Chicago Teachers Union’s Overwhelming Approval of Strike Shows Power of Bottom-up Organizing

Micah Uetricht December 14, 2015

Last week's vote was a testament to CTU's rank-and-file organizing capacities—as well as the harbinger of a likely walkout.

The num­bers are in from the Chica­go Teach­ers Union’s strike autho­riza­tion vote, and it’s not even close.

After three days of vot­ing last week, 22,678 of the union’s 24,752 eli­gi­ble mem­bers cast bal­lots, and 96.05 per­cent of them vot­ed yes” — 88 per­cent of all CTU mem­bers. The nation’s third-largest — and arguably most impor­tant — teach­ers union has sent a clear mes­sage that they are will­ing to walk off the job amid their cur­rent round of con­tract nego­ti­a­tions, as they did in 2012.

For the CTU, this con­tract fight comes in the mid­dle of a rare polit­i­cal cri­sis for the city’s polit­i­cal elites, yet also will prove a mon­u­men­tal­ly dif­fi­cult task. But the strike vote itself (which gives the union lead­er­ship the author­i­ty to call a walk­out if cer­tain legal bench­marks are met dur­ing con­tract nego­ti­a­tions) and the recent his­to­ry of bat­tles around that bal­lot are worth recount­ing — both because a near­ly 90 per­cent yes” vote reflects the suc­cess of a cru­cial ele­ment of the Chica­go teach­ers’ mod­el of orga­niz­ing, and because it’s the kind of lop­sided result the union’s ene­mies pre­vi­ous­ly thought was impos­si­ble to achieve.

In 2011, neolib­er­al edu­ca­tion reform groups pushed through the Illi­nois state leg­is­la­ture a bill designed to lim­it the pow­er of teach­ers unions, specif­i­cal­ly the CTU. Among oth­er lim­it­ing pro­vi­sions (includ­ing new rules on teacher tenure, lay­offs, eval­u­a­tions, and oth­er issues), State Bill 7 raised the thresh­old for autho­riz­ing a strike. While the CTU had pre­vi­ous­ly been able to call a walk­out with a sim­ple major­i­ty of vot­ing mem­bers, they now need­ed sup­port from 75 per­cent of all mem­bers.

How did such a law come about? In a remark­able talk at the Aspen Ideas Fes­ti­val that year, Jon­ah Edel­man, CEO of Stand for Chil­dren, a cor­po­rate edu­ca­tion reform group that reg­u­lar­ly oppos­es teach­ers unions and entered the state at the invi­ta­tion of right-wing bil­lion­aire pri­vate equi­ty mogul and now – Illi­nois Gov­er­nor Bruce Rauner, explained the group’s suc­cess in pass­ing the bill and the think­ing behind it. (Though record­ed and post­ed on the fes­ti­val’s web site, the pan­el attract­ed lit­tle atten­tion until it was picked up by local edu­ca­tion blog­ger Fred Klonsky.)

As Edel­man told it, his group had looked at past data and noticed that the union had nev­er con­duct­ed a strike autho­riza­tion bal­lot that drew yes” votes from more than 48.3% of all CTU mem­bers. Rais­ing the bar to 75 per­cent would­n’t make a strike ille­gal, they rea­soned — but it would almost cer­tain­ly make it unachievable. 

In effect,” Edel­man says mat­ter-of-fact­ly, they couldn’t have the abil­i­ty to strike even though the right was main­tained. … The union can­not strike in Chica­go. They will nev­er be able to muster the 75 per­cent thresh­old need­ed to strike.” 

While it’s easy to scoff at Edel­man’s state­ment in hind­sight, at the time his analy­sis was spot on. Before 2010, the CTU was com­plete­ly inca­pable of orga­niz­ing even a sim­ple major­i­ty of all of its mem­bers to vote for a strike, or prob­a­bly do any­thing else. (The same is true of the vast major­i­ty of unions around the coun­try today and through­out much of Amer­i­can labor history.)

But what Edel­man didn’t account for was the pro­gram the new CTU lead­er­ship, the Cau­cus of Rank-and-File Edu­ca­tors (CORE), would car­ry out after being elect­ed in 2010. New, demo­c­ra­t­ic pro­ce­dures with­in the union’s gov­ern­ing body; intense mem­ber polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion pro­grams; a new orga­niz­ing depart­ment that took mem­ber­ship engage­ment seri­ous­ly — the CTU under CORE came as close to orga­niz­ing schools top-to-bot­tom, across the dis­tric­t’s six-hun­dred-plus schools, as was prob­a­bly possible. 

That com­mit­ment to rig­or­ous­ly orga­niz­ing near­ly all the union’s mem­bers — from ini­tial con­tact to polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion to con­tin­ued engage­ment around union busi­ness to a strike vote — was on dis­play in 2012 when 92 per­cent of all mem­bers vot­ed to strike, and again in the most recent vote when 88 per­cent did the same. It’s also a lev­el of engage­ment that pro­duces mass num­bers of rank-and-file union mil­i­tants, will­ing to speak out at pub­lic hear­ings and march in the streets and talk to par­ents and neigh­bors — and effect a real polit­i­cal shift at the grass­roots lev­el in Chicago. 

In some ways, SB7 actu­al­ly end­ed up being a gift for the CTU. Unable to call out a strike autho­riza­tion vote with­out engag­ing (and some­times argu­ing with and push­ing) near­ly all of the union’s mem­ber­ship, CTU mem­bers and staff were forced to car­ry out the painstak­ing work of get­ting the entire rank-and-file on board with its program. 

It’s that com­mit­ment that sets the Chica­go teach­ers apart from most oth­er unions around the coun­try. CTU lead­ers like Pres­i­dent Karen Lewis have long made head­lines for her will­ing­ness to, as she has put it, talk a lit­tle smack” in pub­lic. (When asked recent­ly about how often she speaks with new CPS CEO For­rest Clay­pool, who has no back­ground in schools, Lewis told the Chica­go Sun-Times, I don’t have that much to talk to him about cause he doesn’t know any­thing about education.”) 

The val­ue of such smack talk — at once ener­giz­ing union mem­bers and work­ing-class Chicagoans, and get­ting inside oppo­nents’ heads — is real. Lewis’ com­bi­na­tion of ver­bal jabs in the papers and shrewd­ness at the bar­gain­ing table have made her the Muham­mad Ali of Amer­i­can union leaders. 

But as Lewis her­self repeat­ed­ly insists, it’s the CTU’s com­mit­ment to rank-and-file democ­ra­cy and rad­i­cal polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion that make it a force to be reck­oned with in the city. No amount of smack talk can pro­duce an 88 per­cent strike autho­riza­tion vote — only real mem­ber orga­niz­ing, union democ­ra­cy, and rad­i­cal polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion can do that.

In 2012, the CTU strike showed what a crit­i­cal mass of work­ers can achieve when they’re unit­ed. With near­ly nine out of ten mem­bers sup­port­ing strike action this time around, we’ll like­ly see that tight orga­ni­za­tion and mil­i­tant mobi­liza­tion in action again in the com­ing months.

Mic­ah Uet­richt is the deputy edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine and host of its pod­cast The Vast Major­i­ty. He is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. He is the author of Strike for Amer­i­ca: Chica­go Teach­ers Against Aus­ter­i­ty (Ver­so 2014), coau­thor of Big­ger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Cam­paign to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ism (Ver­so 2020), and is cur­rent­ly at work on a book on New Left­ists who indus­tri­al­ized.” He pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a labor orga­niz­er. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @micahuetricht.

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