The current strike of Chicago’s public school teachers is not just a dispute over better wages and working conditions, but a fight for the survival of public education in the U.S. As access to quality public schools is essential for the working-class, it is apposite that the basic organization of the working-class – the union, is being used in this fight to defend public education. Thus the Chicago Teachers Union’s (CTU) battle with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) should not just be embraced by advocates of public education but by the entire labor movement as well. Chicago’s teachers, by dusting off the long under utilized lessons of U.S. labor history, are teaching us a valuable lesson on how unions have and can be used to bring about progressive reform and systematic change.
Leave it to teachers to actually learn from the past. Since the 1950s the labor movement has overwhelmingly relied on two labor/management conflict strategies. One being business unionism where contract disputes are settled at the bargaining table by bureaucrats and lawyers. The other is simply voting for Democratic candidates hoping they will represent the interests of labor. Reliance on these two strategies has resulted not only in decades of retreat but also the near decimation of the labor movement as a whole. Instead of following these dead ends, the CTU has reached back to the numerous examples of social movement unionism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In 2010, the insurgent Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) took over the leadership of the CTU, transforming the CTU from an appendage of the Daley Machine and into a grass roots union tied to parent and community organizations. A year later when Barack Obama’s right hand man, Rahm Emanuel, was elected mayor of Chicago the CTU knew it had a fight coming its way. Emanuel has been determined to implement the education policies of Obama’s Secretary of Education and former CEO of CPS, Arne Duncan. Duncan’s Race to the Top education policy through the expansion of charter schools and the busting of teacher unions basically boils down to the goal of privatizing public education.
No one becomes a teacher to get rich. As teachers, the members of the CTU have placed the welfare and education of Chicago’s 350,000 public school students above all other demands. Their document The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve makes this abundantly clear. In response the Illinois state legislature passed legislation making it illegal for the CTU to bargain over any issues other than those related to wages and compensation. This meant that issues such as class size, curriculum, and guaranteeing that all Chicago public schools have the libraries, nurses, social workers, textbooks, air conditioning, and playgrounds needed could no longer be bargained or struck over. With the Emanuel administration not negotiating in good faith and refusing to address the basic social and material needs of Chicago’s students the CTU prepared for a strike. Again the CTU took a lesson from the past. They prepared for a strike not to use as a threat during bargaining, but a strike to win.
The CTU strike has transformed the debate on education reform. It has also shown the labor movement a true example of how to fight back against austerity. Through striking the CTU has dealt a blow not only to the Emanuel administration, but also to the bipartisan assault on public education. This past weekend CPS conceded to the CTU a number of wage and compensation demands, while at the same timing essentially rewriting every article of the basic CTU/CPS contract that has been the model for the past fifty years. In sticking to their democratic rank-and-file principles, and not trusting CPS, the CTU’s House of Delegates (HOD) voted to continue striking in order to give its membership time to go over and discuss the contract proposal. This time is also needed for the CTU membership and its allies to figure how to continue the fight for the non-strikable demands that sparked the conflict with CPS. In response to the HOD vote, Emanuel is seeking an injunction against the CTU to end the strike, stating the strike is a “clear and present danger to public health and safety.” Coming from someone who refuses to provide nurses, social workers, or air conditioning to a large number of schools this injunction attempt is pure hypocrisy. Until a contract is signed all advocates of public education and the entire labor movement needs to put its support behind the CTU.
Tom Alter is working on his Ph.D. in labor history at University of Illinois at Chicago, and a member of the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign.