What the Chicago teachers accomplished

Lee Sustar looks at the significance of the Chicago teachers' strike victory.

IT’S TIME to take stock of the significance of the Chicago teachers’ strike that beat back corporate education reform—not just for teachers and other public-sector workers, but the wider labor movement.

But before considering its impact on future fights, let’s take another moment to savor a labor victory in one of the most important union struggles in many years.

There was the unforgettable Day One, when tens of thousands of red-shirted members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and supporters swarmed downtown, shutting down traffic around the Board of Education headquarters and City Hall in what a local radio news reporter aptly called “an older and more polite version of Occupy Chicago.”

In truth, it wasn’t all that polite, either, if you happened to read the handmade placards and hear the chants directed at Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who began targeting Chicago teachers months before he took office.

Then Day Two—another day, another mass march. After picket duty at schools in every neighborhood of the city in the morning, teachers again swept downtown, this time turning stately Buckingham Fountain on the lakefront into the site of an open-air union rally that conjured the spirit of famous Chicago labor battles of the past.

The following day came the three big demonstrations at high schools on the South and West Sides, in neighborhoods populated predominately by African Americans and Latinos. The hot late-summer sun didn’t deter teachers or neighborhood residents who cheered them on.

And the excitement wasn’t limited to the big protests. Anyone who walked the picket lines at neighborhood schools experienced not just the impressive solidarity among teachers, but the groundswell of support for the CTU among parents and the wider community. Those wearing a red T-shirt from the CTU or the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign were routinely stopped and thanked on the street, while getting friendly honks and waves from passing cars.

THE MORE support grew for the teachers, the more Rahm Emanuel unraveled.

The man known for his take-no-prisoners approach to politics did his best to whip up a parent backlash with hour-long press conferences during the opening days of the strike. It didn’t work. Sweaty and compulsively gulping from a plastic water bottle, Emanuel spewed insulting comments that seemed only to inspire more public support for the CTU.

When CTU delegates decided to prolong the strike into a second week in order to consider the tentative agreement, Emanuel finally thought he could seize the moment. Yet when he sought a court injunction to end the strike, a judge put a finger to the political winds and decided not to act until CTU delegates could meet and discuss the deal.

The details of the agreement show a clear victory for the CTU. Emanuel failed to impose merit pay—the practice of basing teachers’ wages on how well their students perform on standardized tests. The union also maintained “steps and lanes,” a pay structure that grants additional salary hikes based on years of experience and additional education. Those automatic pay increases will take some of the sting out of the modest gain in base pay—a 3 percent gain in the first year and 2 percent in each of the next two years.

These increases are counterbalanced by uncompensated additional days in a longer school year. The union, however, secure contract language that bars the city from rescinding raises, as it did in 2011, and teachers will see pay raises at time when many unionized workers in the public sector are seeing pay freezes or outright cuts. Moreover, Chicago Public Schools didn’t get the five-year contract it wanted, but had to swallow a  three-year deal instead—which means the agreement will expire just as Emanuel is running for re-election.

Another concession concerns what happens to teachers who are laid off—an important question for teachers in a school district that has slated so many schools for closure or “turnaround.” Laid-off teachers will remain in the displaced teachers’ pool with full pay for five months, instead of 10 in the old contract. That’s a bitter pill to swallow for teachers in schools targeted for closure.

The deal does, however, stipulate that half of new teachers hired must be displaced CTU members. It’s the first time CPS will be required hire such teachers since school “reform” was first implemented in 1995. Further, the CTU forced Emanuel to limit the use of test scores in teacher evaluations to the minimum 30 percent required under state law, rather than the more aggressive approach favored by the mayor. The union further blunted Emanuel’s effort for a fast-track termination process for teachers rated as “unsatisfactory.”

Then there’s the fine print of the contract that gives the CTU new leverage in key areas, including an anti-bullying provision to help members stand up to abusive principals. It will give union activists key tools to build effective union chapters.

To better grasp the significance of the Chicago teachers’ ability to hold the line, consider the fact that the CTU’s parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, has already conceded on the key issues of the strike and stood pat while public education is being rapidly privatized in New Orleans, Detroit, Cleveland and Philadelphia. In Baltimore, moreover, the AFT staff directly intervened to get teachers to ratify a teacher evaluation system that has left the majority of union members at risk of firing for poor performance. That’s why the CTU’s fight has become a rallying point teachers far beyond Chicago.

Further, the CTU also faced down Emanuel, perhaps the biggest bully in Democratic Party politics. As President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Emanuel worked with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who used to run CPS, to carry out the Race to the Top education program. That deal made $4.3 billion in federal grant money available only to states that would carry out education “reform”—including attacking teachers’ union protections and opening the door wider for charter schools.

In his 2011 mayoral campaign, Emanuel took regular aim at teachers. Once elected, he twisted arms in the Illinois legislature to push through a law that requires the CTU to get 75 percent of all members to vote to authorize a strike. Emanuel’s political allies boasted that there would never be another teachers’ strike in Chicago. But the CTU not only met the threshold, but surpassed it, with nearly 90 percent of teachers voting to authorize a strike.

