A people's history of the Chicago Teachers Union

WHEN JEN Johnson tells of the extended struggle that Chicago teachers have been engaged in, she may have been referencing attempts to stand up to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools from 2001–09 led the “Renaissance 2010” program to close public schools and open privatized charters, or current Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s attempts to reduce teaching and learning to the parameters of a standardized test.

Yet the history of Chicago teachers putting down their pencils and grabbing picket signs to defend public education dates back to the late nineteenth century—and contains some of the great stories in labor’s history.

Chicago Teachers Federation and the “Labor Slugger”
Chicago emerged during the late nineteenth century as a major commercial, financial, and manufacturing center with a diversified economy including garment factories, steel works, and sprawling stockyards. But in 1886, Chicago also became known as the center of the struggle for the eight-hour workday that culminated in a police massacre at Chicago’s Haymarket Square, the trial and execution of four of the movement’s leaders, and the establishment of May Day as International Workers’ Day. This same brawl between capital and labor would soon break out in Chicago’s schoolyards. 

Chicago’s population growth and the introduction of child labor laws and compulsory education laws led to a greater demand for the public school system, particularly in high school. As public schools became increasingly important to prepare students to enter a newly industrializing economy, school reform became a major political debate.

In 1898, William Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago, proposed a sweeping reorganization of Chicago’s public schools. Modeled on New York City schools, the plan was shaped by elites across the nation who sought to reorganize public education to suit the needs of a newly emerging industrial society. Their main goals were to control children during the day while both parents worked, provide basic education to the next generation of workers, and acculturate them to the rigid schedules of factory life governed by ubiquitous whistles and bells. Harper sought to hire only teachers with college degrees, implement a new system of hiring and firing, and address the “feminization” of schools by establishing a sexist hierarchy—hiring more male teachers and raising their salaries above women’s. He also proposed to lease schools, property tax free, to Chicago businesses for ninety-nine-year terms.

But Harper was unprepared to play hardball with schoolteacher Margaret Haley, dubbed Chicago’s “Lady Labor Slugger.” Haley was the seminal figure in a class-struggle approach to teacher unionism and an early leader of the Chicago Teachers Federation (CTF), a precursor to the Chicago Teachers Union.

Haley’s father, Michael, whose parents were Irish immigrants, had been a member of the Knights of Labor, the first national labor union, and his worldview was shaped by a mix of utopian socialist, anti-monopolist, and Irish nationalist beliefs. Margaret Haley got her start in the struggle in Joliet, Illinois, during her first teaching job when she asked her superintendent for a raise from thirty-five to forty dollars per month. The superintendent at first agreed, but when he later stalled Haley sent him an ultimatum: If he did not pay her a higher salary by noon of the first day of the fall term, she would resign. When he denied her raise, she took the next train to Chicago.2

Haley successfully organized teachers to resist William Harper’s 1898 school reorganization. Even though women lacked the vote, Haley reached out to women’s clubs—suffragist-leaning social networks of “high society” women—sending speakers to win over the influential club members on the basis of feminism, as women made up much of the teaching workforce. Teachers organized their own afternoon teas at neighborhood schools, like the Hendricks School in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, located next to the stockyards and meatpacking district immortalized in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. This broad approach to struggle paid off, the Harper Bill to reorganize the schools failed in the Illinois state legislature.

This experience drew Haley to the Chicago Teachers Federation. Together with Catharine Goggin, Haley initiated the “Teachers’ Tax Crusade” that examined the Cook County tax rolls and discovered some $2 million in unpaid taxes. Haley and the CTF forced the local tax boards to collect the money and provide it to the school system. After three years of legal wrangling by outraged businesses, a court reduced the amount to $600,000. This still provided a substantial raise to Chicago’s teachers, and news of the campaign spread across the nation.

