From the January-February 2015 issue of News & Letters
How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers, Labor Notes, 2014, and Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity, by Micah Uetricht, Verso, 2014.
In 2012 Chicago Public Schools teachers put their philosophy of social movement unionism into practice by organizing and winning a landmark strike. They beat back “reforms” like increased reliance on student test scores for teacher evaluations and fought massive closings of “underutilized” public schools in Chicago’s Black and Latino communities.
Strike for America opens by contrasting “two versions of teacher unionism” on June 7, 2012, the day 90% of CTU (Chicago Teachers Union) members voted to authorize a strike. That same day Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT (American Federation of Teachers), CTU’s parent organization, praised Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s public-private partnerships (non-union charter schools).
EDUCATION BECOMING BIG BUSINESS
Weingarten’s business unionism model represents the trend in education today, with near-universal bipartisan support for conservative billionaire philanthropists who seek to privatize education: “the agenda to privatize public education and turn it into a market good requires an attack on teachers and their unions.” Uetricht asks if teachers’ unions will continue praising “neoliberal politicians and titans of capital who want to destroy them or confront those enemies and their ideologies head-on.”
Labor Notes dedicates its book to “Chicago’s students and educators…and to readers…who will learn from CTU’s example.” Activist teachers who formed the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) “were inspired to join CORE because of the group’s bigger vision—not just bread-and-butter union issues but battling against racism and to improve education for all.” CORE won leadership of the CTU in 2010 “with the right combination of rank-and-file organizing, hard work, and trust in democracy,” culminating in the successful strike, and fundamentally re-created the union as the voice and activity of its members and allies.
The book’s detailed narrative reveals philosophy-in-action underlying principles that the CTU refused to compromise. The CTU refused to narrow the basis for the strike, tackling everything from educational apartheid to the diversion of infrastructure funds to corporate interests. Shared goals strengthened community alliances to resist public school closures while new non-union charter schools were opened. The union’s ideas about “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve,” shaping organizing actions cooperatively with community partners. A new Organizing Department developed rank-and-file leaders and envisioned all members as self-determining union activists.
THE STRUGGLE AGAINST ‘REFORMERS’
Today Chicago public education continues to face unrelenting assault by “reformers.” In 2013 the appointed School Board closed 49 schools despite thousands of teachers, parents and students in the streets.
New per-pupil funding has led to massive budget cuts and class sizes exceeding contractual limits. Budget constraints force principals to lay off veteran teachers to hire cheaper inexperienced ones; and custodians’ jobs represented by SEIU (which did not support the CTU strike) are now outsourced to mega-corporation Aramark.
These kinds of assaults cannot be countered by standard union strategies. The CTU campaign for an elected school board may drain its resources.
Uetricht describes “foundational principles of public education: to educate all children…to develop critical thinking and provide a broadly humanistic education…The art of teaching requires giving teachers freedom.” The entire labor movement can learn from Chicago teachers.
—Susan Van Gelder