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Lessons from Chicago's teacher's strike

October 24, 2012

Deborah Pope, Chicago teacher and an organizer of the recent teachers strike, spoke in Toronto on October 11 to elementary (ETFO) and secondary (OSSTF) teacher activists.  She also spoke to Socialist Worker.
Pope called the strike a victory that struck down plans for merit pay for teachers and more emphasis on standardized tests for teacher evaluation, and preserved seniority progression. In the process Pope said, “people who had never engaged in anything more than voting became convinced of the validity and importance of political action of demonstrating and striking.”
Pope talked about the process of developing a mobilized rank-and file that could challenge the “education reform” agenda, the code words for the corporatization and privatization of education pushed by both the US Democrats and the Republicans.
Rank-and-file organizing
In 2008, young radical and older activist teachers formed CORE—the Caucus of Rank and File Educators—to fight against neighborhood schools that were being closed or ‘flipped’ into charter schools. Concentrated in the poor south side of Chicago, CORE members worked with teachers, students and the community against school closures.
CORE’s efforts exposed the real agenda of “education reform” as an attack on public education. They also exposed the inaction of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) leadership in challenging it.
CORE originally had no intention to challenge the leadership in an election but in 2010 with Democratic Rahm Emmanuel running for mayor on an anti-teacher platform and no action from the union leadership, CORE members ran and won. Their project was to turn the “consumerist union” model on its head and give a voice to teachers themselves.
The new leadership began immediately, using the CORE model, to organize school by school with teachers and with outreach to parents, community and neighborhood groups.
In the lead up to the beginning of bargaining, “contract action committees” were started in each school to discuss the coming attacks and what the impact would be on teachers.
The crucial test of whether teachers were willing to fight against Mayor Emmauel’s attack was a strike vote. A new benchmark of 75 per cent of members voting was set by the city government as a deterrent to strike. One school did a straw vote as a test. The result was overwhelming support for a strike and this convinced the union to go for a strike vote. The result was 90 per cent turnout, and 98 per cent mandate for a strike.
Critical to gaining support both of teachers and the broader public was challenging the barrage of anti-teacher and anti-union rhetoric blaming teachers for poor student performance. With 35-50 students in un-airconditioned classrooms and few resources for teaching, the teacher’s union commissioned a report—titled The Schools Chicago Students Deserve—tying in teacher working conditions with students learning conditions.
Moving toward the contract deadline, the new CTU leadership worked with contract action committees and local school delegates to raise the main points of the report and campaign for teacher support. They systematically engaged every school, community group, religious institution and went door-to-door to reach the largest number of people they could. At critical points, bigger public events like Grade-ins and mass rallies gave the campaign a profile on the street and tested the mood of the public.
By the time the teachers hit the picket lines in September, it was clear they had the support of the mass majority of their own members and a large section of the public. Students and parents joined the picket lines.
Union democracy
During the strike Pope talked about how several levels of organization from local delegates, to area supervisors, to coordinators kept information and resources flowing both from the picket to the leadership and from the leadership and bargaining team to the picket lines. A daily strike bulletin was produced along with thousands of signs and leaflets.
Pope talked about the mood on the picket line: ‘teachers were talking and debating, their consciousness was raised…people (were) saying they never would have dreamt the union would mean so much to them.”
Union democracy was preserved throughout the process of the strike even with huge pressure coming from Mayor Emmanuel. Critically when the bargaining team got a tentative deal, Emmanuel threatened an injunction of picketing if teachers did not stop immediately. The leadership refused to end the strike until the House of Delegates, teachers’ local representatives, had a chance to review the deal and signal their approval. Teachers got a victory and were able to return to work on their terms.
Socialist Worker asked Pope what the impact is on the on the broader labour movement. As she said: “I think it’s been a huge shot in the arm to unions around the country, it has been inspirational to people. The fact that we had a victory, although not a perfect victory, is phenomenally inspiring to people. We’ve seen an upsurge of activities in other unions in Chicago and strikes in smaller school district in other parts of Illinois.” Furthermore, “In order to make unions relevant … they have to be meaningful to people, not just there to negotiate a contract, but to speak with a voice for the interest of working people.”

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