Yet Haley emphasized that the struggle was not for economic gains alone. Haley was a powerful opponent of the increasing standardization of education that she saw developing in the early twentieth-century schools, calling it “factoryizing education,” and spoke out against the industrialists’ efforts to turn the teacher into “an automaton, a mere factory hand,” in an attempt to graft assemblyline efficiency into the schoolhouse.3 As she said in her famous “Why Teachers Should Organize” speech at the 1901 National Education Association (NEA) convention as the first woman ever to address the gathering:

Two ideals are struggling for supremacy in American life today: one the industrial ideal, dominating through the supremacy of commercialism, which subordinates the worker to the product and the machine; the other, the ideal of democracy, the ideal of the educators, which places humanity above all machines, and demands that all activity shall be the expression of life. If this ideal of the educators cannot be carried over into the industrial field, then the ideal of industrialism will be carried over into the school. Those two ideals can no more continue to exist in American life than our nation could have continued half slave and half free. If the school cannot bring joy to the work of the world, the joy must go out of its own life, and work in the school as in the factory will become drudgery.

By 1902, Haley inspired the CTF to formally join the Chicago Federation of Labor. Within a year, the teachers helped overthrow the corrupt labor leadership in Chicago. Under the reform president, John Fitzpatrick, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) began to organize women workers all over the Second City: milliners, packing-house workers, chorus girls, laundry workers, domestic servants, department store workers, garment workers, and more. For Haley, as an officer in the Women’s Suffrage Party of Illinois, organizing women workers was closely related to winning the right for women to vote. Her approach of fusing the social struggle for suffrage with the labor movement was instrumental in winning suffrage in the state in 1913.

Haley’s radical reform approach to social movement unionism, however, had a terrible blind spot: it never included African Americans. As Haley’s biographer Kate Rousmaniere put it, “although an eloquent advocate of liberatory causes and human rights, she was profoundly ambivalent about African American political and economic rights, and she championed the cause of working class whites—especially Irish Catholics—over any other group.” During the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to northern industrial centers during World War I, Blacks began the struggle for access to public education in Chicago. With few employment options open to African American women, teaching became the most popular occupation among young Black college-educated women—more than half of all Black college graduates became schoolteachers.4 The ability of the Chicago elite to use race to divide the education workforce would weaken teacher union efforts throughout its history, eventually producing a great upheaval of Black teachers during the civil rights movement that demanded the union represent them.

Nonetheless, Healy’s efforts helped achieve the CTF’s 1916 groundbreaking, though modest, meeting of four local unions that formed the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The AFT went on to challenge the National Education Association, which considered itself a “professional organization” and was opposed to the collective action of teachers in opposition to the school district. The AFT led important struggles for academic freedom during World War I when anti-unionists accused the union of defending “incompetent” teachers in an effort to dismiss educators who failed to express enthusiasm for the war.5 Yet in the anti-union open-shop climate of the 1920s, school superintendents convinced their employees to leave the AFT and join the NEA. By 1930, the AFT had only 7,000 members while the NEA had 172,000.6

Chicago teachers and the Great Depression: The CTU is born
By the eve of the Great Depression, although Chicago had the most unionized teaching force in the country, educators were still deeply divided and belonged to a variety of different unions. The Men Teachers Union (MTU) organized male high school teachers and prompted the formation of the Federation of Women High School Teachers (FWHST). As well, there was the Elementary Teachers Union (ETU) and the Playground Teachers Union (PTU). These unions were often at odds, as the MTU and the FWHST attempted to maintain the pay differentials of high school teachers over elementary school teachers while Margaret Haley’s CTF and the ETU fought for parity for elementary school teachers.7

With the Great Depression in full swing, the Nation reported the impact on teachers in May 1933: “Homes have been lost. Families have suffered undernourishment, even actual hunger. Their life insurance slashed, their savings gone, some teachers have been driven to panhandling after school hours to get food.”8 Hundreds of teachers were laid off. Teachers went for weeks and months without paychecks. High school teachers went from six to seven classes a day. Class sizes swelled. One Chicago teacher succumbed to the financial stress and committed suicide.

