STRIKEWATCH ANALYSIS: What Chicago's teachers won

[Editor's Note: The following article originally appeared in Socialist Worker, September 26, 2012. This analysis is reprinted here with permission of both Socialist Worker and the reporter, who is a CPS parent. Published by the International Socialist Organization. Material is licensed by, under a Creative Commons (by-nc-nd 3.0) [4] license, except for articles that are republished with permission. Additional articles are available at].

Strikers and supporters, including many students, begin to line up for the march through Chicago's West Side outside Marshall High School (background building) on September 13, 2012, the fourth day of the Chicago Teachers Strike of 2012. Substance photo by Kati Gilson.What the Chicago teachers accomplished... Lee Sustar looks at the significance of the Chicago teachers' strike victory.

IT'S TIME to take stock of the significance of Chicago teachers' strike that beat back corporate education reform--not just for teachers and other public-sector workers, but the wider labor movement.

But before considering its impact in on future fights, let's take another moment to savor a labor victory in one of the most important union struggles in many years.

There was the unforgettable Day One, when tens of thousands of red-shirted members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and supporters swarmed downtown, shutting down traffic around the Board of Education headquarters and City Hall in what a local radio news reporter aptly called "an older and more polite version of Occupy Chicago."

In truth, it wasn't all that polite, either, if you happened to read the handmade placards and hear the chants directed at Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who began targeting Chicago teachers months before he took office.

Then Day Two — another day, another mass march. After picket duty at schools in every neighborhood of the city in the morning, teachers again swept downtown, this time turning stately Buckingham Fountain on the lakefront into the site of an open-air union rally that conjured the spirit of famous Chicago labor battles of the past.

The following day came the three big demonstrations at high schools on the South and West Sides, in neighborhoods populated predominately by African Americans and Latinos. The hot late-summer sun didn't deter teachers or neighborhood residents who cheered them on.

And the excitement wasn't limited to the big protests. Anyone who walked the picket lines at neighborhood schools experienced not just the impressive solidarity among teachers, but the groundswell of support for the CTU among parents and the wider community. Those wearing a red T-shirt from the CTU or the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign were routinely stopped and thanked on the street, while getting friendly honks and waves from passing cars.

THE MORE support grew for the teachers, the more Rahm Emanuel unraveled.

The man known for his take-no-prisoners approach to politics did his best to whip up a parent backlash with hour-long press conferences during the opening days of the strike. It didn't work. Sweaty and compulsively gulping from a plastic water bottle, Emanuel's insulting comments seemed only to inspire more public support for the CTU.

By the time the mayor sought a court injunction to end the strike as the walkout entered its second week, a judge put a finger to the political winds and decided not to act until CTU delegates could meet and discuss the deal.

The details of the agreement have been reported [1] fully elsewhere. But it bears repeating that business publications like the Wall Street Journal [2] are clear about who won this battle: The CTU, not Emanuel.

As White House chief of staff for Barack Obama, Emanuel helped accelerate school deform through the Obama administration's Race to the Top program. From the moment he opened his campaign to become mayor, Emanuel made it clear that he intended to run Chicago schools on the corporate model--and Chicago teachers would have to submit or else.

But the CTU refused to roll over for Rahm. The union began organizing for a confrontation long before negotiations began, much less picket signs were printed.

When Emanuel and his handpicked school board targeted 17 schools for closure or "turnaround" earlier this year, the CTU joined parents and community activists in a grassroots mobilization to save the schools. This helped solidify connections with groups that could provide critical support during the walkout. Meanwhile, the union leadership — members of a rank-and-file opposition caucus who defeated old guard officials in 2010 — campaigned systematically to involve members throughout the system.

All this paid off in a contract that held the line against Emanuel's aggressive demands. While the CTU had to take a painful concession in reduced compensation for laid-off teachers, the mayor failed to make a breakthrough on the issues that were most important to him, such as imposition of merit pay, heavier use of student test scores to evaluate teachers and fast-track terminations of teachers with low ratings.

Emanuel also had to agree that half of new teachers hired anywhere in the system would have to come from a pool of laid-off CTU members--something he'd adamantly and repeatedly opposed. Then there's the fine print of the contract that gives the CTU new leverage in key areas, including an anti-bullying provision to help members stand up to abusive principals.

Those are not only big wins for the CTU, but for teachers everywhere who are opposed to their unions' retreats on critical questions.

THE LESSONS of the Chicago teachers' strike apply to the labor movement far beyond one city and one occupation. Here's a list of some of the main ones:

-- If you fight, you can win. In the fifth year of a depressed economy, union concessions have become routine. Whether the bosses are budget-strapped state and local governments or profitable corporations like Caterpillar and Verizon, workers are being hammered with pay freezes or outright cuts, reduced pensions and higher health care costs.

