VIDEO: "Lessons from the Chicago Teachers Strike"
On September 29, the Chicago branch of Solidarity held a forum at the historic United Electrical Workers hall on Ashland Avenue, "Lessons of the Teachers Strike". Following a musical performance by Alex Han, an organizer with Stand Up! Chicago, leaders from the CTU rank and file caucus CORE, the CTU organizing department, and the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign offered their reflections on the central political themes raised by the strike. Below we've posted videos and transcriptions of their talks.
Norine Gutekanst taught elementary school in Chicago Public Schools for 23 years and helped found the Caucus of Rank and File Educators in 2006. In 2010, following CORE's victory in the CTU elections, Norine became organizing director of the union and was a central leader in the planning of the strike. She is also a member of the Chicago branch of Solidarity.
This is a forum called “Lessons of the Chicago Teachers Strike.” Thank you very much for being here. This is a very timely forum, coming just a few days after the House of Delegates of the Chicago Teachers Union suspended our seven-day strike. The people who are speaking here were quite involved in the operation and support work of the strike so I am sure we will have some really good discussion from the panelists. But also, there will be some opportunities for discussion. It would be good for people to think about what are the lessons, and how do we move forward.
I’ve been a member of the Chicago Teachers Union since 1987 but I’ve been a member of Solidarity even longer. Solidarity is a socialist, feminist, and anti-racist organization. We have fraternal and sisterly organizations around the world. For years, members of Solidarity and our organization as a whole have worked on a variety of issues: labor, fights against racism, against evictions and foreclosures, for immigrants’ rights, for women’s rights, and for struggle for justice everywhere.
Most of the panelists today are not members of Solidarity but they have been so integral to the fight of the teachers union and building an opposition to this ruling class offensive that we are all aware of, that we thought it would be really important to bring these voices together to share their perspectives on this fight?
So, why is Solidarity having this forum today? We thought that we as a socialist organization had something to say about our recent strike and the fight to defend public education and what that fight represents at this moment in Chicago and in the country. We see it from the point of view of the workers: teachers such as myself, paraprofessionals and clinicians. We see it from the point of view of the students and their families. We see it in terms of whether the ruling class has decided that they’re going to have a future and what kind of future that will be. We see it in the context of the increasing concentration of wealth in our country in the hands of the 1%.
It’s not an accident that the mayor of Chicago, who has launched this offensive on the teachers as well as on students, is the former chief of staff of the President of the United States. Why are Mayor Emanuel and why the Democratic Party launching this offensive? Why has the Democratic Party decided to declare war not just on teachers but on students, on Black and Brown children, nad the whole system of public education?
We want to talk about what that says about the United States today, what it says about our society, and what it says about our city. We also want to talk about what this fightback that the Chicago Teacher’s Union has just launched say about the capacity of working people in alliance with parents, students, and others, to resist this offensive. We’re going to talk about whether and how the CTU’s fight can be replicated and extended.
Jen Johnson is a history teacher at Lincoln Park High School and has taught in Chicago Public Schools for ten years. As a rank and file CTU member, she serves as an area vice president and is a leader of CORE.
I’ll just start by saying a little about the origins of CORE and how CORE translated itself into the CTU leadership, and the role of CORE within the strike, and then some of the questions that CORE has, as a caucus, going forward.
In 2008, I was invited to this very room by Jackson Potter. We had been in professional development together, and he had been working with another teacher in the city named Al Ramirez. They were working on stopping school closings and had made a really powerful video to help people to understand the forces that were behind closings, and the Renaissance 2010 program.
So, I got called to this meeting. I was not what I would call an activist at that time. I had gone to antiwar rallies, I was definitely socially conscious. My family has been very involved in civil rights and education history, although maybe not at the level of some of you guys in this room. But what we started to talk about was that a lot of us teachers were aware that things in Chicago Public Schools were not going well. We felt that the union was one place where we could try to change things in the right direction. We started conversations with about twenty people and decided we could form a caucus in the Chicago Teachers Union. Within a month we came up with name, Caucus of Rank and File Educators, a platform to empower the membership to lead the union. We felt that the leadership at that time was too top-down and was not providing support for the frustration we were experiencing in the schools. We were facing schools that were being closed, watching neighborhoods struggle to save those schools and stop the closings, but we didn’t have the beast of a movement that was really needed.
Our goal was to push the leadership in the right direction. It was not our expressed intent to take over the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union when we founded CORE. We held community forums and reached out to community organizations. We really just tried to build a framework of increasing rank and file participation and community participation in important fights for education. We had events like the CORE forum at Malcolm X College in 2009, where, in the middle of a blizzard, 500 people showed up to talk about charter school proliferation, school closings, and the devastation in communities of color. We said: “Oh my gosh! If 500 people will show up in the middle of a blizzard, then I think we are tapping into something real.”
Over the next year we continued to build internally, school by school, literally going to schools before our day of work and after our day of work, dropping off fliers and having one on one conversations, sponsoring regional meetings, inviting everyone we knew to get involved in some way to build an organization that would see itself as leading the fight back against school closings and charter proliferation.