Fueling teachers’ tribulations was a group of Chicago’s wealthiest leading bankers, merchants, and industrialists who formed the Citizen Committee on Public Expenditures (CCPE) with the purpose of reducing the cost of public education. With the Chicago Tribune editorializing for cuts in “fads and frills” in education—things such as art, physical education, and music—the CCPE pressed the board of education to slash spending by declaring that the banks would not buy any more tax warrants from the board of education. Without the financial support of the banks, the board of education was strong-armed into submitting to the CCPE.9

With the unions divided and the bureaucracies of the unions too often seeking to collaborate, rather than confront, the school board and business elite destroying public education, teacher John Fewkes organized a new group, the Volunteer Emergency Committee (VEC), which organized mass demonstrations to attain regular pay for teachers. For four months in 1933 thousands of fed-up educators regularly stormed the board of education and city council meetings.

In his essential account of teacher unionism in Chicago, Teachers and Reform: Chicago Public Education, 1912–1970, John F. Lyons writes, “to many parents, the VEC was the only group willing to militantly defend the education system from the political and business elites. To the students, their trusted and dedicated teachers now needed their support.”10 Lyons continues,

As many as 50,000 pupils from West Side to South Side schools went on strike on April 5 to protest the delay in the payment of teachers’ salaries. During the day, police were called to stop the student disturbances and to control a student demonstration that descended on the home of Acting Mayor Corr. A number of teachers in various schools staged a one-day strike by reporting themselves sick. . .there was, according to a Chicago Daily News reporter, “an endemic series of strikes, demonstration and disorder in protest to the delay in the payment of teachers’ salaries.” It was, according to Time, the “biggest and most exciting school strike Chicago had ever seen.”11

The VEC also organized boycotts of stores, hotels, and other businesses that were still tax delinquent.

The high point of the struggle erupted on April 24, the first day of spring vacation, when 5,000 teachers marched on five large banks—First National Bank, Harris Trust and Savings Bank, City National Bank, Northern Trust Bank, and the Continental Illinois Bank—whose refusal to pay their taxes was directly depleting funds desperately needed in the classroom. When they occupied the banks, Lyons writes,

Teachers threw ink on the walls, tipped over desks, and broke windows. Surrounded by teachers shouting “Pay us! Pay us!” the bank executives had to call for the police to remove the teachers. On the following Wednesday more than three thousand male teachers armed with schoolbooks again confronted the bankers, invading the Chicago Title and Trust Company, breaking windows and ransacking the building. Mounted police clubbed the teachers as they hurled books at the police and their horses.12

On June 9, the last day of the spring term, five thousand teachers, parents, and students fought with police as they protested in downtown Chicago against the bankers, the CCPE, and the politicians.

VEC’s actions, coupled with the increasing cuts to public education, convinced the previously divided teachers’ union movement that it must either unite or fail. Eight teachers’ organizations, including the CTF, the MTU, the ETU, and the FWHST coalesced to form the Teacher Welfare Organizations, and proved to be a powerful force. The Chicago Public Schools rescinded many of the cuts to physical education, music, and the arts; most teachers went back to six classes per day, rather than the seven proposed; by September 1935, the board had reassigned all of the teachers dismissed in July 1933; and in August 1934 teachers finally received all of the back salary they had been denied. In October 1937, as an outgrowth of the new collaboration among the different union factions, the Chicago Teachers Union was born.

Even though the CTU made these important gains during the 1930s, public sector unions were barred from becoming collective bargaining units that could sit down with school districts at negotiating tables. This prohibition against collective bargaining rights for public sector workers received bipartisan support from America’s political establishment. President Franklin Roosevelt, often romantically imagined as the savior of labor, was unequivocally an opponent of public-sector union job actions, saying,

Since their own services have to do with the function of the government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an attempt on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of government until their demands are satisfied. Such actions, looking toward the paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.13

During World War II, the Democratic Party machine that ran Chicago consolidated its control over the public schools and the CTU leadership began accommodating to board of education “suggestions.” And as McCarthyism came to dominate American politics, the CTU was not immune from a national union movement that was often more engaged in driving out alleged radicals or communists to prove it was patriotic than waging militant struggles for better contracts. As CTU president Fewkes declared in 1949, “The increased heat in the cold war now in progress makes it imperative that teachers in our public schools leave no doubt as to their fundamental Americanism.” And the union certainly never attempted to defend communists or their allies from persecution.