Chicago teachers showed us a different way. Striking doesn't automatically guarantee a victory, of course — the International Association of Machinists were recently defeated in a six-week walkout at Caterpillar. But failing to fight back only guarantees a further retreat.

-- Union members must not only be mobilized, but organized. In the last 20 years or so, the "mobilization model" of unionism has become the norm for progressive labor organizations. Holding big protests and building alliances with community and social movement groups have become fairly common tactics for many unions.

But there's a difference between sending busloads of workers in matching t-shirts to a protest and a systematic effort to build organization inside and outside the workplace. The CTU's internal organizing operation was directed at making the union a responsive and effective organization at every school site — and when it was time to hit the picket lines, the effort paid off.

-- Social movement unionism is essential, especially in the public sector. Since the mid-1990s, once-insular unions have been more likely to engage with community and faith organizations and various social struggles. Labor's support for the Occupy Wall Street movement last fall was another important step in that direction.

But the CTU has gone much further. The group that leads the union, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), took up the fight against school closures years before they won office, and that that work continued afterward. While the fight to save the 17 schools earlier this year failed, the union deepened its ties to community groups opposed to the closures--and those organizations supported the CTU at contract time. Crucially, the CTU spelled out its alternative vision for public education in Chicago in a document titled "The Schools Chicago's Students Deserve" [3] that called for full funding, smaller class sizes, and an enriched curriculum.

-- Local unions don't have to accept concessions pushed by national union leaders. By opposing merit pay and defending tenure rights, the CTU stood firm where its national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), has retreated.

Negotiations in Chicago began with negotiators for the school district pushing a copy of the New Haven, Conn., teachers' collective bargaining agreement--a so-called "thin contract" that strips away teachers' job protections won over decades. AFT President Randi Weingarten was personally involved in negotiating that deal in New Haven, which she called a "model or a template." The CTU said no--and used the strike weapon to hold the line.

-- Public-sector unions don't have to accept givebacks just because Democratic politicians demand them. Democratic Govs. Jerry Brown of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York have both extracted major concessions on pay and benefits from public-sector unions. Labor leaders went along, arguing that it's better to make some sacrifices than have someone like Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker trying to eliminate collective bargaining rights altogether.

The CTU said no way — and by doing so exposed the fact that Democrats are just as committed as Republicans to attacking teachers' unions in the name of "reform."

-- Public-sector unions can lead the wider working class in the fight against austerity. Ever since Scott Walker packaged his union-busting bill as budget reform, Republican and Democratic officials alike have claimed they had to squeeze unions to benefit the taxpayers.

The CTU strike turned that argument on its head, winning popular support by arguing that the real problem was the city's priorities of tax cuts for business, instead of money for education. To withstand the current onslaught, public-sector unions everywhere will need to follow the CTU's example and point out how the services they provide benefit the entire working class.

-- Union democracy is essential to rebuilding a fighting labor movement. Like most unions, the CTU invests enormous formal power in its president. But the CORE team that leads the union sought, from the beginning, to maximize union democracy. The union's executive board, a rubber stamp when the conservative old guard ran the union, has come alive. House of Delegates meetings are lively forums for debate and discussion of union policy.

CTU delegates made the decision to extend the strike into a second week in order to have time to discuss a tentative contract agreement with members at each school site. Over the next two days, delegates at hundreds of schools conducted open-air meetings to discuss the pros and cons of the deal. It was a lesson in union democracy that should be learned throughout the labor movement.

-- To be effective, strikes need to shut down operations and put pressure on the boss. The CTU stunned Rahm Emanuel by abandoning the old practice of rotating two-hour shifts of all-day picketing at empty school buildings. Instead, the CTU's constant mass rallies reinforced a sense of solidarity among members and galvanized community support.

Of course, striking teachers don't face the same possibility of permanent replacement and threats from strikebreaking security firms that factory workers do. Still, the CTU strike can be an example for unions in any industry: Mass pickets and solidarity can exert pressure on the employer--and the greater the solidarity, the less the risk that scabbing operations or court injunctions will succeed.

The list of lessons of the CTU strike could go on and on. But for a labor movement starved of success for so long, that's an excellent start.






September 28, 2012 at 6:08 PM

By: Rod Estvan

A big victory — or an amazing survival story?

Lee Sustar's assessment of the Chicago teachers' strike is highly reminiscent of dozens of articles that appeared in socialist publications in the US and in Europe in the 1970s, claiming various victories for strikes that over the years turned out to be blips on the radar screen in the overall decline of the power of organized labor in all capitalist societies. I honestly believe that to claim the CTU strike "beat back corporate education reform— not just for teachers and other public-sector workers, but the wider labor movement," is excessive in the extreme.

