Education

What Made the Chicago Teachers' Strike a Success? Their Commitment to the Community

The dramatically victorious strike showed it's possible for unions to fight back and to win.

Photo Credit: Atomazul / Shutterstock.com

In a newly published book, Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity, Micah Uetricht offers a gripping profile of what has been called, "the most important domestic labor struggle so far this century.”

In just 130 pages, Uetricht makes the case that, after a successful strike in 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) achieved victory with their new contract through the powerful combination of thoughtful militancy, community engagement and massive member outreach. Public support for the strike was so high that the red solidarity T-shirts became hot items; independent polls found a majority of parents supported the teachers—despite having to deal with the personal inconvenience of finding care for their children while schools were closed.

Uetricht, a contributing editor for In These Times and an assistant editor for Jacobin, lays out how the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), which won leadership of the CTU in 2010, fought back against school closures and helped shift the narrative away from one where teachers are seen as primarily concerned with advancing their own interests. On a book tour stop in San Francisco, Uetricht talked to AlterNet about how the CTU combined militancy with community outreach to stand up to neoliberal education reforms; the gains they won in the contract; and the need for unions to reposition themselves as part of a broader social justice movement in order to realize victories of this kind. (The interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

AlterNet: What made you decide to write this book?

Micah Uetricht: It’s a very dramatic story that won’t sound real. It was, I believe, the third day of the CTU strike, and I was downtown [in Chicago] at a mass protest the union did almost every day during the strike. I was there with my friend, [journalist] Danny Postel, and I had written an article for Jacobin that had come out that day. We were marching, and all of a sudden, Danny stops in the middle of the street, and says, “Micah, this tale of the CTU must be chronicled and you must be the one!” I’m like, “Danny, you are insane. I have no business writing a book about anything.” But he sort of badgered me over the weeks to come, and he convinced me I could write a book on this.

I had reported on [the strike] for different places like Jacobinand the Nation. So I wrote up a pitch, and sent it to [editor] Bhaskar Sunkara at Jacobin.  He was interested, and I think he recognized the tale of what happened in the CTU could be a resource for other rank and file activists.

A: How did CORE, the group elected to leadership of the CTU in 2010, come into being?

MU: The free-market education reform agenda was quickly picking up steam in the '90s and 2000s, and there were school closures and attacks on teachers and the growth of charter schools. The union leadership [at the time] repeatedly indicated it had no real interest in creating any kind of movement to fight back against these attacks. So there was an attempt in the union, at first, to have a kind of reform from above, where some liberal reformers told members, “The union leadership has failed you in the past, vote for us, and we’ll take care of it for you.” They ended up failing after one term in office; they didn’t engage the mass rank and file of the union in any significant way.

Then there’s a small group of activist teachers who says, “OK, our union leadership still isn’t pushing back against these attacks that could destroy public education in Chicago. We’ve seen this top-down effort doesn’t change our union in any way.” So this small group starts organizing among community members and building up a strong organization of rank-and-file members to try and work with parents and community groups who had been fighting against school closures for years. That was the first priority—not running somebody for office or taking over the union, but fighting back against free-market reform.

A: It sounds as if the community played a critical role in CORE’s success. What was different about how CORE approached community engagement?

MU: A lot of times support from community looks like just trotting out a member of a community group at a press conference and saying, “Look! Right here, it’s the community! We brought them.” It’s a very shallow level of engagement.

What’s unique about what’s going on in Chicago is the caucus has its roots in working alongside these community groups as equals. CORE would approach parents and community groups at meetings who were speaking out against school closures. They would engage with them and tell them about the organization they’d started.

So they started working together to fight school closures, and for the first time they were able to get some school closures off the list. The official union had never tried to engage folks around school closures in any significant way, and the CORE folks had some real victories, and forums CORE was hosting would draw 500 people to talk about free-market education reform. This was all before they were in power. They’ve created an organizing department that tasks itself with solidifying relationships with community groups, and they take these relationships seriously. They have approached their work with community groups in [a] very intentional way in order to make sure it’s not this shallow veneer of “community support.”