Still, Fewkes and the CTU did mount some important struggles in this era and even opposed some of the most egregious aspects of the red scare witch-hunts. For example, after a May 1945 NEA investigative report found that city politicians had used their power to influence which teachers were hired and promoted, the CTU used newfound public support to threaten a strike against the city council’s decision to block teacher pay raises. This proved enough to back the council down. As well, the CTU led important opposition to anticommunist attacks on teachers and their curriculum, writing in the union newspaper in 1941 against loyalty oaths that would prohibit communist teachers, “You cannot preserve freedom by taking it away! You cannot preserve democracy by totalitarian means!”14 In an era when hundreds of teachers had been suspended or dismissed for noncooperation with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the harassment Chicago teachers faced was not as severe as teachers elsewhere, in part because of the CTU.15   

Labor rights are civil rights: Black teacher power

The U.S. teacher used to be afraid to smoke, chew, cuss or ask for a raise,” Time magazine reported in 1963. “Now he denounces crowded classrooms, upbraids lawmakers, and goes on strike almost as readily as a dockworker. He even demands a say in things that school boards always considered their sole province. Teacher militancy is bursting out all over.16

One of the momentous yet often ignored achievements of the civil rights and Black Power movements was their decisive contribution to the winning of collective bargaining rights for public sector workers in the 1960s and 1970s. As Aaron Brenner points out, “Between the early 1960s and 1981, American workers engaged in an extraordinarily high level of workplace militancy, exhibiting a sustained rebelliousness not seen since the 1930s . . . Drawing on the civil rights, Black Power, feminist, and antiwar movements, and on the labor movement’s own traditions of militancy, rank-and-file self-organization and workers control, they advocated a more aggressive, inclusive, democratic and politicized union movement that they believed could win greater rights for workers both on and off the job.”17

The teachers in Chicago were certainly beneficiaries of the mass social movements that swept aside the stifling politics of McCarthyism that had long stunted labor’s growth. In 1967, this labor and civil rights upsurge contributed to the CTU’s first officially negotiated contract with the Chicago Board of Education, where the CTU obtained Christmas vacation pay (the first AFT local to do so), a $500 per year salary increase, fully paid medical insurance, two personal days, a grievance procedure, class size caps, and a duty-free lunch period.

Yet while both Black and white teachers asked their union to negotiate higher wages and better benefits, Black teachers and Black community activists increasingly wanted the union to use its new power to prompt school authorities to improve the quality of education in the inner-city schools—while too often their white colleagues wanted only a narrow focus on bread and butter issues. One simple fact highlighted the disparity within the union: Although about 60 percent of the students and more than a third of teachers were African Americans, the CTU negotiating team included no Black members.18

Another problem was that many Black teachers were funneled into the category “Full-time Basis Substitutes” (FTBs), which meant full-time work hours but not the benefits or job protection of certified teachers. They gave the FTB status to teachers who had met state certification requirements but not passed the Chicago Board of Education teacher certification examination required to teach in CPS. But many African Americans noted that they often failed the oral exam only because the racist board of examiners thought they had “unprofessional” Black southern accents. One such teacher was Mamie Till Mobley who campaigned on behalf of her son Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old boy whose murder in Mississippi in 1955 became was one of the catalysts for the civil rights movement. She began teaching in CPS in the 1960s, but she failed the oral exam because the board of examiners thought she was on an “ego trip.”19

As the Black Power movement grew in Chicago, Black students and parents began organizing for the introduction of Black studies into the curriculum and for the removal of white principals who would not embrace these changes. Unfortunately, the CTU leadership too often sided with the board of education and the white principals in these disputes.

The FTBs, about 90 percent African American, began their own sickouts and strikes in 1968 to pressure Mayor Richard J. Daley to make them full-fledged classroom teachers and to stop the high teacher turnover rate in Black schools. When the CTU did not come to their aid, the FTBs threatened to leave the union. 

