An Urban Teacher Union Epic

Against the Current, No. 194, May/June 2018

Marian Swerdlow

A Fight for the Soul of Public Education:
The Story of the Chicago Teachers Strike
By Steven K. Ashby and Robert Bruno. ILP Press (Cornell University Press), 2016,
309 pages, $35 hardcover.

Strike for America:
Chicago Teachers Against Austerity
By Micah Uetricht
Verso Books, 2014, 144 pages, $19.95 paperback.

How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers
A Labor Notes Book
$15 paperback
(order from

FOR TEACHER UNION activists, for champions of social movement unionism, for advocates of education justice, the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union’s (CTU) strike lit up the sky like a comet. Clearly the challenges of winning public support for strikes today are more formidable than they were in the middle decades of the 20th century when most teachers and other public sector workers first organized.

In the 1960s, the public had a more positive view of unions, in large part because so many more were members or closely related to members. It felt only fair that government employees should also have the benefits of labor organization. Today few private sector workers are organized, and even among those, norms of solidarity are severely atrophied.

Furthermore, 50 years ago there was a positive view of government services that was the legacy of the Progressive movement and the New Deal that has now eroded. Anti-union forces take advantage of increasingly regressive tax policies to focus working people on the connection between public employee salaries and benefits and their own tax bill, counting on public pressure against public employee unions and especially their right to strike.

To counter this, the onus is on public employees to persuade that they and their labor organizations benefit society. This is what the CTU sought to do, and its success kindled hope across the labor movement. The recent West Virginia teachers action provides us with a different model, but just as with the Chicago teachers, the ties teachers established with their communities were central to their success.

Background to the CTU Strike

CTU’s 2012 strike was militant; the rank and file were not only deeply and broadly involved, but exercised an unusually large role in the decisions initiating the strike, running it and deciding when to end it.

Key for strikers without an employer who depends on them to generate revenue and profits, they were able to gain the active support of important sections of the public. This support came heavily from Black and Latino communities, although the strikers were themselves majority white.

Finally, the strike won gains in working conditions and job security. While not huge, these gains were significant in the context of an ongoing massive assault on teachers and their unions, coordinated by some of the country’s wealthiest corporations and most powerful politicians — and the willingness of most teacher union leaders to accommodate to this onslaught by making devastating concessions.

The strike achieved this despite — perhaps in part because of — a city administration whose hostility to teacher unions stood out even in this generally poisonous climate. Its agenda was to undermine public education, particularly for communities of color, in part by neutralizing the teachers’ union.

Books telling the story of this triumph by the third largest U.S. teacher union reveal that a small but extraordinary group of activists became union leaders by doing nearly everything right, attracting around them hundreds of teachers whose salaries had been growing with each contract, but who felt that did not compensate for the deterioration of their working conditions, particularly their job security.

The fullest account of the strike itself is A Fight for the Soul of Public Education: The Story of the Chicago Teachers Strike by Steven K. Ashby and Robert Bruno. Notable for its wealth of detail, and a strong historical and political analysis, it combines the useful aspects of an academic tract — an index, extensive footnotes, etc. — with vivid writing, engrossing warmth for the subject, and skillful portraits that make both leaders and rank and filers come alive.

The authors set the stage by outlining President Obama’s education policy, “Race to the Top.” It forced states to compromise public education — uncapping the number of charter schools and evaluating teachers through using student test scores — in order to obtain badly needed federal funds.

Chicago’s history helps explain how the CTU was able to mobilize communities and parents. According to Ashby and Bruno, parents had mobilized in opposition to a series of teacher strikes during the 1980s:

“Pushed by the ill-feelings about the 1987 teachers’ strike, a coalition of parent groups formed CURE (Chicagoans United to Reform Education). Its purpose was to pressure the Illinois state assembly to pass reform legislation…an education bill with parental oversight of schools.”

The resulting measure gave power over school budgets and staffing to parent-dominated Local School Councils (LSCs).

