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One, Two, Many Chicago Teachers’ Strikes

How an uncompromising spirit lead the CTU to victory.

Chicago occupies a central place in the history of labor struggles. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was set in the Windy City, the Haymarket affair is widely considered to be one of the most significant labor events of the nineteenth century, and countless unions were born in the city’s seemingly endless industrial struggles. And in 2012, Chicago hosted the most dynamic and successful strike to occur in the United States in at least fifteen years, and the largest teachers’ strike in nearly a quarter-century, all while fundamentally challenging a global movement to privatize and standardize public education.

Mass public education was brought about by a combination of progressive reformers’ concerns about the morality of working-class youth, and the agitation of the labor movement for an end to child labor. It became officially universal around the turn of the century, but the widespread abolition of child labor did not take full force until the end of World War II. The fact that farm labor was (and continues to be!) exempted from this regulation meant that large cities historically had (and have) lower truancy rates. But as education journalist Dana Goldstein has pointed out, Chicago also featured a vibrant teachers’ union movement from more or less the historical moment that universal public education became part of the national elite consensus, and the city hosted the nation’s first ever teacher’s strike in 1902.

But although this background sets a precedent, it is the struggles of the the latter half of the twentieth century that more accurately presage the contemporary struggle. The 1902 strike, for example, occurred prior to the great migration of Black Americans from the south, and the teacher’s federation founded by Margaret Haley, like most trade unions prior to the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1935, was imbued with the logic of white supremacy. It is the period from 1968 until 1987, when the children of the revolutionary unionism of the 1930s entered the teaching profession, that enables us to assess the present situation in Chicago public education and to situate the 2012 strike in the context of public education and the labor movement as whole in the United States.

Much of the historical memory of the Chicago Teachers Union is to be found in the longtime opposition newsletter, Substance News, founded and edited by longtime radical teacher George Schmidt.

Over Labor Day weekend in 2012, Substance News partnered with Chicago’s labor broadcasting service, Labor Beat, to produce a video on the nine Chicago teacher’s strikes that took place between 1968 and 1987. These strikes led to a dramatic improvement in the diversity of the teaching profession, and won considerably expanded tenure protection. What is crucial to remember is that the first strike of the two decades of industrial action in the Chicago public schools was an unsanctioned wildcat strike led by the mostly-black Full-Time Basis Substitutes, another term for teachers who were refused access to the teaching profession largely as a result of their racial background or political commitments. Over one hundred schools, largely in Chicago’s nearly exclusively-black South Side, were struck, and although no concrete resulting gains were made, a broad network of solidarity in the city’s black schools began to be built. Contrast this with New York, which has not had a teacher’s strike since the infamous 1968 strike against community control, led by noted racist Al Shanker.

The teachers’ strikes in Chicago occurred in the context of the civil rights movement in the city, as described in the documentary epic Eyes on the Prize. Ranging from Martin Luther King’s attempt to organize in the city in 1966–67 (after one march, King reportedly said “I have seen many demonstrations in the South but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today”) to the successful campaign to elect Harold Washington as the city’s first black mayor in 1983, Chicago was central to the civil rights movement in the north. That the movement to reform the CTU and to expand democracy in the Chicago Public Schools would initially come out of the black community is thus unsurprising. And that the movement for civil rights in Chicago was able to successfully infiltrate the city’s teachers union explains the greater historical connection between the CTU and the city’s troublemakers, compared to the still-frosty relationship between New York’s United Federation of Teachers and rabblerousers in Gotham.

The ’68 strike was followed by eight more strikes by 1987, making education in Chicago vastly more equitable and almost exclusively a black-run affair. By the time the 1987 strike rolled around, the city’s mayor, school board chief, superintendent, and teacher’s union head were all African American. For most of the 2000s until Arne Duncan’s appointment as education secretary, all but the teacher’s union head were white, and by this year, the amount of black teachers had gone from a majority in the 1980s to 19% — even as the population of public school children in the city has become almost monochromatically black and brown.

The fact that Chicago teachers saw themselves as part of the labor and black freedom movement enabled them to win real and widespread gains during their two decades of labor unrest. It is no surprise, then, that it was a city that was an early target for aggressive neoliberal pushback, arguably the first one in the country.

Noted gambling addict and biopolitician William Bennett, then Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, in 1987 called Chicago’s public schools “the worst in the country.” Bourgeois pushback at that time was essential. That same year, Chicago teachers won an excellent contract after a nineteenday strike, Harold Washington easily won reelection as mayor, and the “Eddies” (old-guard Daley white supremacist Chicago aldermen Ed Vrdolyak and Ed Burke) lost their majority on the city council. Future Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, at the time a fixture of the pro-labor black political establishment (widely identified at the time as the “conscience” of the Illinois legislature) had just been easily elected Cook County Recorder of Deeds, removing a key patronage post from the Daley machine. With the liberal-left ascendent nationally (due to the then-raging Iran-Contra scandal and the rejection of Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination), it seemed that the time was ripe for significant institutional reforms to the manner in which power was distributed in Chicago.

