Editorial: New Teachers’ Union Movement in the Making

New Teachers' Union Movement in the Making

By the editors of Rethinking Schools

Illustrator: Ethan Heitner

The seven-day Chicago teacher strike last September was historic. It showed the importance of teachers using their collective power to demand that all children get the education they deserve. It demonstrated the necessity of an alliance among teachers and parents and community organizations. It exposed the bipartisan corporate “reform” agenda promoted by key sections of the Democratic and Republican parties.

It also signaled that a new teachers’ union movement is in the making.

In short, it was a wake-up call to anyone concerned with the future of public schools. (See our interview with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis)

The Chicago strike was a landmark, but it was not the first sign of a new activism. In the spring of 2011 many leaders and rank-and-file activists from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) traveled north to support the Wisconsin teacher uprising. Following on the inspiring events of Arab Spring, tens of thousands of Wisconsin teachers, public employees, and supporters surprised the nation with weeks of massive protests in the state capital. The chants of “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” and “This is what democracy looks like!” ultimately echoed off the capitol building in Madison to the streets of Chicago.

In both struggles, teachers and their allies defended public education. They stood against a pro-corporate, pro-privatization agenda. They stood against the scapegoating of teachers and the vilification of their unions. They stood their ground audaciously, refusing to compromise away their rights or their principles.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel are in different political parties and have significant disagreements, even about education. For example, Emanuel has not supported public tax dollars funding religious voucher schools, as have Walker and some Democrats in Wisconsin. However, the essence of their respective educational policies are alarmingly similar: marketization and privatization of public schools; pockets of “success” valued over educational justice; teaching discounted as a profession; compliance trumping professional responsibility; free market competition as the arbiter of all; and test-centric, data-driven regimens that crush student-centered quality teaching and learning.

Inspiring as it was, the Wisconsin uprising proved that the fight to save public education and teachers’ unions will take a sustained national effort. The Chicago strike was the next stop.

Lessons from Chicago

The Chicago struggle began long before the picket lines went up. Starting in 2008, organizing by teachers in the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) played a huge role in their ascendancy to union leadership in 2010. CORE built its reputation confronting Chicago’s draconian development plan known as Renaissance 2010—gentrification of urban neighborhoods that required the wholesale closing of neighborhood schools. The old guard CTU leadership did not aggressively take up the struggle against Renaissance 2010, but teacher activists, many associated with CORE, did. Strong neighborhood and community alliances were forged in dozens of struggles to defend local public schools—alliances that later proved to be a key factor in the strong community support given to teachers during their strike.

CORE’s commitment to organizing has led to the transformation of the CTU from a union weighed down by a service model into one defined as an “organizing” model. The new leadership of the CTU recognizes the difference between “mobilizing” and “organizing.” Unions and many other organizations are skilled in mobilizing members for specific elections, campaigns, or protests. While this is necessary, what’s even more important is the ongoing work of educating and organizing members that transcends the annual election cycle or occasional protest. The CORE activists brought their experience into a relatively moribund union apparatus and injected new life into the largest union in Chicago.

But the CTU’s efforts to build deep, lasting relationships—the bedrock of organizing—didn’t come easily and didn’t happen overnight. CTU activists had to make concerted efforts to reach out to parents, ministers, and community leaders to find out what their concerns and hopes were for kids and city schools. They had to listen instead of trying to convince parents and leaders what was important. When parents and community members knew that teachers were going to stand with them on the issues they felt were important to their families, it helped pave the way for community support of the strike.

Although the particulars of each teacher-community alliance will be different depending on local conditions, the overall lesson is clear: Unions, particularly public sector unions, must be proactive in their support of struggles for community justice. They must be partners with and advocates for the communities they serve.

Another lesson from the Chicago strike was the importance of putting forth a bold, well-reasoned, and researched set of proposals. Working with progressive academics and researchers in the union’s Quest Center, the union issued The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve, which offers a credible vision of what an excellent education for all requires. The CTU names the institutional racism at the center of school inequality and demands an end to educational apartheid in Chicago. They insist that the whole child be educated, demanding more art, music, and physical education teachers.

Social Justice Unionism

The Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012 will be looked back on as a turning point in a new kind of teacher unionism, something that rank-and-file union activists have been advocating for years. As long ago as 1994, teacher unionists from around the country, meeting in a Portland, Oregon, institute sponsored by the National Coalition of Education Activists, outlined a “social justice unionism” agenda that prefigured aspects of today’s new unionism. This document urged that “instead of promoting policies that may alienate the communities where our students live, we should forge alliances and resolve differences whenever possible. . . . Only by changing the culture of our unions will they become a force for changing the culture of our schools.” (See Rethinking Schools’ Transforming Teacher Unions for the full text.)

Some people describe this new unionism as an organizing model. Others call it “social justice unionism” or “social movement unionism.” Regardless, the Chicago teachers demonstrated its main features:

  • Unapologetically defend wages and working conditions of public school educators. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.
  • Stand up for students, the teaching profession, and an equal and nurturing education that embraces the whole child.
  • Defend public education—the only educational institution in our communities that has the capacity, commitment, and legal obligation to serve all children.
  • Forge alliances with parents and community organizations to work for better schools and for social justice in the entire community.
  • Build democratic union structures that encourage members to be organizers and active participants.

In cities around the country, teachers and other education activists are strategizing how the lessons from Chicago’s strike can be applied to their specific situations. It is time to use the energy and lessons from Wisconsin and Chicago to refocus the national narrative on education, to strengthen and transform our unions, and to broaden the fight for quality education for all.