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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."

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The union had taken some concessions, including a pay increase that didn't fully compensate for the longer school day, an intrusive "wellness" health care program and a reduction in the amount of time laid off teachers can receive pay and benefits. Still, the union had won major gains. These included a revitalized school-based committee to uphold teachers' rights at work, a contract clause that penalizes bullying principals, and an agreement that the board put at least half of displaced teachers into a hiring pool, a first since school reform began in Chicago. The mayor must have winced when he read the assessment of the Wall Street Journal: "Mayor Rahm Emanuel had to agree to conditions that make it hard to fire some teachers who receive weak evaluations, and to limit some of the power of school principals to choose their staff." Chicago, ground zero for urban school reform since 1995, was suddenly a symbol of teacher resistance.

The strike caught Emanuel by surprise. His schools chief at the time, Jean-Claude Brizard, later said that "we severely underestimated the ability of the Chicago Teachers Union to lead a massive grass-roots campaign against our administration." It isn't hard to see why. Although the CTU had struck 9 times between 1969 and 1987, there hadn't been another strike in the 25 years that followed. The once clout-heavy union had seen its power ebb as corporate education reform accelerated. The nadir came in 2008, when the union leadership imploded into rival factions even as the CTU faced its greatest challenge in decades. The split in the union's old guard allowed CORE, then less than two years old, to win control of the CTU in 2010.

To outsiders, the untested leaders of the CTU looked like easy meat for Emanuel and corporate education reformers. Veteran TV news anchorman Walter Jacobson wrote on the eve of CORE's election victory: "The bosses downtown are rooting for the rookies to get them to a bargaining table and eat them alive."

What Jacobson and others didn't count on was CORE's systematic work to broaden and deepen the activism of CTU members. Strike preparation was organized at the base of the union, with some two to three thousand union members actively participating as delegates, contract committee members, strike captains and more.

The CTU's approach to its contract campaign was very different than the labor movement's typical "mobilization model," in which union members are periodically called upon to protest during contract negotiations but rarely encouraged to organize on their own. Instead, the CTU solicited contract demands at some 600 schools, sifting them upward through the House of Delegates and a bargaining team of 54 that brought together union members from every job category and had representation from all union caucuses. Union officers and staffers consulted retired veterans of the CTU strikes of the 1970s and 1980s. Several read, or reread, the socialist labor classic Teamster Rebellion, an account of the 1934 Minneapolis truck drivers' organizing drive that led to a general strike. 

At the same time, the CTU drew upon Chicago's long history of struggle against racial injustice in the city's schools. The mass Black student boycotts and protests of the 1960s civil rights movements were the reference point for the union's work in African American and Latino communities that had been resisting the closure of neighborhood schools, a fight that CORE members had joined years prior to forming their caucus. Months before the strike, the union issued an exhaustively researched 46-page report, The Schools Chicago's Children Deserve, which detailed the "apartheid-like system" in CPS and called for full financing for public education and an enriched curriculum. The CTU made it clear to parents and community members that it was fighting not just for its own members, but to defend and improve public education. It was the sort of social movement unionism rarely seen in Chicago since the 1930s and 1940s, when militants and socialists in the Steelworkers and Packinghouse Workers unions made anti-racism and support for civil rights central to their organizing.

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