Under Mayor Daley, Chicago was the testing ground for the agenda of privatization, closures, staffing cuts and high-stakes testing that led to President Obama’s Race to the Top.
The response of the best activists in the Chicago Teachers Union, AFT Local 1, to these attacks was to build CORE, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators. After successfully fighting six school closures while still in opposition, CORE was elected to lead the CTU in 2010 on a program of defending quality public education through rank-and-file control and an organized outreach to parents and the community.
Despite early mistakes, including getting drawn into Democratic Party politics and agreeing to SB7, an educational “reform” law which, among other things, barred the CTU from striking without a 75% vote, CORE’s democratic process has allowed it to make corrections. It has worked to rebuild the union’s structures and to develop its members’ ability to fight day-to-day battles.
It has mounted an effective grass roots campaign to replace the narrative of “lazy overpaid teachers” with what this really is - a fight over quality education and full funding, especially in low-income neighborhoods. It has also identified the real enemy, going after the members of the Board, such as Hyatt billionaire Penny Pritzker – and the tax-dodging corporations they own – and leading a massive May rally to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
This spring and summer, the Chicago Public Schools board (CPS) was threatening to savage public education through its SB7-enabled demand to make teachers work longer instructional hours for less pay. In response, in June the union won a stunning 92% vote of the bargaining unit – 98% of those actually voting – to authorize a strike. This has forced the CPS board to back off. Instead, they have agreed to rehire 477 mainly art, music and foreign language teachers and to lengthen the school day by half as much as originally proposed, in a way that enriches the curriculum rather than teaching to the test.
Other issues such as pay raises, merit pay, and health care remain unresolved. As we go to press, the union is gearing up for a strike on the first full day of school. On Labor Day itself, for the first time in decades, there will be a massive downtown rally “for jobs, dignity, and a fair contract” called by the CTU and supported by the Chicago Federation of Labor and other unions.
This fighting spirit is inspiring other struggles; for example, AFSCME Illinois is now considering a statewide strike for the first time in its history.
This is what unionism should look like. Big business is deadly serious in its goal of destroying public education and public sector unions, and success is not guaranteed. But what is clear at this point is that this is a fighting union which is gaining the confidence of its members and also of wider sections of the working class.
For further analysis, see the pamphlet “Save Our Schools” at http://www.socialistalternative.org/publications/education/