STRIKEWATCH: The lessons hard earned from our own history... A new regular feature at substancenews and in the print editions of Substance

By the early 1980s, the Chicago Teachers Union had helped organize everyone who worked in a Chicago public school into the unions that represented the people who actually did the daily work of educating Chicago's children. The job, which had taken more than half a century, had always been an "uphill battle." Every divide-and-conquer scheme from Chicago's rulers had been tried against the union (later the unions) and had failed.

Above, Chicago Teachers Union President Jacqueline Vaughn addresses one of the massive picket lines during the 1987 strike, in the shadow of one of Chicago's housing projects. The 1987 strike lasted 19 days, but headed off a lengthy list of cuts that CPS was trying to impose on everyone who worked in the city's schools. Contrary to some later myths and lies, Chicago teachers — and Chicago schools — won out from every strike that was ever held. From lower class sizes to preparation time for teachers to better pay and benefits to seniority rights for veteran teachers following layoffs — contracts were the key. Every strike the sign read: ON STRIKE FOR OUR CONTRACT. Archive photo.Why? There were a few reasons, each one earned through hard work. For one thing, every teacher and other worker in CPS (even those in jobs that required clout, which has never been far from CPS activities) knew that our union contracts were the best guarantee that we would have rights — and not just privileges. One of the early slogans in favor of the union contract was:


Another hard won lesson was that any "gift" from the boss could be taken away, while the rights won in a contract would be enforced as law, once both parties had signed off. As every first year law school students knows, the first course in law (which I had when I studied law at DePaul in the early 1970s; I decided I'd rather teach than do law for a living) is "contracts." A contract is a binding agreement between two parties that can be enforced, usually through the courts. The 40 years fight for the first union contract in Chicago took a long time and a lot of education.

Finally, came the hard lessons of the late 1970s and early 1980s. CPS — in league with Chicago's ruling class — would use any excuse to take away the rights we had won as workers in the schools. At Christmas 1979, we all went home without pay because the city's ruling class had concocted a phony "financial crisis" and claimed there was no money. The result was the 25 year reign of the Chicago School Finance Authority, which took billions of dollars away from the schools to repay a bond debt that was unnecessary but has been foisted upon the city's schools (by, among others, a guy named Jay Pritzker).

It wasn't until we went on strike in February 1980 — more than six weeks after that Payless Christman — that the Board finally began paying us. That strike had two parts. The first one, we stayed home for five days without a picket line. The second week, we put up picket lines and had an official strike. Between the two (maybe the first was a "blue flu", I don't remember), we were out ten days. We came back with what was left of our contract intact, although badly mauled.

We learned that when we fought, we "won," at least in the sense that we took fewer casualties. We learned that when we relied on the people who owned and ruled Chicago, they could do anything we couldn't stop them from doing (a slogan I remind people I call "Schmidt's First Rule." The rule? to repeat:

"They — the ruling class, the boss — will do anything we — the slaves, the workers, today the '99 percent' — can't stop them from doing."

By the end of the 1980s, Chicago teachers knew how to fight for our rights, and we had rights. In the coming months, Substance reporters and veteran teachers will be updating, on line and in print, "Strike Watch," a new historical and contemporary feature here.

For this month, a simple lesson plan we used to follow whenever we came to the end of a contract:

Don't take any expensive vacations the next six months. Save your money. Whatever we do, we will all do together.

Over the next six months, Substance will be sharing the wisdom of our history, hard fought and hard won. If you want to contribute to this growing body of information, contact us at, or call on the phone at 773-725-7502. As they used to say, "You have nothing to lose but your chains." The years of humiliation, teacher bashing, begging, and bullshit have got to end now.

We have indeed been too nice for too long.

Or, as Jacqueline Vaughn said more than once:

We either stand up and be counted or roll over and be mounted. Ultimately, the decision will come from the vote and hard work of every union member in the Chicago Teachers Union.


January 31, 2012 at 7:56 AM

By: Albert Korach


After reading STRIKE WATCH it suddenly occured to me that it's a shame that more retirees like me are still not around. We are the teachers that walked the line for collective bargaining, salary, medical insurance, tenure, etc. As a delegate I took my faculty out many times. Each time made us stronger and more determined. The majority of teachers today are the beneficiaries of all that we old timers went out for. Stay strong and do not let them take away what you and your families now have. If many politicians can retire on pensions larger than their salaries we should be able to keep what we have earned.

January 31, 2012 at 11:19 PM

By: John Kugler

Strike Memories

I remember the last strike i was on, working for metal fabricating factory: The strike lasted 3 days. It ended when the strikebreakers' bus the company tried to bring in did not work all of a sudden and when no scabs wanted to cross our picket line that is when the strike was over. We won.

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