Many aspects of the conservative agenda will continue, including very likely massive school closing in Chicago.

I agree completely that the strike stopped some of the most aggressive moves on the part of the Chicago Board of Education to implement what Lee calls a version of "the New Haven, Conn., teachers' collective bargaining agreement — a so-called thin contract."

Without the strike, as Lee correctly concludes, many bad things would have happened. The Socialist Workers article Lee cited from September 19, 2012 clearly recognized that the contract itself represented some loses and some issues on which the union held its own. That was a relatively balanced perspective. There is no question that in very many respects the strike was inspirational and the union's underdog status generated a lot of support from Chicago's working class, under class of massively unemployed largely minority residents many of whom are parents of CPS students, and even from some higher income white-collar leading families.

But a sober examination of the actual end product of the strike — the contract soon to be ratified — shows massive loopholes like one that allows the CPS to declare an exceptional circumstance and order an unlimited increase in class sizes; effectively allows CPS to void future promised raises based on provisions of the existing state school code when faced with fiscal shortfalls without the union having a clear right to immediately strike via a reopener provision (the contract eliminated prior language defining the conditions when CPS could revoke a raise based on the state school code but has no impact of the school code itself); ARTICLE 30 of the contract retains all of the pipeline from school to prison student disciplinary language from prior contracts without any of restorative justice training or language included; the contract contains what the CTU calls an anti-bullying provision supposedly to prevent principal abuse of teachers but the sole investigator of such claims will be a CPS administrative unit called the Equal Employment Compliance Office; additonal social workers and other wraparound staff would be hired based on avaiability of new funds (which is unlikely); and among other things includes a side letter on return from strike including an agreement to drop litigation over the revoked 4% salary increase from the last school year.

In an excellent article by George Schmidt that appears on this website, he describes CTU's discussions with its members on the contract. Mr. Schmidt includes this very interesting statement "the officers reminded the members that the Board of Education and the city's rulers were preparing to force the union into a lengthy strike and then to use major media (such as the current Rahm Emanuel ads on TV) to attack the union. The decision to accept the terms that were brought to the delegates was based on an assessment of how much more could be won by striking for much longer." That is a profoundly honest perspective, it is not a declaration of victory as Lee's article presents.

That the CTU as a union is still standing is a victory. As I was quoted in the Chicago Tribune last week "The strike did was show that these teachers are loyal to the concept of having a union to protect them against a big bureaucracy. That's the message that got through. That's the achievement."

Before the current leadership, whose ascendency is described well by Lee in his article, the CTU was bankrupt and in tatters, I doubted the union could muster the votes necessary to authorize a strike in the condition its prior leadership had left it in and was proven wrong. The CTU emerges as a cohesive force of importance in Chicago even if in my opinion victory should not be declared.

Rod Estvan

September 28, 2012 at 6:48 PM

By: Bob Busch

Drudge story — gang bangers look into 'our world'

Go to the Drudge Report and look at the Walter Jacobson interview with the gang bangers. It should scare the shit out of most people.

Perhaps the public can gain a little look at our world.

September 30, 2012 at 7:13 PM

By: Nate Goldbaum

Rod misses the point

Rod, you miss or ignore the point of the article. Lee's assessment of the contract was just as balanced as the other article you point to: "All this paid off in a contract that held the line against Emanuel's aggressive demands. While the CTU had to take a painful concession in reduced compensation for laid-off teachers, the mayor failed to make a breakthrough on the issues that were most important to him, such as imposition of merit pay, heavier use of student test scores to evaluate teachers and fast-track terminations of teachers with low ratings."

It recognizes concessions. It points out that the contract stopped Rahm's major agenda, as you concede. It does not claim that market-modeled education hokum is over and done with, as you seem to imply it claims. It is talking about the contract.

But the point is that it talks about a lot more than the contract. The contract is ONE end product of the strike. The article is about recognizing many of the other "end products" such as: a more unified union, an inspiration for other unions, a model that is about preparing members through over a year of organizing and educating the members, an alternative vision to challenge our opponents, a labor leadership that embraces bottom-up democracy rather than fearing it.

These end products are just as essential in the victory of the teachers strike as the contract. After all, everyone recognizes that even the contract itself only holds the line for CPS employees and only holds the line for three to four years. Not only that, but the very meeting at which delegates voted to end the strike included President Lewis' sober warning that our victory would only be followed by another huge fight over the closing of our schools. Perhaps the greatest outcome of the strike is that we now have a union that is unified, energized and mindful of the stakes. We are more ready than ever to take on the privatization of our schools - whether the fights is over the contract, over Board policies, or over drastic Board actions. Our Union, once a moribund bureaucracy worthy of all the derision heaped upon it, is now a fighting force representing the "Power of 30,000." That's not lefty hyperbole. That's the new reality.

