Magazine article Monthly Review

The Chicago Teachers' Strike and Beyond: Strategic Considerations

Magazine article Monthly Review

The Chicago Teachers' Strike and Beyond: Strategic Considerations

Article excerpt

Last September's Chicago teachers' strike raises critical strate- gic questions for all progressives and socialists seeking to resist the relentless neoliberal austerity attacks against working people and their communities. For teachers and union activists generally, it was a long-awaited event. Finally, a teachers' union had the courage to take a stand against the corporate education agenda to privatize and dis- mantle urban public school systems emanating from President Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and being implemented today by virtually every big city mayor across the country; in this case Chicago's Rahm Emanuel, one of the nation's most powerful politicians. In its counterattack, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) organized and mobilized its teacher base, and actively involved parents, students, and non-profit community-based organizations. It made the improve- ment of education a central goal, thereby thwarting Emanuel's attempt to isolate the CTU as just another "self-interested" union. The CTU inspired militant actions across the country, most recently the teacher boycott of high-stakes standardized testing in Seattle, Washington.

At the same time, it must be frankly recognized that the CTU's con- tract campaign, which culminated in the seven day strike, fell short of achieving its ambitious goals at the contract table. In particular, it was unable to: significantly slow the mayor's crusade to close scores of schools; halt district funding for mostly non-union, privately run char- ter schools; stop the lengthening of the school day and year without adequate employee compensation; or prevent the establishment of a teacher evaluation system based to an important degree on unreliable student scores on standardized tests.

These less-than-optimal results deserve serious analysis, especially in light of the local's herculean efforts to transform CTU from a classic, conservative business union to a progressive, even radical, organizing union. Could the strike have achieved more if other strategic choices had been made? Were some demands simply unwinnable? While this article will not attempt decisively to answer these questions, it will suggest a strategic orientation for future teachers' union struggles that builds upon lessons learned from the Chicago strike-one that ulti- mately argues for thoroughgoing class-wide organizing to amass the power necessary to stand up to what is in effect a nationally coordinated campaign on the part of the corporations and the state to undermine public education. Here the point of departure must be an analysis of the strengths and limitations of the Chicago teachers' struggle.

CTU, CORE, and the Rank-and-File Strategy

The Chicago teachers' strike would not have been possible were it not for the victory of the rank-and-file group, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), in the 2010 CTU elections. Forged in the struggle against school closings primarily in low-income communities of color, CORE ran against a corrupt and divided old guard on a platform calling for building an organizing union, based on alliances with parents and the community, and promoting an authentic vision of educational reform that included lower class size, an enriched curriculum, wraparound social ser- vices at schools in low-income communities, and increased funding.

CORE directly counterposed its vision to the corporate-driven "deform" touted by Mayor Emanuel, who advocated using student scores on standardized tests as a weapon to evaluate and compen- sate teachers (merit pay), closing public schools (with the rationale that they have failed to prepare their students to succeed on the stan- dardized tests), opening more privately run, mostly nonunion charter schools, and restricting or eliminating seniority in cases of layoffs. CORE opposed privatizing and charterizing, calling instead for invest- ing resources into existing neighborhood schools. The strike-with its mass participation by teachers, parents, and community around a visionary program for school change-was a dramatic rejection of that program. …

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