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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 CTU officers, staff and executive board members had plenty of debate and disagreements about how best to prepare the union for a possible confrontation. All were agreed, however, that if the struggle were to be successful, it would require a level of self-activity among union members that Chicago teachers—and the wider labor movement— hadn't seen in more than a generation. Effective strike action would come only after months of sustained engagement with union members in every school across a sprawling, segregated city, they concluded.


For Sue Garza of Strikemobile fame, strike preparation began at home—literally. She'd started by organizing a labor solidarity rally a year earlier, on August 31, 2011, outside her house in the South Chicago neighborhood, a few blocks from the Indiana state line. The idea was to gather CTU members who often had difficulty getting to union events downtown, about 16 miles away. Garza's own workplace, Jane Addams Elementary, where she's a counselor, sits just over a block from her house.

There were plenty of reasons to protest. A few months earlier, Emanuel had ordered the cancellation of CTU members' scheduled raises, and was publicly preparing to subvert the teachers' contract by instituting a longer day on a school-by-school basis.

What Chicago teachers needed to understand was that they were part of broader movement, Garza concluded. So she decided to link Chicago teachers' battle to the mass labor uprising in Madison, Wisconsin that had challenged anti-labor legislation the previous winter. It wasn't difficult. Garza's brother, Ed Sadlowski, Jr., a union organizer, was among those who were central to turning a one-off protest into an occupation that featured weekly mass rallies of 100,000. Her son, Ryan, a teacher in a Chicago charter school, had been active in the Madison protests, too. He'd been featured in a front-page photograph in the New York Times, straining to keep the Capitol doors open to occupiers while police pushed back.

The notice that Garza put out for the rally was tailored to an audience of Southeast Side teachers: "First CEOs destroyed our jobs in manufacturing and the steel mills. Then the big banks ran our economy in the ditch. Now they blame the crisis on teachers and other public workers. Let’s roll up our sleeves and discover new ways to fight back!"

Among the first speakers at the rally was Peggy Coyne, the president of Madison Teachers Inc., the union that led a two-day teachers sickout that went statewide, allowing thousands of teachers to converge in Madison. "There are anti-teacher, and anti-public school propaganda threats that are going to try to sap our strength," Coyne said. "But I refuse to let them to let me feel powerless or ineffective. We are not going to let other groups, other people, take our voice away."

Following Coyne was Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. In little more than a year in office, Lewis had already become the best-known labor leader in the city, overshadowing the officials at the dominant unions in the Chicago Federation of Labor, a body known for quietly working the political system from the inside.

Lewis took a decidedly different approach. She made it clear in her speech that wider working class issues were central to the teachers' clash with Emanuel and the CEOs driving school reform. "These people make more money than their corporations pay in taxes," she said. "And we wonder why are schools are not appropriately funded."

Lewis was in her element. She's the product of a South Side union family herself. Both her parents were teachers and CTU members. Lewis found her own way into the classroom after a setting aside her ambition to be a stand-up comic. Instead, she used her wit and one-liners to tame back-talking students for years before turning her sarcasm on Rahm Emanuel and revving up teachers and community members at countless meetings and rallies. The notoriously foul-mouthed Emanuel—he famously said "fuck you, Lewis" at a meeting between the two—didn't faze her. When you're the first African American woman to graduate from Dartmouth, you learn to stand up for yourself.

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