Bennett’s statement was a way to preempt that. With the death of Harold Washington later that year and the impetus provided by Bennett, Chicago’s school reform project was inaugurated. Bill Ayers, among others, notably provided “left” cover for the initiatives. Ample spoonfuls of sugar supplemented the school reform pills initially, and many of the processes to begin with seemed fairly benign. The first goal was the creation of Local School Councils to devolve power from the school board and teachers unions to councils composed mostly of parents and community members. Non-citizens were allowed to vote, increasing Latino support for the initiatives. Of course, the Local School Councils could do little to address the continued funding inequities in public education, at that time the most significant problem facing the vast majority of the city’s education institutions. And with foundation funding quadrupling in the interim, the school councils had little choice but to comply with the demands of the wealthy do-gooders.

The experience quickly turned sour. Foundation funding focused on the creation of “small schools,” which in the pre-KIPP days, served as a rallying cry for the reformers. Turnout for the Local School Council elections in 1991 decreased by 30% from the previous round. The CTU began to enter a long period of decline. The 1995 contract failed to challenge many of the new “reform” initiatives in favor of expanded pension benefits, now on the verge of significant cutbacks by the Illinois legislature. In 1995, the Illinois legislature gave Mayor Daley control over the school board, vastly increasing his power beyond anything his father ever achieved. Eight years after the elections that had seemed to portend its demise, the Daley machine was back in full force. (The Junior Daley’s power was indicated quite well when his brother was appointed as Secretary of Commerce in Bill Clinton’s second term. Despite his father’s being instrumental in getting JFK elected in 1960, the Illinoisans in Kennedy’s cabinet were only peripherally related to the Daley machine.) Daley was reelected that year with 60% of the vote. Paul Vallas, who has subsequently traversed the land implementing education reform policies, was appointed the new “CEO” of the Chicago Public Schools.

Vallas successfully inaugurated the modern era of education reform in Chicago: top-down decision making, blaming teachers for the faults of the education system, ignoring poverty or broader systemic issues. Democratic systems of accountability that allow a space for dissent, such as an elected school board, or the preservation of teacher tenure, are viewed as fundamentally dangerous to the education of children. After decades of systematic disinvestment in Chicago Public Schools, alongside increasingly-aggressive criminalization of communities that bore the brunt of said disinvestment, the new approach of Chicago’s (and the nation’s) ruling class was clear: we’re hating the players, and keeping the game.

The first elements of this project involved limiting the amount of students allowed to advance to the next grade, and holding back many students on the basis of high-stakes tests instead of the professional discretion of teachers. It was black and brown students that were disproportionately affected by this policy, but serious challenges to the testing regime on the basis of disparate impact have thus far been unsuccessful either in Illinois or nationwide.

The Vallas administration further distanced the school reform project from the model Local School Councils. With 109 schools placed under probation in 1996, the powers of the LSCs were limited to speeding up the implementation of turnaround policies. That same year, the legislature approved the state’s first charter schools, with 15 designated for Chicago. This history is routinely ignored when pundits discuss the implications of the Chicago teacher’s strike. Nearly all of the commentariat, including many at liberal-left publications, have argued that the fight should not be about administrators or teachers, but about parents and students. But the systematic disinvestment in and sidelining of Local School Councils by the “reform” administrations should give pause to those who argue that there was some sort of reasonable middle ground during the strike.

The reform project continued apace until the end of the decade, when a more militant caucus ousted the old guard of the union leadership in 2001. The new group, led by longtime rank-and-filer Debbie Lynch, came into office on a pledge to fight back against the destabilizing effects of the reform policies. Her inability to negotiate a contract acceptable to the membership (her first proposal was voted down handily by the membership in 2003) quickly led to the return of the accommodationist old guard in June 2004. That same month, buoyed by the defeat of their leading opponents, the Daley administration (now with Arne Duncan as CEO) announced their most ambitious privatization scheme to date. The Renaissance 2010 plan proposed mass closures of schools labeled “failing,” which were to be replaced by charter schools.

It was out of this project that the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (the caucus that now controls the CTU) emerged. Despite (or perhaps because of) the incapacity of the union leadership to fight back, a group of activists emerged to fight against the closures. One of the cofounders of the caucus, Al Ramirez, made a film about the dangers of the Renaissance 2010 project that was instrumental in creating networks of opposition to the closures. Further acceleration of Renaissance 2010 led to the creation of reading groups, most notably around The Shock Doctrine. The seeds for the creation of an official caucus were created in a potluck group, meeting Sundays at Karen Lewis’s house.

