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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 president's defiant attitude was on full display at the South Chicago rally. "Taking away our ability to organize is not school reform," she said. "Taking away our collective bargaining rights is not school reform. Transferring public funds into the hands of the already wealthy is not school reform. And taking democracy out of the public schools is not school reform."

She concluded with a call to action:

Let's talk to every single neighbor and tell them, "Help us, stand with us." The time is now, because they're coming after us, they're coming strong, and it's not just here. It's not just in Wisconsin. It's the entire country. They want to destroy publicly funded public education. Don't think for a minute that these people care about our children. They never have, and all of a sudden they're interested in it?

The reason they pick on teachers and our unions is because we are the last line in the sand. And they want to take the middle class lifestyle away from all of us. They want to have the very rich, and the rest of us.

The rest of the Wisconsin labor speakers amplified Lewis' points. Madison teachers had been "the tip of the spear" in the Wisconsin movement, said Eric Cobb, a building trades official who'd played a pivotal role in the protests there. Now, he said, it was Chicago teachers' turn. "Leave your fear behind," he said.

Joe Conway, head of the Madison firefighters' union, reminded teachers of the hypocrisy of politicians who were about to wrap themselves in the flag to praise fallen public employees on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks, yet who keep targeting their unions. He closed his brief speech the way he had at dozens of Wisconsin rallies, citing the young Muhammad Ali's challenge to the heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston: "Fight me here, fight me now!"

As the rally wound down, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey quietly joined the crowd, a late arrival following meetings elsewhere. He glanced around at the 500 or so teachers clustered in patches of shade as they listened to a succession of brief speeches. "The union office had almost nothing to do with this," he said.

To many labor leaders, that observation would have been made with anxiety. Was the rank and file getting worked up with unrealistic expectations for the next contract? Or, worse, were they contemplating a challenge to incumbent union officials? But Sharkey was smiling. A teachers' rally organized directly out of the schools was a moment for satisfaction for him. A former union organizer turned rank-and-file teacher activist, Sharkey had helped to found CORE along with Lewis and others who were aghast at the CTU's failure to oppose school closings and the shrinkage of their union.

The Southeast Side rally highlighted the rapid changes in the CTU in the preceding months. It wasn't just the size of the turnout, but the resolute mood. Teachers who'd never had much to do with the union, let alone CORE, had forged a network among different schools and come out in large numbers even before classes had begun in most schools.

Sharkey paid close attention to the final speaker, Ed Sadlowski Sr., father of the siblings who'd organized the event. Sadlowski had given his children their first lessons in trade unionism when they were kids, often rousting them from bed at 5 a.m. to take them to the factory gates to pass out leaflets for the Steelworker Fight Back campaign in the 1970s. Sadlowski had run an insurgent election challenge for the presidency of the United Steelworkers, and nearly ousted an incumbent union machine that had been in place for the previous four decades. So it was a given that Sadlowski, by then in his 70s, would climb onto the back of a truck on a sweltering late-summer day to address several hundred teachers and supporters.

 
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