The CTU authorized its first official strike in May 1969, with around 75 percent support of teachers, who were able to convince most of their wavering colleagues to stay away from school.20 Within a few days, Mayor Daley succumbed to the strike’s pressure and negotiated a settlement that met all of the CTU’s demands, including $100 per month raise, and the recruitment of 750 new teachers to help alleviate overcrowded classrooms in segregated schools. As well, scared by the threat of large numbers of Black teachers leaving the union, the CTU finally took action to pressure the board of education and Mayor Daley to give into the demands of the FTBs—and the board lifted the exam requirement for FTB certification.21

Moreover, following the strike, the Chicago Board of Education bowed to the pressure of Black community activists and Black union militants who were seeking to undo the institutionalized racism of the school district. The Board introduced special education programs for needy students as well as new classes that focused on Black history and Black literary figures.22

The CORE of education: a new “Slugger” for education
From 1969 until 1987, the CTU led seven strikes that won smaller class sizes, medical benefits, sick leave, and more preparation time.

But then for almost twenty-five years—in an era marked by neoliberal economic policies favoring privatization, deregulation, and the decline of unions—the union’s combativeness waned, capped by its failure to lead a campaign against then-CEO of the Chicago Public Schools (and current US Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan’s disastrous “Renaissance 2010” plan that slated around one hundred schools for closure, predominately in Black neighborhoods, and converted many to nonunion charter schools or military academies. A study by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research, released in October 2009, examined the academic effects of the closings on students at eighteen elementary schools shut down between 2001 and 2006.23 The study concluded that the vast majority of students went from one low-performing school to another with no achievement gains, and saw temporary decreases in test scores during the stressful period when the announcement was made that their school would be closed. Worse, with thousands of students reassigned to campuses outside their neighborhoods—and often across gang boundaries—violence soared, with thirty-four student deaths and 290 shootings in the 2008–09 school year.24 Moreover, it was discovered that CEO Duncan kept a “VIP list” for prominent Chicagoans seeking aid to get their children into the city’s best public schools.25

To make matters worse, the Great Recession hit in 2008 and the corporate education reform agenda kicked into high gear as billionaires and their foundations, hedge fund managers, and their political sycophants in statehouses became determined to see teachers and public sector workers pay for a global financial crisis caused by rapacious Wall Street speculation. While banks got bailed out with hundreds of billions of dollars, thousands of teachers in Chicago and across the country were laid off.

When the Chicago Teachers Union refused to mount the struggle needed to defend teachers and public education, several teachers started a study group that read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, which explains how the richest 1 percent have enriched themselves in the neoliberal era by taking advantage of political and economic crisis to amass even more wealth and promote free-market ideology. These teachers then put theory into practice, formed the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), and began organizing colleagues and communities to resist the closures of some sixteen schools, turning out hundreds of parents to picket Chicago Board of Education meetings and to testify in defense of their schools. As a result of this bold campaign and other organizing initiatives, teachers from the CORE slate were elected to leadership positions in the Chicago Teachers Union in the spring of 2010. Karen Lewis, the newly elected CORE president of the CTU, remarked at her acceptance speech,

Today marks the beginning of the end of scapegoating educators for all the social ills that our children, families, and schools struggle against every day. Today marks the beginning of a fight for true transparency in our educational policy — how to accurately measure learning and teaching, how to truly improve our schools, and how to evaluate the wisdom behind our spending priorities. This election shows the unity of 30,000 educators standing strong to put business in its place – out of our schools. Corporate America sees K-12 public education as 380 billion dollars that, up until the last 10 or 15 years, they didn’t have a sizeable piece of. . .. Our teachers and para-professionals are poised to reclaim the power of our 30,000 members and protect what we love: teaching and learning in publicly funded public schools.26

In the spring of 2012, Chicago Mayor Rahm “1 %” Emanuel and his appointed Board of Education comprised of millionaires and billionaires, including Hyatt hotel heiress Penny Pritzker, began contract negotiations with the CTU with a plan to further impose the business model on the schools that has been shown throughout Chicago’s history to not improve education. They proposed extending the school year without increasing pay for teachers; they suggested that class sizes could reach fifty-five students; and they sought to impose a merit pay scheme on teachers that would have narrowed the curriculum to drill-and-kill test prep, and which, in fact, had been tried among a subset of Chicago teachers in 2010—with the resultant data showing no impact on student learning.27

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey described the response of the union, shouting into a microphone outside of the Board of Education, “We have met the attack with wide-scale vocal opposition, we have met the attack arm-in-arm with our partners in the community. We’ve occupied schools, we have marched, we have filled auditoriums, we have filled streets, and yes, we have voted to authorize a strike.”28 With over 90 percent of educators voting in favor, the CTU began its first strike in a quarter of a century on September 10, 2012, and held the line for more than a week in a strike that captured the imagination of workers around the country and headlines around the world.

