school: how the union reorganized itself internally to get more members into action. Chapter 6 describes working with community organizations, and Chapter 7 tells the lessons learned from fighting on many fronts at once in the two years before the strike. In these fights the union used jiu-jitsu to turn the attacks on teachers back onto the 1%.

Chapter 8 describes the year-long contract campaign that preceded the strike, including the strike vote and practice strike vote, and Chapter 9 shows the astonishing self-organization that members – and parents – carried on during the strike itself.

Chapter 10 tells what CTU gained and lost in the contract. Chapter 11 describes how CTU ran with its victory to keep momentum in the year after the strike. Essential lessons are recapped at the end of each chapter.

A final chapter surveys the national landscape of “education reform,” making clear why billionaires and politicians are so keen to attack educators.

One public sector union leader said, “Once again, Labor Notes publishes a book that is dangerous to both management and status quo unionists. The power of public sector unionism stems from our ability to be the voice that advocates directly both for democracy and for the consumers of services. In this book we learn how grassroots organizers used this singular role to revolutionize their own union.” – Hetty Rosenstein, New Jersey State Director, Communications Workers

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