We really ended up building quite an activist base. People became leaders who didn’t consider themselves leaders; I would consider myself one of those people. But when people, some of the other people on this panel for example, keep asking you to do something, you feel like you have to step up and you can’t say no. I think we just grew that, person by person. We also met--all the time. There were weeks when we had three meetings, after work, just to talk about the next actions. There was just constant activity. I haven’t been a part of something of that people have been so dedicated and hardworking ever in my life. A “calendar full of CORE” is how we built this organization.
When we won in the CTU elections, two years ago and a few months, it was incredible. I remember being at a bar where we were waiting for the results. My parents were in town, and my parents--they’re educators, they’re writers, they’re awesome--but I was having a hard time expressing to them what we were doing, what I was a part of. So when they were there and Karen Lewis took the mic in this little bar and started getting choked up a bit about what we had just done, my parents said “this is really big.” And then I said “Oh my god, this is really big. This is huge. We’re this huge city in the United States. We’re the largest union in the city of Chicago. What did we just get ourselves into?” Suddenly CORE had to bifurcate: we had to send people to the leadership, take them out of their classrooms. They loved their classrooms. And some of us had to stay in the classrooms, in the trenches. We had to create two branches of this group that we had formed. That was really hard. There were serious growing pains. Personalities were stretched to their limits. Relationships had to bend. And people had to learn new roles.
I think it’s been difficult but it has been very successful. We know that, in this room. People who started out as just rank and file teachers, friends, members of different leftist organizations, could really create something powerful.
We focused on taking an organizational model to CTU. I don’t work for the union full time. I’m still in the classroom. But I’m a part of this organizing model. The union already had a hierarchy in place: they have a leadership, they have trustees, they have area vice presidents (of which I am one). Area vice presidents supervise district supervisors. This is in the constitution of the union, but I’d been in the union for several years and I didn’t know my district supervisor. This person was supposed to be calling me every month and saying: “Jen, get your butt to the union meeting, this is what’s going on.” I never once had gotten one of those calls. Ever. In my life.
So there’s a structure that was already there, but CORE said, we need to expand that structure. We need a department of dedicated members who are going to reach out to people. And we need to activate the existing structure. We got new district supervisors, some of those folks became the strike coordinators. We reached out to other activists who became strike coordinators, and we built this incredible hierarchy of leadership. And I don’t say hierarchy to mean that there are people making bigger and better decisions--but it’s like the best phone tree ever made in the city. That’s what we created. Some of the people on this panel were sitting at Strike Headquarters on the phone with some of the people out there, saying “what do we need to get done for this strike.” We’re making phone calls, our team is reaching out to every school: to delegates (where there were delegates) and to rank and file members who’d never thought they would run anything like a strike at their school. Who never wanted to be a delegate in the first place. I remember sitting at Strike Headquarters, I think it was the first or second day, and a teacher came in from Manierre Elementary, which is one of the feeder schools to Lincoln Park. It serves kind of an impoverished area, although since Cabrini-Green has been torn down it’s been changing. She said: “I’m not the delegate but I’m here to pick up whatever materials might need” and I said “well, it sounds like you might end up becoming the delegate.” And she said “yeah, maybe!” This was incredible. We saw things like that happen everyday the during the strike.
CORE formed literally conversation by conversation, flier by flier, event by event, and that same kind of mentality was brought to the Chicago Teachers Union. During the strike we got that hierarchy tested. Could we really organize? Could we really get phone calls made? Could we turn out people to massive rallies every day during the strike? It was incredibly empowering to see it work. I’m very proud to be standing here lesson planning again, because it did work.
One more thing: we couldn’t have done it without the support of so many people, many of them I’m looking at in this room, who are not members of the Chicago Teachers Union, but they are parents and community partners who understand what we are fighting for. They were just as much a part of this movement as are the educators in CPS.
As far as CORE goes in the future, we have built a “brand”. I was making fun of this earlier, but our shirts are a hot commodity! At the May 23 rally, we passed out 1,000 CORE buttons with the new logo. And they went like hotcakes. People in the membership and in the community see us as a place to find support for what they care about. And I hope we can continue to use our brand responsibly. Jesse Sharkey talked about CTU shirts being bootlegged. We’ve become something recognizable beyond ourselves, which is pretty incredible.
And that means we need to continue to be positive. We need to continue to build active union members. Continue to reach out to community partners. And we’ve got to do a better job of providing a check on our leadership. Our leaders are CORE members, but our leaders are isolated in many ways, and it’s difficult, I imagine, for them to keep their pulse on many schools. So CORE needs to provide that kind of feedback. We also help prioritize the fights. I think CORE needs to provide that kind of support - where do we go from here? There’s a million different possible directions and CORE needs to provide leadership. It’s also clear that we need to provide new layers of leadership. We’ve activated a lot of people, but after the strike it’s like: “whew - that was a lot of work!” We can’t let people slip back into comfort. We need to say: “You did this. You were incredible. Now, I need to you to keep stepping up because this fight is not over.”
Finally, other caucuses have been opposition caucuses in the past and they have lost their strength, lost their way, and kind of fallen apart. It’s our job to make sure that, no matter what happens with the CTU, CORE needs to stay focused on the goals of protecting neighborhood public education, providing support for members and community partners, regardless of whether we win the next election, or the ones after that.