September 30, 2012 at 10:49 PM

By: Sue Furman

What the teachers (did/'nt) win

Giving up the right to ALL litigation in process was a big loss. A slap in the face to current teachers and 2012 retirees. Young teachers, you are giving up your grievance and protection rights — the only things CTU can still give you. Decertify AFT/IFT. Move to union NEA!

October 1, 2012 at 7:23 AM

By: Kimberly Bowsky

RE: What the teachers did/n't win

Sue Furman, please tell me what article of the Tentative Agreement that is in. I am looking at article 3 (grievance procedure), which obviously the Board tried to rout but couldn't; a tightened-up arbitration timeline (because those used to drag on forEVer), and additional respectable conditions for an appeals process. By voting yes, I'm not giving up any grievance rights.

I tell you, during most of my career I have only voted 1 contract down. I should have voted all of them down, but this one I will say "YES" to. Through staying active in educational issues and remaining a unionist in the trade-model, I saw how hard all our rank-and-file contributors to this contract worked to keep the Board at bay during a time when public education is being redefined by people who don't use it. I saw how hard my brothers and sisters worked on that strike line. This contract, crafted in the imperfection of austerity that is only imposed on the poor, the working- and middle-classes, represents the fight-back spirit that I support.

October 1, 2012 at 2:04 PM

By: Rod Estvan

re: Mr. Goldbaum's comment

Since Lee Sustar's assessment of the Chicago teachers' strike comes out of the Marxist tradition it reflects what the socialist movement often calls a conjuncture analysis. This idea is a central concept in Marxist politics and it denotes the exact balance of forces, the state of social contradictions at any given moment to which political and trade union tactics must be applied. Without explicitly using the concept of "conjuncture" my comment was a criticism of Lee Sustar's analytics of the CTU strike within the broader perspective of public sector unions within the US and probably the western capitalist world. The scope of how Lee's article examined the strike was different than that of the other article published in the Socialist Worker.

I do not want to get too esoteric but the newspaper that Lee's article was published in comes out a particular tradition within the socialist movement that is historically identified with the late Tony Cliff. In particular, after the high level of strike activity in the early seventies I referenced in my post, Cliff argued in the late seventies that the working class movement was entering a "downturn" in the labor movement on a worldwide scale. He was proven to be correct and there were many on the left, including the political trend I belonged to back then, that did not perceive the strikes in the late 1970s for what they were. The gasp of dying trade unions related to industrial production.

Within that context I simply do not see the CTU strike as turning things around in any way for public sector unions as a whole in the US. For this to happen the fortunes of US capitalism need to significantly improve relative to the current productive juggernaut China and other Asian nations are presenting on a world scale. A significant recovery of the fortunes of US and European capitalism are not precluded especially if China's internal consumption cannot offset its decreasing ability to export the massive amount of manufactured products it is producing. China is on the edge of an over production crisis, and that crisis could provide some relief after the bottom is reached to ailing western economies. But things are likely to get worse for a good while before they get better.

But the realities of the downturn on the public sector are most dramatic now in Greece and Spain which are weak links of western capitalism. The austerity measures introduced to reign in the Greek budget deficit, and to meet the requirements of the European Union-backed bailout, have resulted in nearly 25% cuts in public spending on college education. A new wave of Greek personnel reductions is hitting the k-12 education sector and is forcing thousands of teachers close to retirement age to enter “pre-retirement status” at reduced wages, by not rehiring teachers on limited term contracts (e.g. substitute teachers). Overall K-12 teachers in Greece have taken pay cuts of around 12% since the crisis started in 2009.

CPS and the K-12 educational system in the US are in for very difficult times, even voucher concepts and charter schools will not eventually be exempt from the relative decline in funds being accumulated via taxation. Hence the cuts will continue without an upturn in the productive forces and the related mass of taxes links to them without a broad social rebellion in our nation. A rebellion that is not yet on the horizon.

I hope this explains to Nate Goldbaum and others a little more of where my comment was coming from.

Rod Estvan

Add your own comment (all fields are necessary)

Substance readers:

You must give your first name and last name under "Name" when you post a comment at We are not operating a blog and do not allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Our readers deserve to know who is commenting, just as they deserve to know the source of our news reports and analysis.

Please respect this, and also provide us with an accurate e-mail address.

Thank you,

The Editors of Substance

Your Name

Your Email

What's your comment about?

Your Comment

Please answer this to prove you're not a robot:

4 + 1 =