Emanuel also tried to pit parents and students against the union. The CTU responded by tying its struggle to wider working class demands, which became a key factor in the CTU’s victory.

THE LESSONS of the Chicago teachers’ strike apply to the labor movement far beyond one city and one occupation. Here’s a list of some of the main ones:

  • If you fight, you can win. In the fifth year of a depressed economy, union concessions have become routine. Whether the bosses are budget-strapped state and local governments or profitable corporations like Caterpillar and Verizon, workers are being hammered with pay freezes or outright cuts, reduced pensions and higher health care costs.

    Chicago teachers showed us a different way. Striking doesn’t automatically guarantee a victory, of course—the International Association of Machinists were recently defeated in a six-week walkout at Caterpillar. But failing to fight back only guarantees a further retreat.
  • Union members must not only be mobilized, but organized. In the last 20 years or so, the “mobilization model” of unionism has become the norm for progressive labor organizations. Holding big protests and building alliances with community and social movement groups have become fairly common tactics for many unions.

    But there’s a difference between sending busloads of workers in matching t-shirts to a protest and a systematic effort to build organization inside and outside the workplace. The CTU’s internal organizing operation was directed at making the union a responsive and effective organization at every school site—and when it was time to hit the picket lines, the effort paid off.
  • Social movement unionism is essential, especially in the public sector. Since the mid-1990s, once-insular unions have been more likely to engage with community and faith organizations and various social struggles. Labor’s support for the Occupy Wall Street movement last fall was another important step in that direction.

    But the CTU has gone much further. The group that leads the union, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), took up the fight against school closures years before they won office, and that that work continued afterward. While the fight to save the 17 schools earlier this year failed, the union deepened its ties to community groups opposed to the closures—and those organizations supported the CTU at contract time. Crucially, the CTU spelled out its alternative vision for public education in Chicago in a document titled “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve” that called for full funding, smaller class sizes, and an enriched curriculum.
  • Local unions don’t have to accept concessions pushed by national union leaders. By opposing merit pay and defending tenure rights, the CTU stood firm where its national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), has retreated.

    Negotiations in Chicago began with negotiators for the school district pushing a copy of the New Haven, Conn., teachers’ collective bargaining agreement—a so-called “thin contract” that strips away teachers’ job protections won over decades. AFT President Randi Weingarten was personally involved in negotiating that deal in New Haven, which she called a “model or a template.” The CTU said no—and used the strike weapon to hold the line.
  • Public-sector unions don’t have to accept givebacks just because Democratic politicians demand them. Democratic Govs. Jerry Brown of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York have both extracted major concessions on pay and benefits from public-sector unions. Labor leaders went along, arguing that it’s better to make some sacrifices than have someone like Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker trying to eliminate collective bargaining rights altogether.

    The CTU said no way—and by doing so exposed the fact that Democrats are just as committed as Republicans to attacking teachers’ unions in the name of “reform.”
  • Public-sector unions can lead the wider working class in the fight against austerity. Ever since Scott Walker packaged his union-busting bill as budget reform, Republican and Democratic officials alike have claimed they had to squeeze unions to benefit the taxpayers.

    The CTU strike turned that argument on its head, winning popular support by arguing that the real problem was the city’s priorities of tax cuts for business, instead of money for education. To withstand the current onslaught, public-sector unions everywhere will need to follow the CTU’s example and point out how the services they provide benefit the entire working class.
  • Union democracy is essential to rebuilding a fighting labor movement. Like most unions, the CTU invests enormous formal power in its president. But the CORE team that leads the union sought, from the beginning, to maximize union democracy. The union’s executive board, a rubber stamp when the conservative old guard ran the union, has come alive. House of Delegates meetings are lively forums for debate and discussion of union policy.

    CTU delegates made the decision to extend the strike into a second week in order to have time to discuss a tentative contract agreement with members at each school site. Over the next two days, delegates at hundreds of schools conducted open-air meetings to discuss the pros and cons of the deal. It was a lesson in union democracy that should be learned throughout the labor movement.
  • To be effective, strikes need to shut down operations and put pressure on the boss. The CTU stunned Rahm Emanuel by abandoning the old practice of rotating two-hour shifts of all-day picketing at empty school buildings. Instead, the CTU’s constant mass rallies reinforced a sense of solidarity among members and galvanized community support.

    Of course, striking teachers don’t face the same possibility of permanent replacement and threats from strikebreaking security firms that factory workers do. Still, the CTU strike can be an example for unions in any industry: Mass pickets and solidarity can exert pressure on the employer—and the greater the solidarity, the less the risk that scabbing operations or court injunctions will succeed.

The list of lessons of the CTU strike could go on and on. But for a labor movement starved of success for so long, that’s an excellent start.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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