Jackson Potter taught for over seven years in Chicago Public Schools, during which he initiated the founding of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators. In 2010, he became the Chief of Staff for the CTU.
I have to say I’m a little self-conscious that I don’t have my red shoes on after Alex Han sang Elvis Costello’s “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”. I think we need to start merchandizing some red shoes. We could make a lot of dough.
Being asked to speak on this panel gave me an opportunity to think about these last few years and what it represents and what is the context. I want to talk a little about the moment when I knew CORE had to be an organization. We have people who formed the actual organization here - Jen Johnson, Norine Gutekanst, Jesse Sharkey - we were all a part of that original meeting where we said, “Let’s do this.” But there was a moment when I’m thinking “This has gotta happen.” And I want to describe when that moment was.
In 2005, Arne Duncan comes out, as CEO of the Public Schools, and says Englewood High School is a “culture of failure”. I’m the union delegate of the school at the time. The very next morning, the vice-president of the union, Ted Dallas, comes to my school. I walk through the door and he says: “Jackson, come here. I gotta tell you something. Today, the board is going to come and tell you guys your school is closing.” I’m like, “holy shit, what is going on?” And he says, “there’s really not much you can do. You should get your resumes ready, start sprucing up everything in them, and get the applications out, because this doesn’t look too good.”
At that moment, I’m confronted with the realization that this union is not a fighting union. There is not a bone in its body where it’s willing to really put itself out there on behalf of its membership or on big public policy issues that affect large swaths of public schools across the city. They are much more comfortable in back-room deals. And it brings me to this quote that I remember reading from and autoworker in the seventies, where he says: “Why am I gonna kill myself if there’s no rewards for my suicide?” That kind of depressing thought weighed down on my at that time because if this is the kind of motivation we’re going to get from our leaders, we’re dead in the water! This union is done. It’s toast. It’s over. At this time, Al Ramirez and I started to have some conversations about how we could foment some dissent in this union. I met Jesse Sharkey, I met Jen Johnson, I met Norine Gutekanst, I met others and we started doing this.
Another illustration, though, is that in 2008 former CTU president Marilyn Stewart has a rally to fight Renaissance 2010. I think 300 people showed up. The union spent a lot of time and money to have this huge, sophisticated speaker system in Daley Plaza and hardly anybody shows up. I confronted her and said “Hey, Marilyn, what happened? Not a lot of people, and this is a really critical issue, they’re shutting down schools right and left.” And her answer was, “Well, the members don’t care. Even if it’s in their self interest, they are not coming to things.” It was that sort of approach to thinking: “Well, we make a call to action, that’s all we have to do, and then magically people will come.” It’s like some kind of magical ballpark phenomenon. No! It actually takes a series of organizational decisions on how you set up the infrastructure to ensure that you are engaging memberships. To make certain that memberships know that you’re thinking about what they care about. That’s what we set out to do.
That old leadership was corrupt, they were inept, they were all of those things. We used to say, they’re not only asleep at the wheel, they’re joyriding, margarita pitchers, all the rest. But that wasn’t the main reason they failed. Let’s look at the last contract environment. From 2007 to 2012 we’d been living under this old contract, and from our view it was voted down amongst our delegates even though they manipulated the vote and made it seem like they’d won it. And why was it voted down? It was a fairly good contract economically: it was 4% raises for five years, you had rights if you got laid off, you went into a pool for a year with your salary and benefits. It had a pension enhancement program that was pretty generous. It had decent health care benefits. What changed? Why is it that now, we have a slightly less beneficial contract economically, and yet I think this contract is going to pass overwhelmingly? Why is that? What is the shift in consciousness that has occurred?
One thing is that the benefits of that contract weren’t as good as they appeared. The board took away the 4% raise last year. They invented new layoff categories and fired people en masse. They had a huge increase in charter density over the duration of that contract that pushed along massive school closings, turnarounds, consolidations, and reconstitutions. So, people kind of realized afterwards that we’d been sold a false bill of goods.
But, this was at the beginning, before we could see all of that. And it turns out that the membership was right to be lukewarm about that contract, because it was less about the details, and much more about a lack of urgency. The fake battle cries leading up to authorization. The perennial routine of going into battle by stoking the anger of the membership but having no intent to actually confront the boss or the shadowy billionaires and right-wing demagogues, and Democrats, who were supporting them.
Without a democratic process to identify our issues, engage our members, without thinking beyond the bread and butter issues to things that matter deeply to teachers and paraprofessionals in this city, this was not going to be a good method to get 30,000 people activated. The membership has not been, now or in 2007, in the mood for the rhetoric of labor peace. And I think this leadership realized that fairly quickly. To lay down your sword after you’ve whupped the enemy is one thing, but to go into battle without a weapon is an entirely different matter altogether.
This also was part of the problem with the leadership prior to Marilyn Stewart, when Debbie Lynch, a reformer, came into power. She came back and told teachers: “I didn’t just get you the bacon, I got you the whole hog.” And then, people saw there was a huge lack of reality between that contract and our ability to fight the threats that we faced in terms of school closings, lowering class size, providing the resources that we know our children deserve. People didn’t feel that was an honest depiction.