Most unions in the United States rarely if ever have legitimate, grassroots oriented leadership contests. The Unity Caucus at the United Federation of Teachers in New York has controlled the union for the duration of its existence — and every AFT President since 1960 has came out of that same old-guard leadership. The current AFT President, Randi Weingarten, only served a couple of years in the classroom before she was tapped for union elective office by her patron, then AFT president Sandy Feldman. The precedent set by the defeat of the accommodationist old guard in Chicago in 2001 provided an example for the new caucus to follow, but the chances for success initially were still low. The failure of the Marilyn Stewart leadership to aggressively challenge what effectively amounted to a first volley of the wholesale privatization of Chicago’s public education system meant that morale was low and discontent was high as CORE advanced its slate for elections for a three-year term in 2010.

CORE, ultimately supported by Debbie Lynch’s caucus in the runoff, ended up winning handily. The union was almost immediately faced with a crisis, largely because the astroturf group Stand for Children had targeted Illinois for the passage of model legislation curtailing teacher collective bargaining rights. Stand, originally a mostly grassroots organization based out of Portland and founded by the son of civil rights activists Marian Wright and Peter Edelman, had rapidly turned into a front for the privatization of education. Stand advocates the elimination of teacher tenure and collective bargaining, giving administrators considerably more power to run roughshod over the interests of those who are actually performing work in schools. In addition to the influence of Stand, the CTU’s decision to endorse Democrat Pat Quinn in the governor’s race in 2010 also arguably made it more difficult to create a strong critique of the new anti-collective bargaining bill.

Signed into law in June 2011, the bill’s key provisions required the inclusion of test scores during tenure decision making and layoffs and instituted a 75% majority for strike approval votes. The CTU reversed its support for the bill during the final round of negotiations, but the state’s two largest teacher unions, the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, both supported the legislation. The CTU was caught off guard, and there was consternation among the membership at the way that the new leadership had gone about confronting the legislation. That summer, a video of Jonah Edelman speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival showed how Stand effectively cornered the unions into passing the legislation. Coming in on an ocean of money, Stand and its allies paid the right lobbyists and outflanked the unions with a highly-effective PR campaign.

The CTU had, however, refused to endorse Rahm Emanuel when the Chicago elite coalesced around his candidacy at the end of 2010, avoiding ties between the union and a politician who had views dramatically counter to the interests of the membership. Emanuel almost immediately adopted a combative stance with the union, taking away contractually-mandated raises and arbitrarily instituting a longer school day without any added resources for education in Chicago. Both of those initiatives violated the CTU contract, and as a result the law. Yet the same old tune continued to be sung, with teachers being the be-all and end-all of the success of students.

Instituting a longer school day and seeing teacher compensation as peripheral to the quality of education are foundational tenets of education reform. Despite the so-called data driven approach of the “reformers,” however, they bear little relation to outcomes. The two policies, (both instituted during the 2011–2012 school year) combined with an aggressive internal organizing drive by the CTU, led to a fightback spirit at the CTU, culminating in the strike vote in June 2012.

One of the points that Jonah Edelman bragged about in passing the 2011 legislation was that the 75% threshold for authorizing a strike would effectively prevent any strike from occurring. The teachers blew past that number, winning yes votes from 90% of the unit, and 98% of those voting. A rally in June brought more than 5000 teachers to protest against the Board of Education, demanding a fair contract.

The union attempted to reframe the debate in their direction in February 2012, when they published “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve,” a forty-six-page report proposing a version of public education based on the preservation of the tenure system, smaller class sizes, greater racial diversity in the teaching profession, and universal access to art, music, physical education, foreign languages, air conditioning, and in-school clinics. (The air conditioning was especially important: a teacher on the picket line told me that four of her kindergartners had thrown up due to the heat in the week prior to the strike in September.) The one-page summary was distributed across the city, especially in the informational picketing prior to the strike and on the picket line while it was occurring. The corporate media entirely neglected to inform the public as to the existence of the report, but the alternate vision it provided is credited by many in the union as helping to create 66% support for the teachers during the strike by public school parents.

The vote in June was likely instrumental in getting a key concession during the summer time during negotiations, the only real progress made prior to the strike. In August, the school board reluctantly agreed to maintain the current workload of teachers and paraprofessionals in Chicago, and would hire 500 more teachers to cover the longer school day. This also considerably lessened the urgency of the union’s demand for greater compensation. Over questions such as evaluations and the preservation of tenure, however, the Board refused to budge. For policies so central to the education reform process, the Board — wholly controlled by Emanuel, headed by a banker, and counting as one of its members the billionaire Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker — would only be dragged into compromise kicking and screaming.

