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What We Won in Chicago

The Chicago Teachers Union, through its courage and militancy, has shifted the ground on education reform and on teacher unionism. They have shown not only that it is possible to stand up the neoliberal agenda, but that there is an alternative.

After more than fifteen years of the punishing effects of neoliberal, corporate education policies, Chicago teachers stood up. The strike by the Chicago Teachers Union was a clarion call to teachers and parents everywhere. It crystallized the frustration with abusive top down accountability, the tyranny of high stakes testing that has distorted the curriculum and degraded teaching, and school closings and corporate take-over of public education. The strike was broadly supported by parents and students who picketed and marched with teachers, brought food and water to the picket lines (the strike line I was on looked like a little food stall), and honked like hell every time they passed a picket line.

Thousands of dollars and messages of support from around the country and world poured in to the CTU strike fund. Local community organizations worked 24/7 to organize community support. The enormous outpouring of solidarity in Chicago and nationally (even internationally) demonstrates the significance of this strike as a turning point in the fight against the neoliberal assault on public education and on teachers and their unions.

For nine days every school in Chicago was shut down. Downtown Chicago came to a daily halt as teachers and parents took over the streets, and the city was a sea of red – the CTU colors – and a blare of honking horns. Despite corporate “reform” outfits blanketing the air waves with anti-union messages, and despite the bullying of Mayor Emanuel and the Chicago Tribune, the grassroots upsurge prevailed. On Tuesday, September 18, a disciplined, savvy and united CTU voted to end the strike and accept the terms of a contract negotiated by their leadership and rank and file negotiating team.

They didn’t win everything. They won important provisions: protecting laid off teachers due to school closings, more art, music and physical education, protection of seniority rights, rejection of test-based merit pay, and more. But so much more was won than a contract.

The Chicago Teachers Union, through its courage and militancy, has shifted the ground on education reform and on teacher unionism. The union has shown not only that it is possible to stand up the neoliberal agenda, but that there is an alternative. And the CTU under new leadership is demonstrating a new kind of teacher unionism that is activist, mobilized, and democratic. What we are seeing is the rebirth of social movement teacher unionism in the US – unions that are activist, mobilized, democratic.

The CTU is a union that not only fights for fair compensation for teachers but allies with parents and students to fight for equitable, rich, culturally relevant, critical education for all. This is laid out in the CTU program, The Schools Chicago Students Deserve. This social movement union model will most certainly not be missed by rank and file teachers nationally who are saddled with service-oriented union leadership that have largely not stood up to the onslaught on teachers and public education.

On the local level, there is new solidarity among teachers and strengthened alliances among teachers and parents. Classroom teachers, paraprofessionals, and clinicians emerged as social activists – marching, organizing, petitioning elected officials, speaking at rallies and community meetings. The staff of every school, wearing their signature CTU red, marched back into their schools together.

There is a long battle ahead that pitches teachers and parents and students against the most powerful corporate and financial interests in the country and their political allies. The victory of the Chicago Teachers Union is an important step for those of us committed to reclaiming and transforming public education.

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