In 1995, newly in control of the state legislature, Republicans passed laws giving Chicago’s mayor greater control over the public schools, weakening the LSCs. The legal scope of collective bargaining for Chicago teachers was narrowed to exclude class size, layoffs, staffing and teacher assignments. These laws also restricted seniority rights and the right to grieve. That same year, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and CTU signed a four-year contract that according to Ashby and Bruno, “mostly paid teachers more in exchange for removing some of their control over school operations.”

The state and the city began to “reconstitute” schools and remove teachers. The authors explain that with the 1999 contract:

CTU officials agreed to keep looking the other way…CPS and the mayor had paid for the freedom to reorganize and close schools, subject students to increased high-stakes testing, increase high school class size, and further marginalize the control a teacher had over the school day.

From 2001 through 2010 the “look the other way” policy continued, as CPS shuttered 70 schools and 6,000 CTU members lost their jobs. These conditions — relatively high salaries combined with a loss of workplace control — led Chicago teachers to prioritize working conditions above raises in 2012.

Toward a Winning Strategy

However Chicago communities maintained a high degree of local organization. Ashby and Bruno cite activities of the 11 such community groups. Their presence, and the legacy of local community control, created favorable conditions for opposition to school closings. Yet the CTU leadership negotiated another contract in 2007 with what Ashby and Bruno call “significant pay increases” that ignored the ensuing massive teacher layoffs.

These were the conditions that gave rise to the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), which the authors relate, began in 2007 as a study group. The high degree of political agreement among CORE’s key leaders and activists stands out from the beginning.

As they read, discussed and acted, the activists learned how to trust each other and make decisions together. This cohesion contributed to CORE’s eventual success. These teachers built strong ties with parent organizations, as they struggled jointly against school closings.

This history reverses the more common pattern, where union reformers form an uneasy coalition with individuals and groups whose only common denominator is opposition to the incumbents. Such coalitions can end badly, especially if they win, when internal differences beset them.

While most CTU members lived in terror of losing their jobs from school closings or to “turnarounds” (in which a school’s entire staff is fired), the CTU leadership “was not taking any action on school closings.” CORE grew swiftly to 400 members.

When CORE decided to run for union leadership, the election was a five-way race. Because winning required capturing a majority of votes and not just a plurality, CORE didn’t feel pressure to form an alliance with other caucuses. In the May 2010 election the incumbent United Progressive Caucus slate won 35.6% with CORE a close second. As the runoff approached, the other slates threw their support to CORE, resulting in its victory that June.

CORE had barely two years to prepare for the next contract. To succeed, it would have to change the union’s top-down culture and reinvigorate a demoralized, frightened rank and file. Ashby and Bruno observe:

“(F)rom the moment they took office . . . the new CTU leadership and staff began the process of transforming the CTU by educating, organizing, and mobilizing the members. By September 2012, hundreds of inactive members had been transformed into activists and leaders, who then energized and united a membership capable of waging a successful nine-day strike.”

CORE cut the salaries of leadership positions an average of 35% to align with rank-and-file workers’ pay. Staff “perks” were eliminated. With the savings, organizers were hired, drawn from the membership. The essence of their method was face-to-face interaction, engagement with every single member. “Tens of thousands of conversations,” one CORE leader recalled.

Recruitment and training of leaders was a constant. Every member was offered resources and expected to shoulder responsibilities. Polling tracked membership consciousness and readiness for action. Strongholds and weak links were identified, and the latter strengthened. Although CORE was far from inventing any of these methods, it applied them consciously and systematically.

What Students and Teachers Deserve

CTU had its lucky breaks, too. It rode the breakers of the Wisconsin uprising and the worldwide Occupy rebellions — adroitly taking advantage of these upticks.

To consolidate parent and community support, CTU’s research department released a 46-page report, The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve. It spoke of what CTU was fighting for: smaller class size, a rich curriculum of art, music, languages, physical education, and social services in every school. It called out CPS for “educational apartheid,” and linked poverty to poor student outcomes.

