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Striking Back in Chicago: How Teachers Took on City Hall

"There are lessons for the wider union movement here. ... At a time when strikes are rare and union membership is shrinking the CTU's boldness stands out."

The following is an adapted excerpt from Striking Back in Chicago: How Teachers Took on City Hall and Pushed Back Education "Reform." Copyright © 2013 by Lee Sustar. Reprinted with permission of Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL.

Walking out of the union delegates' meeting on the concluding day of the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike, Sue Garza was somewhere between exhaustion and astonishment. She greeted union sisters and brothers as she slowly made her way to her Strikemobile, a car that had accumulated CTU picket signs, homemade placards, slogans and a bullhorn mounted on top. Every hug, high-five and joyful tear confirmed her feelings: The teachers had won.

Portrayed in Chicago Sun-Times photo a couple of days earlier as a fist-shaking militant angry over the proposed contract, Garza was in fact a part of the union's broad leadership team as a member of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), the group that had taken over the CTU two years earlier. She was one of the CTU's 46 district supervisors, rank-and-file teachers who helped coordinate outreach to union delegates in her area. It was a team that had spent more than a year preparing for the strike that stunned Mayor Rahm Emanuel and brought an outpouring of solidarity from working-class Chicago.

It began like any other teachers' strike, with morning school-site pickets. By the afternoon, of September 12, it was clear that this one was different. As many as 20,000 red-clad teachers had swarmed the Loop, the city's central business district, snarling traffic and taking over the streets near City Hall. "There was a sprig of revolution in the air," said a television reporter on the scene.

For nine days, teachers congregated at busy intersections, protested companies that reap tax benefits while school budgets are cut and marched through African American neighborhoods hardest hit by school closures. It was impossible to go anywhere in the city without encountering a picket line. Teachers couldn't walk down the block without honks of support from passing cars, greetings from passersby, or enter a corner store without getting offers of free water, coffee and food. Opinion polls showing support for the CTU reflected the feeling in the street—the sense that teachers weren't fighting just for themselves or even public education. The CTU's stand, four years after the financial crash, won the hearts of the hundreds of thousands of people who could identify with a struggle that wasn't only about pay and working conditions and quality public schools, but also dignity and respect for working people.

The strike had national implications, and not only because it took place in President Barack Obama's hometown. The Obama administration's Race to the Top legislation—pushed by Emanuel when he was White House chief of staff—had reinforced the anti-union elements of George W. Bush's school reform by tying federal funds to state legislation that weakened teacher tenure, imposed punitive evaluation schemes and encouraged the proliferation of charter schools.

Emanuel, of course, is a major Democratic player, having been an operative in Bill Clinton's White House who'd gone on to Congress after a lucrative turn as an investment banker. Upon his election as mayor in 2011, Emanuel effectively became the political boss of Illinois, too. Even before taking office, he engineered the passage of state school reform legislation, Senate Bill 7, which, among other things, requires the CTU to get 75 percent of its members to vote to authorize a strike.

The always-aggressive Emanuel was certain that the measure would intimidate the CTU from even attempting to strike. Instead, 90 percent voted to empower union officials to take such action. When it was all over, Emanuel, who'd made attacks on the CTU a centerpiece of his election campaign, had failed. His effort to scrap the teachers' traditional contract protections, impose merit pay and accelerate the state-mandated process to terminate "underperforming" teachers went nowhere. At a time when teachers' unions in New Haven, Baltimore, St. Louis and other cities had agreed to contracts that severely undermined tenure—job security—the Chicago teachers held the line.

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