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Modeling the Education They Want To Be: The Great Chicago Teachers Union Transformation
(Book cover via Verso Books)

Modeling the Education They Want To Be: The Great Chicago Teachers Union Transformation

(Book cover via Verso Books)

Micah Uetricht’s “Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity” relates the stirring transformation of the Chicago Teachers Union into a democratically organized force for social justice.

According to labor journalist Micah Uetricht, it’s high time for trade unions in the United States to decide whether they want to wither away and follow a “business unionism” model of concessions and shrinkage, or follow “social movement unionism,” a bottom-up, democratic organizing strategy that is aligned with social justice movements throughout the country.

The Chicago Teacher’s Union [CTU], Uetricht writes in his book, Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity, is a prime example of the latter, a feisty, transparent, activist-led group that is willing to fight the good fight and challenge the entrenched attitudes that have made unions irrelevant to far too many workers. Uetricht makes clear that the CTU was not always a beacon and charts the union’s transition from a staid, top-down organization to one that engages teachers, paraprofessionals, students and neighborhood residents in community betterment efforts throughout Chicago.

The shift, he writes, began in 2010, when a slate of teachers calling themselves the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators [CORE] took the reins of the 26,000 member CTU from CORE’s predecessors, the United Progressive Caucus. “By 2010, the UPC leadership had atrophied,” Uetricht explains, and was cowering in the face of school closures, the growth of nonunion charter schools, and the Renaissance 2010 “free market education reforms” championed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and supported by US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Not so, CORE. Its slogan – a union that actually fights for its members – proved early on that it was willing and ready to challenge authority. “They held multiple forums on cuts to public education. They built relationships with community organizations fighting school closures. They held a study group on Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, which argues that neoliberal reform is pushed by elites during times of crisis, when the population is disoriented,” Uetricht reports.

By late 2008, shortly after its founding, CORE began organizing teachers in schools that were slated for shuttering. Then, in January 2009, it sponsored a massive public forum on education reform that drew 500 people, including hundreds of educators. It quickly became apparent that the audience wanted to do something concrete and, in conjunction with a parent group called GEM, The Grassroots Education Movement, CORE activists began planning a visible pushback, taking to the streets and voicing their outrage in newspapers, over the airwaves, and through social media. By May 2010, a CTU election resulted in a CORE victory, with Karen Lewis at the helm.

The improvement in teacher morale was immediate. “In the past,” Uetricht writes, “the union had operated under a servicing model, where the union’s staff handled whatever problems teachers faced in the classroom or with an administrator; if the teacher had no problems, interaction with union staff was unlikely. Now, teachers themselves were going to be carrying out the union’s broad agenda for educational justice.”

CORE quickly allocated the resources needed to create a CTU organizing department, something that had never before existed. What’s more, the new regime slashed the salaries of union staffers so that what they earned was in step with teachers’ pay. In addition, they created a summer program that trained activist teachers to organize their peers. Contract Committees were formed in every school to ensure grassroots input and provide a ready conduit for information sharing with cafeteria and maintenance workers, who were not part of the CTU. Finally, the union decided to take on more than bread-and-butter issues. “The union made publicly funded corporate subsidies, most notably through the city’s Tax Incremental Financing [TIF] system, a major issue and worked alongside community groups and other unions to expand the CTU’s organizing to include the issue of austerity for poor neighborhoods of color throughout the city,” Uetricht notes.

Slowly but surely, he adds, the nearly-moribund CTU of the early 2000s was becoming invigorated. This was tested, however, when the Emmanuel administration laid off 1,500 teachers, and the Illinois legislature passed SB7, a bill that required a strike authorization threshold of 75 percent and limited the issues over which a union could refuse to work.

Nonetheless, by September 2012, things had reached a breaking point and the city’s refusal to offer CTU members a decent contract was the last straw. Despite SB7, the union stunned city and state officials by taking a strike vote that resulted in more than 90 percent of the membership agreeing that it was time to walk off the job. It was the first teacher strike in Chicago in 25 years.

“The entire city felt transformed,” Uetricht writes. “Teachers were engaged in highly visible, militant, mass action, and there was a widespread sense throughout the city of the legitimacy and necessity of such action – for educators and for other workers . . . The union held mass rallies nearly every day with tens of thousands of teachers and their supporters . . . Teachers began organizing actions themselves, independent of the CTU leadership. No union staffers planned the small marches on the mayor’s house during the strike; teachers planned these themselves.”

This had an enormous impact on union activists because the ability to do what they felt was necessary – without having to jump through bureaucratic approval hoops – gave the members a sense of CTU ownership. Eight days later, when a tentative contract settlement was reached, they voted to extend the strike by two days to give themselves a chance to thoroughly digest the document rather than allow Lewis and the negotiating team to tell them what it said. “For the first time,” Uetricht writes, “teachers were studying every word of their contract, the principal document governing their work lives.” On October 3, 79 percent of the membership voted in favor of the accord.

And the lessons? Strike for America concludes that “Rather than trying to meet free-market education reformers in the middle on their proposals to privatize schools or increase teacher evaluations based on standardized testing – as national teachers unions have done – the CTU was uncompromising in its rejection of the demands of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and corporate reform groups. Rather than allowing such groups to paint the union as a roadblock to educational progress, the CTU put forth its own positive proposals to reform schools, grounded in an unapologetic vision of progressive education that would be funded by taxing the rich.”

That said, the CTU and other progressive groups working to oppose charter schools, end standardized testing and stop union busting nonetheless have a mountain of work ahead of them as those eager to dismantle public education continually float neoliberal plans. Indeed, privatization advocates have received hefty grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates, Eli and Edythe Broad and Walton Family Foundations, making the playing field extremely uneven.

Worse, Uetricht reports that both the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers have done little to buck these alarming trends. He further argues that their continual pandering to the Democrats – to the tune of $30 million in the 2012 election cycle – represents a colossal waste of funds, money that would be better spent on improving schools, promoting healthy communities, advocating on behalf of workers and the poor, and planning an effective opposition to the conservative agenda that presently holds sway in both political parties.

The CTU has shown us that it is possible to fight back and win. But as Uetricht points out, “Nationally, strike levels are at all-time lows. Every decade since the 1970s the number of strikes undertaken by workers has steadily diminished; it might be an exaggeration to state that today the strike is nearly extinct, but not by much. The number of workdays lost to strikes in the post-World War II period, labor’s heyday, was 60 million; in 2010 it was 180,000.” As is obvious, it will take a radical re-imagining to turn today’s labor movement into a force for change.

Still, American workers have been on the losing end for decades, so if not now, when?

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