The report acknowledged that teacher layoffs had disproportionately impacted Black teachers — and remarkably, the CORE leadership moved virtually the entire rank and file, majority white, onto this message.

Leading up to and during, the strike, teachers learned to see and to present every issue — from seniority to job security to pay — as it impacted students and their education.

Anti-union state legislation had mandated that, for teachers to legally strike, 75% of the membership (not merely 75% of those voting) had to vote “yes.” This is a high bar. Yet compared to most states where public employees are banned from striking under any circumstances, it still gave Chicago teachers a powerful potential clout.

Ironically, this also helped ensure that any legal strike would have enough support to succeed. To clear this hurdle, CTU held the vote in the workplace over a three-day period. This made it easier for the union to make sure almost every member voted.

In early June 2012, as a result of two years of systematic, intense grassroots organizing, 93.4% of CTU members took part in the strike vote, and 89.7% of the membership voted to authorize a strike.

The authors detail the negotiating process, as well as some court battles that the union lost, leaving “a bitter taste . . . [and] the union reluctant to employ further strategies in the courts to fight CPS.” This experience reaffirmed the union’s reliance on mass direct action.

The union ingeniously made the issue of education — the very one the law excluded from bargaining — central to the contract fight. It gamed the rules regarding the time frame for the steps in the bargaining process, such as fact-finding, mediation, and strike notice. The leadership refused to allow the laws to box it in.

Although to the public, CTU presented itself as focused on improving education, Ashby and Bruno acknowledge: “(J)ob security was the critical issue. The experience of losing one’s job, through no fault of one’s own, without a right to be recalled, had a visceral impact on school employees.”

Waging the Fight

The authors’ account of the strike, although very detailed, leaves many questions. One involves why September 10 was chosen as the day to launch the strike.

CTU eschewed the practice, almost universal among teacher unions, of picking the scheduled first day of classes to be the strike date. Ashby and Bruno explain that CTU leaders waited a week in order to “give teachers and staff time to talk to parents.”

This seems a solid reason until one realizes September 4, the first day of city-wide classes, was Day One of the Democratic Party National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. The chance “to talk to parents” hardly seems as strategically important as a threat to embarrass the Democratic Party establishment with a strike in a city and against a mayor both closely associated with the presidential candidate.

The CTU leadership and membership were both openly critical of the Democratic Party establishment, and would have had few qualms about using this threat and following through on it. However, the CTU is a local of the American Federation of Teachers, whose president Randi Weingarten, herself a member of that establishment, would have stopped at nothing to prevent such an embarrassment.

The House of Delegates voted on the September 10th strike date. In any case, the union leaders had already made such discussion moot by serving the required 10-day strike notice to the Board of Education on August 29. (Ashby and Bruno do not mention any discussion within the union about when to issue the 10-day notice.)

The way the strike ended also raises questions. The authors make clear that on Friday, September 14, CTU leaders wanted to wrap it up and get members back to work the following Monday. Despite copious detail, Ashby and Bruno’s narrative does not make reasons for this clear. They report that on Thursday, September 13, the tide seemed to turn in the negotiations. CTU leader Jesse Sharkey “proudly declared, ‘We are winning in the court of public opinion and at the bargaining table,’” but don’t cite specifically what had changed.

But the following day, Friday, September 14, it no longer seemed that the union was winning. School Board president David Vitale “had informed the union that the board would not engage in any further negotiations beyond Sunday.”

That afternoon, at the House of Dele­gates, Sharkey “signaled that bargaining had reached a terminal point.” He recapped where negotiations stood and conveyed the message that the bargaining process and the strike had both run their course, and “the new contract won’t be able to resolve all of [our] issues,” but will “reflect our bottom line concerns and demands.”

Even after that foreshadowing by Sharkey,  on Saturday 15,000 rallied (although Ashby and Bruno note that many members, drained from a week of hectic activity, took off the day to rest). On Sunday, September 16, top CTU leaders met with the 30-person membership bargaining team.

