Winning the Strike: How Chicago Teachers Made History

October 1, 2012

Last month, the Chicago Teachers Union did something that no one thought possible a few years ago when the Great Recession took hold. Back then, the economic crisis and devastating budget cuts gave corporate-backed school “reformers” the conditions they needed to thrust the war on public education into high gear.

The Chicago teachers strike is a groundbreaking event in the fight to defend public schools and resurrect a fighting labor movement. Months of preperation went into the victorious strike that forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel to back down from his most damaging attacks against teachers. The union knew it needed to build alliances beyond labor and win the support of parents and communities before moving to strike. Its success in doing so was central to winning the standoff. 

While teachers unions across the country have conceded to the corporate school “reform” agenda – agreeing to merit pay, attacks on seniority and a tidal wave of standardized testing – the CTU made a move unprecedented in this era. And the high stakes of the teachers’ daring fightback was lost on no one. By putting themselves on the picket line, they put the entire war against public education on trial. Its location, its actors, and its timing made it a trial with a national audience. The rank-and-file politics of the union injected militancy into a battle that was fought in the home city of President Obama during the height of the presidential election season – and against a cut-throat anti-union goon who helped craft Obama’s school “reform” agenda at the national level. 

The teachers stared down the mayor and an entire political establishment bent on privatization – and they won. In the process, they taught other teachers and workers everywhere some powerful lessons.      

              Cross-posted from Socialist Worker:

Learning from the Chicago teachers

The strike by the 26,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) in September has lessons for many people, inside Chicago and out.

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.

The schools showdown in Chicago, which the CTU rightly called “a fight for the very soul of public education,” forced everyone–from teachers and parents and community members to political leaders–to answer the question: Which side are you on?

The answer from most Chicagoans was plain to see on the streets–especially when they were clogged with mass protests, colored CTU bright red. Morning picket lines at schools in every neighborhood were strong, loud and enthusiastic, proving that teachers were ready for this fight. In the afternoon and over the weekend, teachers were joined by supporters for huge rallies and marches, held at City Hall and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) headquarters downtown, as well as in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Through it all, opinion polls showed that more people in Chicago sided with the teachers than the city. Support for the CTU was even stronger among parents of CPS students, despite the difficulties the strike caused for them and the propaganda offensive designed to pit them against the union.

Public sentiment turned sharply against Emanuel, whose arrogance and bullying made him the butt of jokes on picket signs and the target of chants like “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Rahm Emanuel has got to go!” There was plenty of anger for Rahm’s wealthy allies, too–like billionaire hotel heiress Penny Pritzker, a member of the mayor’s handpicked school board who skimmed off city funds that could go to schools in order to build a new hotel.

But Chicagoans also knew who they were for: the teachers. Ultimately, the CTU came to represent an alternative vision–for public schools, run with adequate funding, where every student and every teacher is valued; and, by extension, for government and the city as a whole, with different priorities that put people before business interests.

On the other side, Rahm Emanuel had his proponents of corporate school “reform”–for example, phony citizen’s groups like Democrats for Education Reform, which sponsored anti-teacher ads that seemed to run every five minutes during the strike.

Lurking behind such groups and posing as “concerned citizens” were the super-rich elite who stand to profit from closing public schools, opening for-profit charters and decimating teachers’ unions.

One “concerned citizen, ” Bruce Rauner, a wealthy venture capitalist and charter school backer who Emanuel put on the board of World Business Chicago, made the priorities of the city’s business and political establishment crystal clear at a seminar for the right-wing Illinois Policy Institute.

Calling the contract negotiations with the CTU “one battle in a very long-term fight,” Rauner said, “The union basically is a bunch of politicians elected to do certain things–get more pay, get more benefits, less work hours, more job security. That’s what they’re paid to do. They’re not about the students. They’re not about results.”

“It’s the lousy, ineffective, lazy teachers,” Rauner said. “They’re the ones that the union is protecting, and that’s where there’s a conflict of interest between the good teachers and the union bosses.”

Also in Emanuel’s corner were a few embarrassments for the former chief of staff to Barack Obama. Like Republicans Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, who congratulated the Democratic mayor for taking on the CTU, and Tea Party favorite Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who denounced Chicago teachers as “thugs.” Fox News and the blowhards of right-wing talk radio discovered a new enemy on which to heap racist abuse in CTU President Karen Lewis.

But even with the right ranting at top volume, it was impossible to miss the fact that the teachers were taking on a Democratic mayor–and in the hometown of a Democratic president.

Continue Reading at Socialist Worker

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About SubterraneanDispatcher

Brian Tierney is a longtime socialist activist who works as a communications specialist for a labor union in Washington, DC. After completing his undergraduate studies in International Affairs and Latin America Studies, he has been working in the labor movement and writing reports and analyses on various struggles for social and economic justice. In addition to reporting on protests in the DC area, he also writes about union struggles, immigrant rights, the fight to defend public education, and struggles of the poor and working class in general. His work has been published in The Washington Post, The Nation, The Progressive, Common Dreams, CounterPunch, Socialist Worker and The Neoprogressive. Brian can be reached via email at btier@yahoo.com.

Posted on October 1, 2012, in Austerity, Budget Cuts, Cronyism, Labor Movement, Public Education, SubDisp Exclusive, Teachers Unions, U.S. Politics, Union Rights, Workers Rights. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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