The strike ended up a disaster for the Emanuel administration, and yet it is surprising that they ever believed it could end in any other way. The membership was obviously highly engaged, with the Labor Day rally gathering some 10,000 teachers and the union had taken great pains to organize and inform the community about their position. The fact that the strike even occurred — this was a trade union strike, after all, not a revolutionary Soviet demanding full communism, with relatively modest demands — is a testament to the insularity of the Chicago bourgeoisie and their mayoral client.

When the strike hit, it certainly brought to mind the experiences of Wisconsin and Occupy in 2011, but at the same time with significant differences. These were clear demands, with clear possibilities for resolution. And in many ways, the strike bore little resemblance to many public sector strikes of the past. Scabbing was an issue at every single Chicago teacher’s strike from 1968–1987, but during the seven days in September, not a single member of the CTU was reported was reported crossing the picket line. Each of the first five days was electric, ending in rallies with some 20,000 to 30,000 members. Strike captains and delegates (the union had greatly expanded its official steward structure since CORE took power) reported 100% participation at picket lines. The general consensus was that Emanuel was in trouble and that the momentum was with the union.

The union took strides to identify where the problem lay: the fact that the 1% owns the city of Chicago, and they want it just for themselves. One of the most exciting actions was on Day 4 of the strike, when tens of thousands of teachers joined in a picket line in solidarity with workers at Hyatt hotels, attempting to bridge the connection between the Pritzker family’s fervent desire to both privatize public education and pay their employees poverty wages. Secondary boycotts are illegal under federal labor law, but because teachers are covered by Illinois publicsector labor law that restriction failed to apply to them. One of the most popular chants was simple, but reflected the general disillusionment with the Democratic Party: “Hey hey, ho ho, Rahm Emanuel’s got to go.” The CTU declined to make a Presidential endorsement in 2012. The disdain was mutual, and only eight of Chicago’s fifty aldermen publicly supported the CTU during the strike, despite the fact that a plurality of Chicago’s registered voters did.

When the contract was proposed to the members on Sunday, the House of Delegates decided to extend the strike two more days to allow for analysis of the proposed contract by the membership. The biggest disappointments in the new contract are that no deals were made on class size or school closures — largely because bargaining over those issues is technically illegal under the collective bargaining law. On other fronts, however, the CTU won an excellent contract that goes against the trend of concessionary contracts around the country (especially in Newark, where the union has just ratified a contract establishing merit pay by test scores).

The seniority system was preserved, and test scores as a percentage of the evaluation formula were kept at the minimum set by state law. Teachers can now grieve evaluation ratings and the contract contains provisions against bullying from administrators, creating hundreds of potential new in-school organizing opportunities. (Arguably the most valuable result of the strike was that it refostered a sense of oppositional solidarity among Chicago teachers — that one can stand up and win.) The board also made a commitment to hire more social workers, school nurses, and in-school clinicians upon the receipt of more tax money — something that the CTU is aggressively lobbying city hall and the statehouse for in the coming months. A sprinkling of other goodies — unseen, for the most part, in other cities — were included as well.

On October 2, the union overwhelming approved the contract with 79% of the vote. The No votes came mostly out of a sense of frustration that a deal had not been struck on class size and school closures. Defenders of the proposed contract, such as George Schmidt, argued that the school closure was a fight for another day, and the Caucus of Rank and File Educators encouraged its members to see the contract as one battle won, but with many future ones to come. After the contract was ratified, the CTU turned its focus towards defeating a ballot initiative that would have restricted future pension increases, and were successful.

Today, new movements have began to spring up around the country, attempting to model themselves after the work done by CORE in Chicago, and seeing accommodation as an untenable response to the assault on public education. In New York, the Movement of Rank and File Educators (CORE) in New York has forged a united front of the leading opposition caucuses. Their presidential candidate is Julie Cavanagh, a teacher who has long been active in protesting the direction of education in the city. Pro-public education bloggers and writers hailed the strike as well, seeing it as the first time that teachers in a big city have been able to fight back and win. Nearly half-a-dozen suburban Chicago school districts have gone on strike in the aftermath. And the 65,000 workers at Illinois’ AFSCME Council 31, having been pushed around by Governor Quinn, are discussing a statewide strike.

There are major fights on the horizon, and the assault continues. Emanuel has proposed shuttering up to 100 public schools, and the Illinois legislature is proposing dramatic pension cutbacks. It is highly likely that when this contract expires three years down the road, teachers will find it necessary to strike again.

But wins, or even draws, in the labor movement these days are rare. The last big strike prior to the CTU strike was the 2011 Verizon strike, which ended with a highly concessionary contract. If one is looking for models for defending the United States’ public sector with militant worker activity, only the Chicago teacher’s strike provides a reasonable twenty-first-century example. The lessons are clear: stand up, organize, have demands that point to a clear vision, call upon the experience of prior struggles, mobilize, and don’t sell out.