We haven’t made those mistakes. We’ve made plenty of mistakes, but that’s not one of them. We’ve told people very clearly and precisely that there were advances in this contract, there were setbacks, and there were draws. But we are more powerful than we have been in a long time and people understand that the contract reflects those efforts. We’re in a better place now than we have been in awhile to actually win--and have victories for a long time, not just now.
What else has changed in the CTU? I think as a result of our leadership coming in, we have this organizing model that Jen referred to. There’s a new focus on internal outreach to our members. We used opportunities like when the mayor tried to shove the longer school day down our throats with waiver votes to go out into each and every school and have organizing conversations to agitate the membership, see what was going on, answer questions honestly and directly, and talk about strategy: how are we going to fight these things? That activated people in a way that hadn’t been done in a long time.
The second thing is we have a community board with 28 different community and labor organizations, including some people in this room. We really have praxis with people around the city and that’s helped us a tremendous amount to get critical friends around us at important times. Stand Up! Chicago -- I think this could get lost by a lot of people writing about what happened -- they held these huge spectacle events that exposed how these billionaires and financiers and hedge fund operators are responsible, the banks are accountable for all the devastation in our neighborhoods. For the loss of jobs. For the foreclosure crisis. That’s intimately connected to our inability to properly pay and finance and resource schools. It gave us an opportunity to really get our members out with allies in big spectacles, take arrests, and challenge the underlying root causes of things and raise consciousness in a different way.
With school closings, our community board challenged us to march on the mayor’s office, for example, and do a sit-in at City Hall. And then to go march on the mayor’s house. We were uncomfortable with that -- I’ll be honest, that was something we had a lot of internal debate over whether that was a good idea. But ultimately we understand that you don’t do these top-down relationships where the union needs help, so we give a few bucks to fund an organizer now and again to come help us. It was much more of a real relationship where people were saying this is a good strategy, let’s do it, and we have to think about it, try it out, make mistakes and take risks to see where we can go and how far we can take it.
Finally I want to mention educational apartheid as a way to understand what’s going on in Chicago. I have to acknowledge that I had some trepidation over whether our members, particularly our white members, would be able to grasp that complex notion of racial division in Chicago. They’re working in schools with huge racial disparities. Would they feel that it was an attack on them? Were they ready for that kind of understanding? But Karen Lewis and Jesse Jackson, Jr, and Brandon Johnson really pushed that. It’s been tremendously important in this fight, and Brandon will talk more about it. And also the Solidarity Committee -- that was huge, and I know Susan is going to talk more about that.
I’ll just wrap up by saying, what are we looking at moving forward? We have to figure out a way to harness the momentum we’ve created and make sure it doesn’t dissipate. I think we are finally seeing that the shadowy world of corporate reformers are starting to shake out: Bruce Rauner and Jesse Sharkey going toe-to-toe is a good example. We see the Pritzkers and ALEC getting exposed. Michelle Rhee having to say “I’m really a Democrat!” a lot is interesting. Democrats for Education Reform and the hedge fund operators. We’re going to have to continue to have direct confrontation with these people and expose them and cost them some money and diminish their influence.
This next period is really critical. There’s a lot of dangers and opportunities ahead and it will determine in no small part whether all of us can do something with this momentum whether this fight over school closures and organizing charter schools over the next six months whether we have more victories or whether we fall on our face. So I want to argue that we really have to figure out the next steps and not allow this moment to dissipate: all the energy, all the amazing work done by the people in this room, but figure out a way to challenge the racist, destabilizing impact of school closings, charter school expansions which divest from existing schools. How are we going to continue to press for the schools Chicago’s children deserve, whether it is air conditioning, social workers, art, music, world languages, the whole nine. We have to keep this going. I hope that this is just the beginning.
Brandon Johnson taught for several years at the elementary and high school level on Chicago's West Side. He is the leader of the CTU Black Caucus and since 2011 has been on the organizing staff of the Chicago Teachers Union.
I’d rather sit down, honestly. Standing makes me feel like I’m back in my father’s church, which I think was actually the last socialist meeting I was at. I do appreciate being brought on to this conversation and a special shout-out to Alex. I think this group also exposed me to Woody Guthrie, which I do appreciate, but I do appreciate a little bit of Sam Cooke, a little different kind of soul, so “A Change is Gonna Come” -- this is a quiet crowd when you start messing with Woody Guthrie -- I’m just saying I like Black people music!
What I find very bizarre about this conversation is that I’m doing lesson plans a year ago, minding my own business in room 278 at Westinghouse College Prep. I had finally arrived at the job that many people covet: to be at a school where there’s really no potential for turnaround or shutdown. I began my career in Cabrini-Green, USA, and the destabilization of those schools there speak for themselves. When I walked into room 278 at Westinghouse I thought: “Here we go. The twenty-three years and nine months of my life are going to be great.” I’m now down to twenty-two years and seven months before I can retire, not that I’m counting! To begin to teach and to enjoy the experience of teaching without having to break up fights.
