The Meaning of the Chicago Teachers' Strike: What Really Happened
Submitted by Illinoisnoki1 on Wed, 09/26/2012 - 14:33
By Guy Miller
The strike was an overwhelming huge victory which I will explain.
First, there was Madison, a welcome flash of lightning awakening us from the long, quiet night of labor passivity. The events came fast and hard and thousands flowed into the capital square and were ready for a showdown.
But, with a vacuum of street leadership, it only took a few weeks for the Democratic Party and the union bureaucracy to channel this potential energy into a moribund recall Governor Walker effort.
Half a year later came the Occupy Movement, involving tens of thousands of new activists, in a brave stand against Wall Street’s plan of austerity for us, and profits for them. Again, lack of leadership and direction slowed this movement to a crawl and provided an opening for the forces of repression to step in.
Building on these fight-backs, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) was preparing to confront Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his billionaire cronies in a fight for public education. I was a participant in the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign, an organization formed to support the CTU during the strike, and these are some of my observations.
The first thing to do is to separate the strike from the contract. The strike was an overwhelming huge victory which I will explain. The contract is a small victory for the teachers. In another period, it would have to be portrayed as a major concession. But, we are not in another period, rather we are in a period of deep neoliberal attacks.
We are in a world where the ruling class has had its way for over thirty years, with a working class and trade union movement so timid and on the defensive that all they seem to want, is to hide and not be noticed. A trade union movement, whose answer to every question is to cling to the outside of a lifeboat with "Democratic Party" stenciled across its bow. There they cling, frightened of sharks, dehydration and drowning.
Since the middle of the 1970s a very organized and co-ordinated attack has come down on the working people of this country. Phase one was to establish a narrative of greedy workers and put-upon management. Stage two was to begin chipping away at the private sector unions.
Here they of course had a couple of advantages: outsourcing and downsizing. Slowly, they either moved jobs out of the North to the South or sent them overseas, or forced those remaining industries to accept less and less.
By the 1990s they had the private sector union movement small enough to drown in Grover Norquist's bathtub. The labor union bureaucracy didn't want to live to fight another day, but merely to stay on life support. By this time phase three was in full assault mode. Go after the last bastion: the public sector. At the same time, they increased the ideological fight against "big government."
The ruling class never reconciled itself to the Progressive Era, The New Deal or the Great Society. These were times of gains, or as they saw it, loses, that they could tolerate in periods of economic growth, but saw as interfering with their heightened need to accumulate capital in this long period of decline.
The public sector seemed to be as easy pickings as did the private sector. Again, the ruling class didn't try to be a python and absorb the whole meal at once. First they initiated an ideological campaign backed by think-tanks, foundations and the media. Here, the lynchpin was, and is, the teachers unions across the country.
It is not an accident that the richest of the rich have been in the forefront of this narrative of failing schools, failing kids and failing teachers. Start with Bill Gates, who has moved from mosquito nets to charter schools, testing and union busting as his idee fixe. Next the Walton Family, who never saw a union they didn't want to bust, The Kochs. The Pritzkers.
Almost all the hedge fund managers, bankers and other CEOs are united in their hatred for public education. Here it must be pointed out that both the Democrats and Republicans have bought into this "reform" story. Arne Duncan, Rahm Emanuel, and Barack Obama buy totally into this approach, and they ain't Sarah Palin.
Over the last ten years or so these people have had their way. Cowardly and complicit union leadership - Randi Weingarten being exhibit A - have gone along with this bullshit until blaming the teachers has become the default position of much of the country. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are two sides of the same coin: the problem is: the teachers. Not poverty, not lack of childcare, not crumbling infrastructure or adequate funding, but greedy teachers and their obstructionist unions.
No one, no where, has challenged this vicious cycle. Now, along comes the CORE (Congress of Rank and File Educators) victory (winning leadership of the CTU) and with it a whole new ballgame. A leadership and program not willing to play ball with the Democratic Party or the Union Bureaucracy.
A leadership with many class struggle people who understand what must be done: say no to Rahm, say no to the Gates, say no to the Pritzkers, say no to their agenda for the children, say no to their agenda for the working class and say no to their vision of the future - where drones are taught just enough to become cogs in their machine.
This union leadership knew the first step in their counteroffensive was to engage their rank-and- file. They went school by school and teacher by teacher, to involve them in their union. Unlike the Vaughn and Stewart [CTU] administrations before it, they valued input from the ranks.
Next they went to the communities. They were there when the parents protested for a library in Pilsen, they were there to protest every school closing that came up. They were on the offensive.
This leadership also understood the importance of solidarity. I remember marching behind their banner in Madison. They were there for Unite, they solidarized with the Postal workers, they solidarized with the CTA workers.
This leadership kept the membership mobilized. Town Hall meetings, mass demonstrations at the Auditorium Theater, Labor Day rallies etc. etc. They did not run and hide.
This leadership fought against racism. They stand for ending the disproportionate firing of African Americans teachers.
This leadership stood for libraries, smaller class sizes, art teachers, music teachers, gym teachers, nurses and counselors.
When Rahm and his arrogant school board came with their one-sided proposals and their insulting refusal on the 4% raise, they thought they could roll right over the CTU and have their way. After all, didn't Rahm get his way as Obama's-Chief-of-Staff ? Didn't he get his way as Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ? Antiwar Democrats ? Irrelevant. Progressives ? Fucking retards. Yes, he had his way until he ran into Karen Lewis and the class conscious leadership of the CTU.
The CTU stayed visible. The CTU engaged allies; other unions. the community and students ( the VOYCE people were really inspiring). They did not fold up at the first sign of adversity. So my evaluation is: The strike was a huge success. It serves as a template and a model of how to fight the seemingly invincible juggernaut. The juggernaut that thinks it controls the future. Long Live the CTU! Long live solidarity!
Guy is a 66-year-old native Chicagoan who worked as switchman on the Chicago Northwestern and Union Pacific Railroads, a proud member of local 577 of the United Transportation Union. He retired in 2008. How now works in a Chicago supermarket and is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881.