CORE convention kicks off on militant note as Labor Notes organizer reminds CTU leaders 'The whole world is watching...' the preparations for the Chicago School Strike of 2012

The Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), a caucus within the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) held its fifth annual convention over the weekend on Friday and Saturday, August 17 and 18, 2012. The CORE Convention was entitled: “Challenges Met, Challenges Ahead: Educator Power in Every School.” It was held at the Arturo Velasquez Westside Technical Institute located at 2800 S. Western Avenue.

CORE convention keynote speaker Ellen Friedman delivering her remarks under the CORE banner on August 17, 2012. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.One of the keynote guest speakers was Ellen David Friedman, presently on the Labor Notes Policy Committee. She told the group that she had retired as an organizer with the National Education Association (NEA) six years ago after working there for 10 years. She described the magazine Labor Notes as dedicated to strengthening and reinforcing rank and file, democratic, militant unionism.

She opened by commenting that unless you had been living in a cave, you knew about the possible CTU strike this fall. She said that she came of age during the social movements of the 60s and 70s, when idealistic people went into teaching to keep democracy alive. She said we are back there again. “There is something afoot.” To the audience, she said, “You are it. This is not bull****.”

She spoke of the labor movement, and made certain that the CORE members understood some of the global context in which we are organizing. In every country workers organize for protection against the abuses that occur from competition among themselves, whether or not this process has been illegal. It is not something that is over and done. It must be undertaken over and over.

Private and public employers have been no different. Their basic question is/was: How much can I get from you, the worker(s)? Labor unions form to counter that, demanding a relationship of some kind that gives workers power, not just the right to be worked. She told the CORE meeting that the rights of teachers to have written contracts through collective bargaining was relatively new. She noted that as late as the 1950s and early 1960s, teachers and other school workers had the right to “meet and confer.” But under the reality of the times and the school districts across the USA, "meet and confer" didn't require the boss to do anything but meet. After they conferred they could go out and do whatever they wanted. Many in the crowd noted that it was similar to teachers, parents and students going to a Board of Education meeting in Chicago to ask that school closings we stopped. The Board listens ("meets and confers") and then does whatever it wants, and the workers and others have no power to stop it.

Ellen Friedman from the rear of the crowd at the fifth annual CORE convention on August 17 and August 18, 2012 in Chicago. Friedman's remarks kicked off the convention. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.A major change comes, Friedman told CORE, when teachers can collectively bargain in exchange for the “peace” that comes from labor not shutting down production or services. The key to collective bargaining power for workers is the power to strike, shutting down production. Workers who surrender that power have surrendered their rights, no matter what else is said, so the strike is a central power —and the right of workers — in all countries.

In the United States, teacher unions have the most members and are the most densely organized of all public workers, she noted. In most states, except those with "right to work" laws, teachers are virtually all organized. [In Illinois, more than 98 percent of the state's public school teachers are organized into unions, either under the NEA (the Illinois Education Association, or IEA), or the Illinois Federation of Teachers (the IFT, the state union to which the CTU is affiliated).

But even if unions begin a militant era successfully, Friedman told CORE, there is always a tendency towards degeneration. She calls it "business unionism," and CORE members nodded when she described it to the convention. Across the USA, she said, there has been a “deep settling in of ‘business unionism’.” When she asked the audience what they thought that term meant, here were a few of the replies: a consumer approach to unionism versus having the ‘you’ in unionism; labor peace; and so-called union leaders connecting more elite-to-elite with the employers than the employees. When she asked the audience if anyone recognized this, there were a lot of laughs, and a few reminders that the Chicago Teachers Union leadership that was supplanted by CORE in the 2010 CTU election had all the earmarks of business unionism, including salaries and benefits for the officers that placed them, economically, in the "one percent" and therefore in contradiction with the "ninety-nine percent."

So instead of the notion of radical, participatory democracy as the promise of our country, we now had leaders saying, “We’ll take that into consideration.” The potential of unions has been and is deliberately obliterated, including with “our very best friends, the Democrats,” noting that Rahm Emanuel is not an aberration.

She said that those who were looking at these trends fortunately see an end in sight to the "neoliberal compact" we’ve had from business leaders and politicians over the last 30-40 years. The results are in regarding their “just the market” policies: increased unemployment and the largest income inequality gap between the top and bottom.

But the power of the unions was never lost, she said it was just in hiding. With a focus on what is happening in Chicago with CTU as a most extraordinary contribution, she also listed other labor movements across the country. The movement is not random; there are trends. In the case of CTU, we were not just fighting for a contract but for the survival of public education, facing politicians who continue to have no idea what we are capable of.

While the convention was beginning a few miles away, 30,000 picket signs were being printed for the Chicago Teachers Union at Progress Printers. Informational picketing begins on August 20, 2012, at many of the Track E schools in Chicago, and the union's 800-member House of Delegates meets on Wednesday at Lane Technical High School, where CTU President Karen Lewis once taught. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.She shared information about the labor movement in China, where she is also doing organizing. She said that with one-fourth of the world’s workforce — numbering from 600 to 800 million workers — China is now the working class center of the world. Real unions are growing there, and workers are showing their power through strikes.

Business unionism and its perils for workers is not limited to the USA. There is an “official union” in China. But in defiance to this — as well as to bosses and the police — there are millions of wildcat strikes occurring across China. At one Honda transmission parts plant, she described how the identification of the gap between the profits going to the executives and the $50 a month for the employees resulted in a production stoppage there that caused all production in the chain across China to stop within three days and shut down for two weeks; this, of course, created financial losses for the company. She had us picture one worker saying to himself, “I think I’ll hit the Stop button and see what happens…”

She told the audience that as opposed to an actual strike, the “threat of a strike” only has power when it is seen as a legitimate threat. Then management says, “Now, let’s talk.” Referring to the situation in Chicago, she told the audience that she couldn’t thank them enough and that “the whole world is watching.”


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