Technically, because of Illinois state law, the CTU was legally allowed to strike only over salary issues. However, one Chicago music teacher explained some of the other key issues that animated the strike: “We’re speaking out for smaller class sizes, a rich curriculum and wrap-around services for every student. While improving the quality of life for our students, these policies would also create jobs for the many experienced teachers who are currently out of work. About 25 percent of CPS schools have no art or music programs. Another 50 percent have either art or music, but not both.”29

Kirstin Roberts, a CTU preschool teacher, described the impact of the strike on the rank and file, writing, “The outpouring of solidarity was matched by an outpouring of creativity on the picket lines and at the mass protests every afternoon. Teachers and staff who had long been stifled and forced to deliver rote lessons designed solely for test preparation began to paint and dance and sing their struggle.”30

While Chicago teachers were not able to defeat every last one of Mayor Emanuel’s corporate reforms—for example, the contract stipulates that only half of new teachers hired must be displaced CTU members—the list of gains for students and teachers from the strike reveals a decisive win for labor:

  • CPS must hire over 600 additional teachers in art, music, physical education, and other subjects—helping to make the school day better, not just longer.
  • The percentage used in teacher evaluations was lowered to the legal minimum.
  • Language that promotes racial diversity in hiring at CPS to fight the loss of African American teachers in Chicago’s schools.
  • Anti-bullying language to help limit administration intimidation of teachers.
  • A pool of funding for social workers, psychologists, special education teachers, classroom assistants and counselors in schools with high caseloads.
  • $250 annual reimbursement for teachers buying classroom supplies.
  • A 7 percent rise in pay over three years, maintaining “steps and lanes,” so experienced teachers and those with master’s degrees earn more.

One of the primary reasons for the CTU’s victory was this: It transcended a simple labor dispute and was transformed into a social movement, with the teachers fusing their struggle with that of the community they serve—organizing with parents for over a year prior to the strike, making demands for increased resources for the students, advocating for racial equity in hiring, and joining in the Occupy Chicago movement that pointed out the root of societal problems—social and economic inequality. By striking not only for better wages, but also to defend and enrich public education for students of color and low-income families, the CTU’s strike garnered 66 percent support from the students’ parents31 and earned the citywide solidarity teachers would need to give them enough courage to walk off the job. Summarizing the lessons of the strike, Socialist Worker newspaper editorialized,

It taught teachers around the country: You can challenge the attack on your jobs, your unions and your schools—and win. It taught students and parents: There’s an alternative to deteriorating conditions, school closures and the corporatization of education if we all fight together. And finally, for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the supposed Democratic “friends of labor” and corporate school “reformers”: You’d better think twice before you go after us again.32

Conclusion: We must continue
From the early days of industrialization, to the crisis of the 1930s, through the McCarthy era, and until today, the wealthiest Chicagoans have played an active role in shaping public education. Aided by their counterparts nationally, they have used their wealth and power to impose a business model on our schools designed to limit education to barebones programs that promote only those skills and subjects necessary to prepare youth for lives in a disciplined, compliant workforce. They have dodged taxes and depleted school revenue; used their political connections to influence school admissions and hiring; promoted racist and sexist policies in hiring and firing teachers; supported policies that desiccate the quality of education for the poor and students of color; and attempted to undermine and eliminate the collective power of unionized teachers. And they are currently crafting plans to close dozens more schools in Chicago and open still more nonunion privatized charter schools.