Through conversations in the building I met a couple people who were part of CORE and somehow this weirdo dude named Joey McDermott showed up in our building and said that I might be a good fit for the work they were doing. I met Jackson, Norine, and Jesse Sharkey at a rally, and obviously I’ve been converted and brought to the love of Jesus Christ ever since! [laughter]
Then I was asked to do some volunteer work over the summer, to knock on strangers’ doors and talk with them about this contract fight that’s ahead. I certainly do not see myself as an organizer with a capital “O”, I am still a small-”O” organizer, but this was a couple of summers ago and we just started having conversations with people. Those conversations began to have some impact in my life. There is nothing more humbling than to go to another member’s door, who lives like you do in a single family home or a two-flat, and there livelihood is threatened. That changed how I approached what this union was ultimately looking to build and fight for.
I was eventually asked to come on full time as an organizer last summer and I met a guy named Grady Jordan. I don’t know if any of you all know Grady, but he called me to a meeting on the West Side of Chicago at MacArthur. A lot like Jackson, it was a five-minute meeting, and it went something like this: “Black teachers fought hard. This is a direct retaliation to what we built in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They’re trying to kill you. What are you going to do about it, son?” So now, I’m like, “Can I finish my greens first and think about it?”
It shook me like being awakened from a nightmare. Towards the end of the summer, after having dealt with that conversation, I began to pay a little bit more attention to these leftists who were left in charge of the union. I mean that as a compliment. We ended up at a meeting, I think it was at UIC, where CORE got themselves together, and there was a sister on the panel who was speaking. Her name was Kimberly Bowsky. And I just have to be honest with you, I have a natural attraction to articulate Black women with an edge... wow, you all are tough! [laughter] I’m happily married, I’m just saying! [laughter] Dr. Jordan’s words are ringing in my ears. I am trying to figure out who else I can I speak with, who’s on point, to tell another Black teacher that they’re trying to kill us?
Sort of fast-forwarding, we started to do the work of the union and that conversation still stayed in my heart but I didn’t know how to approach this issue of the decline of Black teachers. In 1995 when the mayor took control over the public school system, Black teachers made up 45% of the teaching population. We now represent 19.7%. Black males are 1.7% of the teaching population. So I’m dealing with these numbers as we start to roll out who we really are as a union and what we’re fighting for, and we come up with this incredible dissertation on “The Schools That Chicago’s Children Deserve.” Part of that framework dealt with apartheid. As an amateur historian who is highly qualified to teach up to 12th grade [laughter], the word “apartheid” gives me an opportunity to speak with the union leadership and say: “I think you are doing amazing things, but they are trying to kill us!” Once that educational apartheid framework really began to roll out, it provided an opportunity to really have a candid conversation. During the school closures it became very obvious that these school closures are in Black and Brown communities. Having worked closely as an organizer in North Lawndale, to meet Black parents who were willing to get on a bus at 8 o’clock at night to drive downtown to fight on behalf of their schools, these are experiences that I will never forget.
It challenged to think that if this fight does not have a moral consciousness about the obvious racism, then we do not have a fight, ladies and gentlemen. So, the school actions happened, it’s kind of pressing me a little bit, I emailed the leadership about our intentions. I approached Kimberly Bowsky as a complete stranger and said “I know you don’t know me, but can we have a meeting at your house about how they’re trying to kill Black teachers?” She said yes, and with the exception of the cats and the sneezing, we got through that first meeting!
What was remarkable about this original conversation about what’s happening to Black teachers and how we need to begin to insert the issue of racism into our conversation in a very direct way: 95% of the teachers who came to that first meeting and the meetings after that, all of them had double Master’s Degrees, Type 75 Administration Certificates, Doctorate Degrees, but all I kept thinking was “these teachers may not have a job next year!” Despite having all of these credentials, all of them work in Level Three buildings. That’s when it became very much real.
There was a resolution we were seeking to adopt with “The Schools that Chicago’s Children Deserve.” There was pushback from City Council, for obvious reasons--because of language like “apartheid.” As energetic as Jackson and other folks were, it doesn’t take much to become a little bit cynical about the political process. I approached them and said: “I know this resolution didn’t get very far, but did we approach it from a Black perspective? Did we go to the Black caucus?” So Jackson looked at me, probably because he was more tired, and said “Hey man, just go for it.”
My position was: make them tell us no. Make them tell us that children don’t deserve libraries. Make them tell us that 202 nurses is OK for our public school system. Make them explain to us why you have this incredible disinvestment and destabilization of neighborhood schools, and as a consequence, Black teachers are being destroyed in the process. Make them tell us no, that our children don’t deserve that, and the Black middle class doesn’t need to survive in Chicago.
Well, they told us no, believe it or not. It was from that conversation that we began to have more meetings with Black teachers, having conversations about what it’s like in our buildings, what we experience as Black teachers. I think where it becomes a little bit uncomfortable, and Jackson alluded to this, is that there’s this belief that if you fight for Black people, white people are going to get uncomfortable. That has not been my experience as a Black man in America. In fact, it’s been the opposite: when you begin to fight for racial justice, to some extent, unfortunately, white folks are usually the ones who are most comfortable talking about it!