“They made it clear that while the contract had flaws, it was very good and the best that could likely be negotiated. The leadership intended to recommend to the membership that the strike be suspended. But a majority of members [on the membership bargaining team] expressed reservations about ending the strike [because they] wanted to read the summaries…”

The membership bargaining team voted 20 to 10 to remain on strike. The entire meeting reached an agreement about how to proceed at the House of Delegates meeting later that day. The authors report delegates in

“the House…were excited, energized and still in a combative spirit.

“Officers were unequivocal in recommending that the delegates approve the tentative contract… As promised, the leadership shared the vote and advice of the membership bargaining representatives.”

The delegates rejected the suspension of the strike, opting to stay out at least until Wednesday, so that all members could read the proposed pact, and give them direction about whether to return to work.

The leadership of most unions would have interpreted such developments to mean that the strike had gotten out of its control, precisely the reason why most union leaders prefer more top-down, albeit less powerful, strikes, or none at all. However, the CORE leadership took this in stride. President Lewis stated, “the officers of this union follow the lead of our members.”

The Outcome

These votes on Sunday, however, suggest that the rank and file might have been ready to continue the walkout, if the leadership had organized for it instead of recommending against it. Although contract language was added requiring that 50% of new hires must come from a newly created “Teacher Quality Pool” of laid-off teachers, the rest could be filled from outside the system. Rehiring precedence would be determined by a teacher’s rating, not by seniority. Furthermore, pay guarantees to laid-off teachers were reduced from two years to one year. Thus, closings and “turnarounds” remained the major threats.

The differences between the leadership and the rank and file over ending the strike seem an important feature of the story, but Ashby and Bruno simply describe it with no attempt to analyze or explore it. Some of their conclusions seem to go beyond the evidence they present — for instance when they say that by broadening its demands beyond wages and benefits:

“(C)ollective bargaining became an instrument for social change . . . As long as labor has the right to negotiate and strike over managerial control of the workplace, it has the potential to translate that capacity into the means of achieving more substantial social change . . .

Was there significant, lasting change in the balance of forces, even locally? As Ashby and Bruno admit, “despite the CTU’s efforts to negotiate over parental concerns, ultimately,” the Board did not have to, and didn’t.”

Despite the CTU’s unsparing resistance, the Board went on to close 50 schools and fire the staffs of 17 additional schools the following year, according to the authors. While CTU’s leadership radically transformed the union’s internal life, its wider impact was less obvious, playing out more in political discourse and consciousness than in institutional transformation.

Ashby and Bruno claim that CTU “addressed the wider needs of workers and the working class.” The union certainly tried to address what the Chicago working class wanted for their children’s education. And it offered support and solidarity to other unions. But the claim that this was addressing “the wider needs of the . . . working class” seems exaggerated. At least some of CORE’s leaders would probably say that is the role of an organization based in the class as a whole, not an individual union.

Despite these problems, the book remains an extremely valuable account of one of the major U.S. strikes of the decade.

Teachers Against Austerity

Micah Uetricht’s Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity, came out two years before Ashby and Bruno’s. It is much shorter, more of an essay than a rigorous, academically framed case study.

The language is more overtly leftist and claims that the strike “slowed the neoliberal project’s forward march [and] wrung some concessions out of it.” It explicitly defines CORE’s leadership as “left-wing” and points to how they were influenced by socialist labor organizing of the distant and recent past.

Uetricht underlines CORE’s choice not to coalesce with other caucuses as an excellent strategic decision. He also celebrates CORE’s decision to carry on as a caucus with governance and activities separate from CTU’s leadership structure.

Overall, Uetricht seems to be speaking to rank-and-file activists and opposition caucuses, especially the socialists among them. For example, he warns “Union leaders with strong left politics [have to be able to] educate and politicize their members [to avoid being threatened by] those within the union who would rather focus on advancing members’ self-interests alone . . .”