At the same time Chicago teachers have shown extraordinary commitment to defending public education from the corporate elite. Teachers waged the “Teachers Tax Crusade” in the late 1800s; fought in the midst of the Great Depression for more music, art, and physical education programs; opposed loyalty oaths for teachers during the McCarthy era; and won better pay, smaller class sizes, fair hiring practices, and Black studies programs in the 1960s and 70s. Today’s CORE-led CTU is building social-movement unionism to defend teaching and learning from a stunted paradigm that would reduce “education” to rote learning and test score evaluations, among other important gains.

The history of the Chicago Teachers Union demonstrates this essential truth: When educators adopt a class struggle approach to unionism—one that relies on the power of rank-and-file teachers rather than simply on closed-door discussions between union officials and the Board of Education—they have the capacity to re-envision the future and win gains for public education. Moreover, when the power of the rank and file is combined in concert with social movements—from women’s suffrage to Occupy—the power of teachers is magnified many times over. Yet the history also reveals that when these unions are divided—most often it has been by race or gender—their ability to mount the necessary struggle is stunted, and odds of success decrease.

Because of the long history of struggle waged by Chicago teachers, today’s CTU is in a better place than ever before to help remake education—by supporting teachers in ways that help them develop the whole child, and not simply prepare today’s youth to be disciplined workers in low-wage employment. Yet with plans for more mass school closures and further privatization, we can be certain that the wealthiest 1 percent of Chicagoans will not give up their plan to profit from the schools until their riches are wrested away and their kids attend the same schools as everyone else.

As one CTU member said of the 2012 strike,

We fought for more social services that our students need. We fought for equal investment and funding for all schools, for equality and equity in education. We fought for an end of poverty and violence that so many of our students struggle with every day. We also know that we must continue to stay committed to the realization of these beliefs and rights.33

  1. “The Meaning of Our Struggle in Chicago,” Socialist Worker, September 4, 2012, http://socialistworker.org/2012/09/04/th....
  2. Margaret Haley, Battleground: The Autobiography of Margaret A. Haley (Chicago: University of Illinois, 1982), 20–21.
  3. Kate Rousmaniere, Citizen Teacher: The Life and Leadership of Margaret Haley (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005), ix.
  4. John F. Lyons, Teachers and Reform: Chicago Public Education, 1929–1970 (Chicago, Il.: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 15.
  5. Marjorie Murphy, Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA 1900–1980 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 95.
  6. Lyons, 26.
  7. Ibid., 27–28.
  8. Ibid., 32.
  9. Ibid., 30.
  10. Ibid., 33–39.
  11. Ibid., 39–40.
  12. Ibid., 40–41.
  13. Ibid., 46.
  14. Ibid., 128.
  15. Ibid., 132.
  16. Ibid., 133.
  17. Aaron Brenner, Robert Brenner, Cal Winslow, Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and the Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s (New York: Verso, 2010), xi.
  18. Lyons, 175.
  19. Ibid., 177.
  20. Ibid., 200.
  21. Ibid., 203.
  22. Ibid., 204.
  23. Dakarai I. Aarons, “Chicago School Closings Found to Yield Few Gains,” Education Week, April 4, 2012.
  24. Karen Hawkins, “Chicago Teen Deaths, Violence Tied To School Reform Plan?,” Huffington Post, October 6, 2009, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/10/06....
  25. Valerie Strauss, “More on Duncan’s VIP list in Chicago,” Washington Post, March 27, 2010.
  26. Teachers for Social Justice video of speech, http://vimeo.com/12642225.
  27. George N. Schmidt, Substance News, March 9, 2012, http://www.substancenews.net/articles.ph....
  28. Labor Beat video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEx1DsJVNLQ
  29. “The Meaning of Our Struggle in Chicago.”
  30. Kirstin Roberts, “We Stood up to the Bullies,” Socialist Worker, October 9, 2012, http://socialistworker.org/2012/10/09/we....
  31. CTU blog, September 13, 2012, http://www.ctunet.com/blog/new-poll-show....
  32. Editorial, “Learning from the Chicago Teachers,” Socialist Worker, September 27, 2012, http://socialistworker.org/2012/09/27/le....
  33. Kirstin Roberts, “We Stood up to the Bullies,” 10/9/2012, available at: http://socialistworker.org/2012/10/09/we...

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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