There was this critical moment as Black teachers began to get organized as we prepared for the strike authorization vote. The rallies that I attended were not heavily represented with Black people, with Black teachers. So, the Black caucus began to make a conscious effort to reach out to Black teachers because you cannot have a conversation about Black schools if Black parents don’t see Black teachers. That’s just the reality, folks. From that May 23 rally, as we began to fast forward and prepare for the strike, we’re having these moments where we’re dealing with the reality that we’re all pro-bono now. Teachers are on the picket line, but there’s still this piece that we’re missing.
From Grady Jordan, to Bowsky’s home, to May 23, to this resolution that is highlighting the apartheid structure here in Chicago, how do we seize this moment right here? Because now the world is paying attention. And I’m also learning that when you’re in middle of a movement there are a couple of people you should stay away from. One of whom is Matthew Luskin. Because there’s a good chance that he’s going to ask you to do something and it probably has nothing to do with what you were originally assigned to do when the event began. Matthew looked at me on Tuesday of the strike and says, “Brandon, we don’t have an MC, you’re up.” There’s nothing more precious as a Black man than for a white man to come to you and say, “You’d better bring it! This crap is racist and you’d better tell them!” That’s all the reassurance I need.
At that moment, when you had thousands of people, millions of people paying attention to Chicago, to be on the back of a pickup truck, having had a conversation with Dr. Jordan just a year ago, to look into the cameras of the world and say that this movement here that we’re building and this fight that we’re in is sexist and racist, and the response from the crowd (which was predominantly white) was a moment in this struggle that allowed the exhale to finally happen. Because now we are not just talking about compensation. We’re talking about the social justice issues that were originally birthed out of taking control of this union. And there was a brother who was texting me while I was presenting or MCing and he said, “B, I don’t know if you know what you just got started here.” As the world began to pay closer attention for that week about the conditions of our schools and the conditions of Black teachers as a consequence of our schools being destabilized, the media began to carry the story. Reuters just recently wrote an article about how 19% of teachers in Chicago are Black, down from 45%. Two weeks ago, nobody knew that. One hundred and sixty-six schools without libraries, and most of them are in Black and Brown libraries. Two weeks ago, no one knew that. Just us.
The lesson that is very clear here is that if we’re going to have a real bonafide movement as we prepare to move forward, we cannot be afraid to say BLACK and POOR. See, “African American” and “low-income”, that’s gentle. That’s the people who believe that they have overcome and they have cuff links and colorful shirts now. There is a real struggle and a real fight for the soul of a group of people who birthed the idea of public education. It was the first thing that the slaves said we’ve got to have! The educational clause was adopted by former slaves who said “we will withhold labor if that means we’re going to get buildings and materials.” This was in the late 1800s, early 1900s. The very group that conceived this wonderful, delicate legacy of public education are now being denied that right. So don’t be afraid to say Black people. Don’t be afraid to associate Black people with poverty. Connect it. Connect it, you all. As we start to prepare for what’s next, we need to be in Black and Brown communities.
The last little direction that I thought was useful during the strike was that we took our marches from downtown and we took them to the neighborhoods. To see 5,000 people marching down Kedzie and Madison, make no mistake about it, there’s a reason why the media did not cover that rally. They don’t want to know. We don’t teach downtown. Hell, we don’t work downtown! People need to see where we work and where we live. The consciousness that is being raised amongst groups like this need to stand strong and stand firm that this country is still inherently racist, it’s still inherently sexist, and the only way we’re going to disrupt that is that we’re going to have to push forward.
Susan Dirr has been involved in the Occupy Chicago Labor Working Group, she transitioned to the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign when it was launched by the Labor Working Group and presently serves on the CTSC steering committee. She is also a member of Solidarity, a leader of the Chicago Solidarity branch, and active in Solidarity's Queer Caucus.
I've been working with the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign for the past several months. CTSC came out of the Occupy Labor Working Group back in June. It's primarily a group of allies, mostly not teachers. Leading up to and throughout the strike, we did a lot of support activity, such as forums, press conferences, etc. We helped run Strike HQ and direct volunteers to where they were needed.
I think as a volunteer labor group we were useful. And also just our existence helped with teacher morale, just knowing that there was a group out there called the Solidarity Campaign and that, while we weren't teachers, we supported the teachers' struggle.
We definitely took our marching orders from the CTU, which was easy because they've led such an amazing fight! Sometimes I think groups like CTSC are used as substitutes for strong unions and community groups, but in this fight there wasn't that problem because the CTU is at such a high organizing and capacity level. But one thing to think about with CTSC and coming fights around school closures, as we try to build more alliances with community groups, is how we do our work to actually increase the capacity of community groups and allies, as opposed to just being a volunteer labor source. Another thing I've taken from working with CTSC during this strike is that we discussed some direct actions but were not able to pull anything off. So again, in the coming fight around school closures we need to be planning in advance because everything moves so quickly. If we want to be doing direct actions we need to have these strategic conversations now with community partners to talk about what sort of actions can move our campaign forward.
You can't just make a call to action and expect people to show up. This applies to allies and community groups as much as it does to teachers. In the CTSC we don't have the strongest connections to community groups and we're not as diverse as we would like. There has to be more outreach work to make the room more diverse and reach deeper into the rank-and-file of unions and reach deeper into communities to bring out those folks in the fight for public education.