Uetricht is also less sanguine than Ashby and Bruno about how much teacher unions and their struggle can achieve. His conclusions are much more shaped by the “school closings . . . budget cuts . . . mass teacher layoffs” that followed the strike, despite all the efforts of the CTU:

“All of these defeats raise the question of whether the kind of unionism that led to victory in the 2012 strike will be enough to halt the continued dismantlement of public education. . . . the implications are uncomfortable. No matter how well-organized communities and workers are, the overwhelming power of free market forces and their representatives in public office may still triumph . . . .”

Framing the problem in the political sphere as “representatives in public office” — rather than the power of the capitalist state and the two bourgeois major parties — leads Uetricht to conclude that “the shift to electoral politics is necessary.” In the 2015 Chicago mayoral election, however, CTU attempted to carry out this “shift to electoral politics” but was unable to change the “representatives in public office,” let alone the balance of forces, through electoral action. [However, the CTU is still developing ideas of how to oppose the neoliberalism of the two-party system. — ed.]

Jump-Start Your Union

Union members who understand the importance of democracy, militancy and social consciousness naturally want the CTU strike to set off a tsunami of similar actions, or at least a ripple effect. To encourage this, a group of labor journalists associated with Labor Notes produced How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers. Following each chapter is a list of lessons.

The “jump start” of the CTU is in three parts.

• First, a caucus of visionary leaders won its top offices. The lessons from this part probably have the broadest applicability across all the different varieties of unions: “CORE began doing the work of the union long before being elected,” and “CORE activists . . . developed a shared point of view.”

• Second, once in office, the caucus transformed the “union culture.” This too has some broadly relevant lessons. For example, CORE cut officers’ salaries and with the savings created a new organizing department, “trained a thick layer of new leaders to think like organizers.”

Today, teacher unions, along with other U.S. public employee unions, face a Supreme Court decision that will almost certainly take away one of their most important legal rights: collecting a “fair share” contribution from those they represent but who do not choose to become union members. This makes the lessons of Chicago about how to transform union culture to involve the entire bargaining unit even more important.

• Third, it recounts the launching of a strike that was enthusiastically and almost universally supported by the membership, and which they viewed as a win even though its gains were modest. Aspects of how the strike was organized — the extensive communications and distributions networks that covered the entire city, the mass picketing, daily rallies — could be used by many unions.

How to Jump-Start Your Union is a lively read, full of nuts and bolts advice useful for organizing anything, from a labor union to a tenants union to a single day of action at a single workplace.

Tentative Conclusions

Ashby and Bruno see the 2012 strike as a victory for “a broader vision of labor,” “bargaining for the common good,” “public sector unions in particular . . . must see as central to their identity the defense of government as a positive good for society, the defense of social services for working people against the pushers of austerity.”

Uetricht, in a similar vein, writes of strikes that

“. . . interrupt the provision of services that are critically needed by working class people . . . [unions] must figure out . . . focal points that can rally community support and the support of other unions . . .”

How to Jump Start Your Union devotes two chapters to how the strike developed community support, as well as sections in most other chapters.

Gaining community support remains a complicated issue for public sector workers. In the case of teachers, both the need and potential for support may be at their greatest. On this issue, all three books probably over-generalize the extent to which the situation of urban teachers can be applied to other public or private sector workers.

To what extent can CTU’s closest cousins, other urban teacher unions, hope to duplicate its “jumpstart” by following its lessons? The conditions that led CORE to its electoral and subsequent 2012 strike victories may not be easily reproduced. There are lessons about organizing methods, and there is inspiration, but no surefire recipe.

(The recent wildcat by West Virginia teachers provides a very diffierent model. The setting was rural, the strike was illegal, and formal union leadership was sidelined. Community support, so consciously cultivated in Chicago, seemed to arise spontaneously in this state suffering from deindustrializatio and austerity.)

The CORE leadership faced specific hurdles — including state laws that forbade it to bargain over the very issues it needed to win community support. The CTU showed great ingenuity and determination in overcoming this and many other difficulties. Their resolute attitude should inspire other union activists.

May-June 2018, ATC 194