A: You talk in the book about how militancy was key to the success of the strike, but you also say that more than just militancy is required. What else did CTU do that was critical to their success?

MU: On the one hand in the American labor movement, we’re at a time when strikes are at an all-time low, and many union leaders want to pursue these kind of union/management partnerships. Militancy among unions is seen as part of a bygone era; maybe we had to do that in the 1930s or something, but now we’re more mature.  

But on the other hand, sometimes we get folks on the left whose response to anything is militancy, and going on strike. The thing about the CTU is not that they went on strike, but that they went on strike after they spent years at a community level establishing themselves as fighters for a broad educational justice movement. They had countered the narrative of being lazy overpaid public sector workers who don’t care about kids. And once they had established that, then they could go on strike, and the strike could be seen as a way of furthering the educational justice movement.

I don’t think the answer to all of labor’s problems is to go on strike. In many ways, if folks do go on strike without [movement] building those strikes could end badly. It’s not just militancy, but creating broad movements in tandem with militancy. And one of the key lessons of the strike is when you do that you can actually win.

A: Did you feel, during the strike, that there was a great deal of support for the teachers?

MU: One of the most incredible things that came out of the strike was that at the moment when teachers are out on strike and parents are having to make childcare arrangements and their lives are potentially in upheaval, two independent polls showed the majority of Chicago backed the teachers over Rahm Emanuel. And one poll showed two-thirds of black and Latino parents supported teachers over Emanuel, at the moment when they’re being inconvenienced.

That doesn’t happen spontaneously. The only way to get that kind of support is by doing that long-term building with community members. I think that was the moment when the Board of Education and Emanuel realized they had lost the battle and there was no way they could win.

The feeling on the street level in Chicago during the strike was just full of excitement. There was a sea of red everywhere you went. I left my house on a bike and every few blocks as I was heading downtown, there was a group of teachers. There was no sense of an enraged Chicago public. Every picket line I was on or heard about was a cacophony of supportive honks, people stopping by bringing breakfast and coffee; there was a feeling in the air that there was never any doubt the teachers are going to win. There was never any feeling of desperation.

I tell the story in the book of wearing the CTU solidarity shirt, which was a very hot fashion commodity, these red solidarity shirts. I walked into a café and got a free cup of yogurt from this minimum-wage cashier who says she wishes she could be out there with the teachers. And a bus driver waves me on and tells me to get on the bus for free, and he says, “We’ve got to support these teachers.” There was just this outpouring of support from the public. Teachers unions have to establish themselves as credible voices for social justice and public education in order to get that kind of support.

A: Tell us about the gains they secured in the contracts. What did the teachers actually win?

MU: There was a sort of wish-list of neoliberal reform in the initial contract, and the union scaled back the worst of that. For example, the district had wanted to raise the percentage of a teacher’s evaluation based on test scores, and the union was able to negotiate that down to the legal minimum of 30 percent.

Rahm Emanuel had wanted to introduce merit pay; they were able to fight back on that. Knowing that a big fight was going to happen on school closures, they won some provisions that allowed teachers from schools that would be closed to follow their students. Crazily, they had to fight to get textbooks on the first day of class, so the district guaranteed that. The district had wanted to raise the cap on class sizes, and they were able to defeat that. They doubled their budget for what teachers could get reimbursed when they spent money on classroom supplies. And they did get a pay raise.

A: What’s the most important thing labor can learn from this strike?

MU: At a time when labor is so beaten down and we’re accustomed to hearing defeat after defeat, it is possible for unions to fight back and to win. The war has not been lost, but it’s not going to happen with just the election of the right people —leaders who have all kinds of blustery militant rhetoric. These kinds of victories can come about when unions are more democratic and engage with community groups, and [act as] part of a broader movement for social justice.

Emily Wilson is a freelance writer who teaches basic skills at City College of San Francisco.

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