Another lesson I take away from this is that a lot of the discourse around this fight has focused on Rahm because he's a really easy person to mobilize against. But just like how the anti-war movement was focused on Bush, and then when Bush left there was a decline in the movement, it's important for our movement to think "we'll still be fighting even when Rahm is not in office anymore". We need to be ready for that moment, so we're not destabilized and disempowered. The fight around corporate education began before Rahm took office and it will continue after he leaves.
As the CTSC, we tried to put the contract issues in the broader context of the larger fight around public education. We talked a lot about class size, enriched curriculum, etc. But in the process I think we did end up side-stepping teacher evaluation and merit pay, and educating the public on what those issues are about. Ultimately, the big wins in the contract were around forcing the Board of Education to change their teacher evaluation scheme and forcing merit pay off the table. However, we had not really laid the groundwork for the community and the general public to understand why those are wins in the fight against corporate education. This is important, because if the general public can understand this thing called TIFs (Tax Increment Financing) and other such tax schemes, they can also understand the complex nature of teacher evaluations. We should try to put forward a plan that really breaks the issues down and respects teachers as professionals. That's something the public is looking for, an alternative to what's put forward by corporate reformers.
Finally, part of winning the schools that Chicago kid's deserve is curriculum and pedagogy, not just facilities. Not just the presence of arts and music class, but thinking about how the union can take a leading role in liberatory, anti-racist, culturally responsive curriculum in our schools. We should be looking at things like the Mexican-American studies program in Tuscon, and figuring out how the union can take that model and put it forward as an example of what should be happening in our classrooms and to emulate it.
Matthew Luskin is the former organizing director of SEIU Health Care of Illinois and Indiana. In 2010, he was hired by the new leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union to assist with internal organization of the union. He is a member of Solidarity.
I am an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union, but I’m not here in that capacity or representing the CTU. I’m a CPS parent, I’m not a teacher. I’m one of the few people on staff who didn’t come out of the membership. In fact, that’s one of my kids in the back! I’ve got three sons, two of them in the schools and one on his way. But I’m also a member of Solidarity and want to talk a little bit as a socialist in the labor movement and as someone who’s been a union organizer and an activist prior to being at CTU, some thinking about how to understand this strike.
Thanks everybody for bearing with us. Honestly, it’s been a little hard for anybody to even take a breath yet and process any of this. Half the attraction in organizing this forum was to force all of us to think this through. What the hell does this mean, what we’ve gone through in the past two weeks? It’s kind of incredible to realize it was only over two weeks ago that there were marches of thirty thousand people everyday through downtown, that we were all running around in.
I want to first talk about how to evaluate the strike. For us as socialists and radicals in the labor movement, one of the critical things is that we are looking at this contract not just in terms of the material wins and losses in it. There’s plenty to talk about and evaluate on that front, but we actually have to have a more political discussion about what has been accomplished here that understands this as a battle within a much larger war. On that front, two key criteria to look at are, first, the political consciousness, both of our members and the public, and how that was impacted by the strike.
We’ve been saying for the past two years that if we were going to go on strike--and if we were going to win--going out on strike and having decent picket lines would be wildly insufficient. They needed to be nervous not just about whether we would leave the job, but what we would do with the free time. And that it was only under those conditions that this could have a much bigger impact. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the overwhelming majority of CTU members really believe that this was a strike against the neoliberal, corporate, education reform agenda. They really do believe that this was a strike about the future of education in Black and Brown neighborhoods in particular. That it was a strike about the future of public education.
That is no small accomplishment. This was a strike about the future of education in black and brown neighborhoods. We should be clear, this is not where our membership would have been two to three years ago. It's been a lot work over the last couple of years to not only introduce that dialogue to folks, but to build confidence among our membership that this kind of fight was even possible, that we weren't just getting set up to have our heads knocked off. This is true out in the public as well.
Secondly, on the question of race, one of the elements that will surely be under-documented in the "post game" write ups of this strike is the way that discussions around race have played out, both within the the union and outside the union. What's happened on Black talk radio, what's happened between our members and parents in Englewood, protests actions on the West Side, the visibility of the union around those issues has really been transformative. The CTU is not historically seen as an ally to low wage workers in this city. The ability to shift that discussion was of huge significance, and not just in terms of parent support. It's really mind-blowing the extent to which the political damage to Rahm was along race and class lines. The numbers in the polls only covered registered voters, so you imagine that under a much broader set of polling you would actually see the racial disparities in support for the union.
But we also have to recognize what it meant for our members as well. The Friday before the strike, I was in Englewood. We were going around to schools we thought we were weak at, and talking to parents to see how people were feeling about the strike. We really could not find a parent who wasn't willing to express serious sympathy and support for the issues and the strike. And it's hard to overstate what this meant for members at those schools.
