AFT REPORTS: Chicago's Karen Lewis, other panelists, help AFT Peace and Justice Caucus understand how Chicago has been changed
On Friday, July 27, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Peace and Justice Caucus hosted a forum featuring teachers from California, Illinois, New York and Wisconsin on the topic "Standing up to the national assault on teachers and students." The speakers were Lisa Gutierrez Guzman (United Educators of San Francisco), Kaja Rabane (University of Wisconsin Teaching Assistant's Association), and Karen Lewis (President of the Chicago Teachers Union). Response was provided by Mike Fabricant (Treasurer of the Professional Staff Congress CUNY New York).
The program was adapted to the fact that it began a little after 7:00 p.m. but that Karen Lewis had to be gone by 8:00. As a result, the first two speakers spoke, then the audience was opened for questions and answers; then the last two speakers spoke followed by more questions after almost all of the Chicago people left for a convention social event.
Lisa Gutierrez Guzman described for the audience (which numbered about 130 people at its peak) the attacks on teachers and public schools in California. Noting that the attacks included all public education services from pre-kindergarten through the university level, she focused on the struggles of the San Francisco teachers union, which is part of both the National Education Association and the AFT. Although she is treasurer of United Educators of San Francisco, she made it clear that she was speaking for herself. The attacks on public schools and public school teacher unions, from the demand for "accountability" based on test scores to the continued reduction in funding for public services (coupled then with a demand for concessions in teacher union contracts) were highlighted. She also discussed the various struggles the teachers had participated in and led, including a sit-in at the California state capitol that took place a year before the occupation of the capitol building of Wisconsin in Madison in 2011.
In her brief remarks, Karen Lewis outlined the rapid movement of the CORE caucus from a study group (reading Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine") in 2008 and 2009 to the successful challenge for the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union following the 2010 election. In the 2010 Chicago Teachers Union election, Lewis and the CORE candidates defeated the incumbent United Progressive Caucus slate for every post they contested, taking over the third-largest K-12 local in the AFT on July 1, 2010. By July 2010, the new team was in power. Almost immediately, the challenges became clear, from participating in the 2010 AFT Seattle convention to organizing to turn back the reactionary legislation in Illinois, much of which were already moving forward during the administration of the previous CTU administration.
Smiling, Lewis outlined some of the problems the new leadership faced from the day they walked into the door. She noted that by December 2010, the reactionary corporate "school reform" forces in Illinois were in the Illinois capitol with a lengthy piece of legislation called "Performance Counts" that was aimed at destroying the Chicago Teachers Union while leaving most of the teacher unions (who are in both the AFT and NEA) relatively unscathed. Lewis noted that the final legislation, which became Senate Bill 7 (SB7) in Illinois, was similar to the laws being passed to attack unions across the USA.
She told the audience that the restrictions under SB7 (such as the requirement that the Chicago Teachers Union get a strike authorization vote of 75 percent of the total membership) had to be viewed as a challenge and an opportunity by the new leadership, despite the viciousness of the attack on the CTU and the massive amount of money behind the groups promoting that year's version of "reform" (Stand for Children, which Lewis insists people call "Stand on Children", alone received more than $3 million from the wealthiest people in Chicago in a three month period at the end of 2010). Along with other corporate reform groups (most notably Advance Illinois and the Civic Committee of Chicago's Commercial Club), the corporate reformers pushed through the law with CTU reducing some of the damage it was intended to make, but not all.
Lewis told the audience, which included many union members who said they viewed CTU as a national leader, that they could not be afraid of the value of "incremental change" and that they had to develop a way for rank-and-file democracy to really exist in AFT locals. She also suggested that the side of the teachers and defenders of public education develop a new vocabulary to discuss the issues, abolishing the use of the work "reform" because it has been taken over by the privatizers and union busters and redefining groups like Stand for Children and the others that promote themselves as being grass roots when they are really corporate fronts.
Lewis also told the audience that there had to be immediate changes in the culture of the union local if aggressive and successful work was to meet the challenges ahead. She noted that within a few months of their election, the new CTU leadership had established an organizing department and a research department, neither of which had existed before. (Disclosure: this reporter works as a consultant with the CTU Research Department). She also noted that after trying to do it on the basis of those who had been in CORE prior to the election, the union decided to hire a professional to do communications work along with the others in the CTU Communications Department.
Because Lewis had to leave early, the session was interrupted for questions at about 7:45. For the most part, the people who took to the microphones during the question period gave brief speeches rather than asking questions of the panelists. At 8:00 Karen Lewis and the "red shirts" (the CTU members wear red shirts, part of the union's organizing work) left for the scheduled local event, and the session continued.
Kaja Rabane (University of Wisconsin Teaching Assistant's Association) described how the occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol — which became the famous "Madison" month of protests in February 2011 — began. She noted that people knew that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was going to attack public services and public workers, but that everyone was surprised that he did it so quickly and decisively following his November 2010 election. She described how the occupation at Madison and the mass protests evolved and then provided people with a critical analysis of the recall movement against Walker, particularly the corralling of the protest into a movement to support a candidate who was not carrying forward the spirit or programs of the movement that led to the recall (which gathered more than one million signatures). Rabane noted several times that the huge influence of massive amounts of money had made the work much more difficult. She also shared some very important person history about how the movement grew.
Mike Fabricant (Treasurer of the Professional Staff Congress CUNY New York) then summed up what was said and learned, emphasizing the need for action and a widespread sharing of knowledge in the face of the coordinated national and international attacks on public services and teacher unions.
Following the speakers, there were about 50 people left in the audience. Most (including this reporter, who spoke about political action in Chicago and Illinois) offered remarks,some quite lengthy, but didn't ask questions. The event ended a little after 9:00 p.m. and people left the deserted cavernous Cobo Hall.