Another way to evaluate what's just happened is to focus on looking at what the boss's agenda was initially. And we should be clear, their agenda was not nibbling around the edges or saving a few bucks here or there, they had a heavy political program in this. If you look at what they were headed towards over the past two years, it was clear they saw this contract as an opportunity to drive a clear wedge between teachers and parents, the union and the community. In fact, they saw race as likely playing in their favor, that the Black community was an area where they could try to create a severe division between parents and the union. They aimed to severely weaken the union, both at an institutional level (gutting the contract, weakening grievances procedures), but also organizationally, through numerous efforts to demobilize and demoralize our membership.
They certainly intended to cheapen the staff in dramatic ways. On all of these fronts there was a pretty clear and decisive victory. They also had a program of making school closings cheaper. When we were negotiating over what the layoff policy is going to be, what we were essentially bargaining over was how expensive it would be to close down a school. The other side clearly had agenda paving the way for future privatization and disinvestment from low-income schools. On that issue, it's hard to say in material terms that it's a conclusive victory, in terms of what's in the contract. But in terms of our ability to continue that fight and where our membership is at and their understanding of the issues and alliances with parents and community members, it is a victory. The ability for us to have a political relationship with community organizations was also crucial, groups who really understood that our contract was not going to win air conditioners and small classes in every school, but that the success of CTU in this contract fight was critical if we're going to build a real education justice movement around race and class lines in the city. The fact that these community organizations supported us in that fight says something about the raising of political consciousness for all of the partners involved.
It's easy for us to all say that we didn't just want a modest contract campaign, that we wanted something transformative. We wanted a fight that would help build a movement around what real education reform could look like, something that could shift the conversation on what education reform means, the role of the union, etc.
You see bits and pieces of this, for example, when The Sun Times, hardly our cheerleader, references Democrats for Education Reform. Whereas DFER used to be called an "education advocacy" group, they've now made a point of referring to them as a group hedge fund investors in New York.
Or when the Tribune runs a front page poll asking parents "Whose education reform plan do you support more, Rahm Emmanual's or the Chicago Teachers' Union?". The notable thing was not that CTU approval was 2 to 1, but that they bumped us in as "education reformers"!
So there has clearly been a shift in this conversation, but especially around race. We certainly hope this has been a transformative fight and had an impact on other unions. I know that some friends at my old local organized a conference call of 5,000 of their members to discuss the teachers' strike, talking about Rahm, and the racial issues raised by all of this.
Frankly, in clear terms, our contract does include some concessions. But our membership can come out on the other side of that feeling confident that everything they did win was through a fight and that's the only way to continue
What I want to connect to some of the other speakers is what it took to make a transformative fight possible. It wasn't an automatic set of things. When you really look into the strategies, tactics, and demands that make that possible, some of them are a little bit risky. What we had to do was not just running around telling our members "Victory is dependent on you taking action", etc. We did have to put together a system-wide organizing department and developing leaders. There is the reality that, on the first day of the strike, 16 alderman had their offices taken over by groups of up to 200 of our members. And that wasn't organized at home base. There was a risk of taking on a strategy of outright calling Rahm a racist and referring to CPS as an apartheid system. There was a risk in trying to talk to white teachers about how this had to be a fight about the loss of African-American teachers.
There was a risk in entering into a real coalition with community organizations that wasn't just bogus, that the union wouldn't just "lead them on". Frankly, if this was to be a genuine coalition, we'd have to take on tactics and events we never would have done on our own.
As an anecdote for folks, during the strike, the Hyatt rally downtown was planned at the strike headquarters. But the 500 people who organized a second Hyatt rally in Hyde Park, that was a group of CTU members who independently had just done that because they got really engaged on the TIF issues and wanted to pound Penny Pritzer (the heiress to the Hyatt hotel chain who Rahm Emanuel appointed to the Board of Education).
These things are actually a little bit scary. In order to get there, we couldn't just stay where the membership was at. We had to go a few steps beyond that and push some difficult discussions throughout the union, have some real debates about it, take some actions that built people's confidence. And secondly, it's scary because the leadership isn't in control of all of these things. There's a very real element of democracy and independent action by our members that can be, well, unpredictable. The tactics that have a chance at succeeding on this front are frankly the plans that can lose. We could have run a safer and more modest fight, with a more guaranteed, acceptable solution, if acceptable meant modest gains and just trying to hold tight. It's easy for us to say, "well, we're in a slow death anyway." The reality is the leadership is dealing with leading a very large organization, and the losses in a fight like this are costly. Had this strike gone down in flames, which was not impossible, we really would have been dead meat. It would have been a very sad lesson for the Chicago Teachers Union.
Regarding the role of an independent rank-and-file that's having political discussions, that's really raising their own political consciousness as well as building their own organization, it's not just a check on the leadership, but it helps build the confidence for them to go a few steps further. There are inherent pressures on the staff and leadership of these organizations, not to mention bad advice coming from 90% of other labor leaders and elected officials. We need to give people the confidence that our membership is ready to take this fight on.
When we had one of our first really large rallies at the end of last school year, about 2,000 people showed up to protest the Board of Education meeting where they announced they were removing the CTU's 4% raise. Our membership decided to take that march across the street to the Bank of America building. This was completely unplanned by anyone in our staff or leadership. One of the issues you worry about is pushing people too far left and beyond where they want to go. It turns out that, when we trusted our membership a little bit, people were willing to go further than anyone would have expected.