Chicago Teachers Are Carrying the Torch of Decades of Militant Worker Struggles

Sarah Lazare

Striking Chicago public school teachers and their supporters march through the Loop on October 17, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

I solemn­ly swear that I will nev­er stop fight­ing for my stu­dents.” This hand-made pick­et sign, one of hun­dreds at an Octo­ber 25 Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) and SEIU 73 ral­ly, sums up what makes the teach­ers’ strike so impor­tant. In an approach CTU pio­neered dur­ing its 2012 strike, the 25,000-strong CTU refus­es to draw a firm bound­ary between jus­tice in the work­place and jus­tice for its stu­dents. For the union — under the lead­er­ship of the left­wing Cau­cus of Rank-and-File Edu­ca­tors — afford­able hous­ing is a bar­gain­ing issue because rough­ly 17,000 CPS stu­dents are expe­ri­enc­ing house­less­ness. And so is the short­age of school nurs­es, coun­selors and librar­i­ans — along with the cor­po­rate and hedge-fund pil­lag­ing of a city beset with deep pover­ty and racial segregation.

Thanks to an Illi­nois law passed in 1995, the city isn’t legal­ly required to bar­gain with CTU over issues beyond pay, ben­e­fits and hours — a fact that May­or Lori Light­foot and local media out­lets repeat­ed­ly cite. But the idea is that, by build­ing com­mu­ni­ty sup­port and stag­ing dis­rup­tion, the teach­ers can expand the bound­aries of what’s polit­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble and force the city to bend to its social jus­tice demands. As CPS teach­ers and staff have chant­ed while march­ing through Chicago’s streets, If we don’t get it, shut it down!” 

Such efforts to expand what is con­sid­ered a bar­gain­ing issue are often referred to as bar­gain­ing for the com­mon good,” a term pop­u­lar­ized by the 2014 cre­ation of an orga­niz­ing net­work by the same name. But before that term caught on, the tra­di­tion was known as social jus­tice union­ism” — or, as vet­er­an labor orga­niz­er and writer Jane McAlevey empha­sizes, plain olé’ work­ing-class orga­niz­ing. This is not new,” McAlevey tells In These Times. As long as there have been real­ly good trade unions, there have been fights that blur the lines between work­places and com­mu­ni­ties — that address the core needs of rank-and-file mem­bers at work and at home. Good orga­niz­ing has always been good orga­niz­ing.” As orga­niz­er and writer Bill Fletch­er Jr. puts it to In These Times, Social jus­tice union­ism involves the trans­for­ma­tion of union­ism from an instru­ment of work­place pow­er sole­ly, into a vehi­cle for work­er pow­er more generally.”

Exam­ples from U.S. his­to­ry show that work­er pow­er can be achieved by reach­ing out across shopfloors, build­ing with com­mu­ni­ty groups, and act­ing in sol­i­dar­i­ty with oppressed peo­ple in oth­er parts of the world. The Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World (IWW), found­ed in Chica­go in 1905, called for the cre­ation of one big indus­tri­al union, irre­spec­tive of shop or craft — or gen­der or race. This prin­ci­ple was put into prac­tice dur­ing the Lawrence, Mass., tex­tile strike of 1912, also known as the Bread and Ros­es strike. It was start­ed by Everette Mill weavers — immi­grant women who were furi­ous over a pay cut after a Mass­a­chu­setts law short­ened the work­week for women. The work stop­page spread to near­ly every mill in Lawrence, where tex­tile work­ers hail­ing from more than 51 coun­tries staged an indus­try-wide shut­down dur­ing a bru­tal­ly cold win­ter — buoyed by the orga­niz­ing of the IWW. The work­ers even­tu­al­ly won a 15% wage hike and an increase in over­time pay.

His­to­ry looks kind­ly upon such work­ers who orga­nized across work­places — and strug­gles. Dur­ing World War II, the Inter­na­tion­al Long­shore and Ware­house Union (ILWU) opposed the mass intern­ment of Japan­ese and Japan­ese-Amer­i­can peo­ple, at a time few oth­ers were will­ing to speak out. As labor his­to­ri­an Peter Cole notes in his book Dock­work­er Pow­er, in 1942, ILWU leader Lou Gold­blatt said in sworn tes­ti­mo­ny before Con­gress, This entire episode of hys­te­ria and mob chant against the native-born Japan­ese will form a dark page of Amer­i­can history.”

Cre­at­ed in 1943 by the Con­gress of Indus­tri­al Orga­ni­za­tions, the Unit­ed Pack­ing­house Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UPWA) became a sig­nif­i­cant force in the Civ­il Rights and Black Free­dom move­ments. In 1950, the union estab­lished an Anti-Dis­crim­i­na­tion Depart­ment aimed at stop­ping racism in hir­ing — and seg­re­ga­tion in local com­mu­ni­ties. The union gave robust — and ear­ly — sup­port to key racial jus­tice cam­paigns, includ­ing the Mont­gomery Bus Boy­cott and the March on Wash­ing­ton. At the 1957 found­ing meet­ing of the South­ern Chris­t­ian Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence, UPWA Vice Pres­i­dent Rus­sell Lasley said it was an extreme hon­or and priv­i­lege to rep­re­sent UPWA in a con­fer­ence of lead­ers who have ded­i­cat­ed their lives to the cause of free­dom and the estab­lish­ment of a soci­ety free of racial injus­tice and sec­ond class cit­i­zen­ship.” The union merged with the Amal­ga­mat­ed Meat Cut­ters in 1968.

The Bay Area’s Local 10 of the ILWU, a union that sur­vived being purged from the CIO dur­ing an anti-com­mu­nist crack­down in 1950, went on in 1984 to refuse to load or unload South African car­go, in sol­i­dar­i­ty with the anti-apartheid boy­cott. In 2008, 10,000 ILWU mem­bers shut down 29 ports on the West Coast demand­ing an end to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2015, Local 10 shut down the port of Oak­land, Calif., in sol­i­dar­i­ty with the Black Lives Mat­ter movement. 

A matrix of U.S. labor laws seeks to nar­row the scope of work­er orga­niz­ing. The 1935 Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act, designed to quell labor unrest, pro­hibits strik­ing as long as a con­tract with an employ­er is in place — a trade­off for secur­ing bar­gain­ing rights. Yet, these bar­gain­ing rights are drawn nar­row­ly: The Act also says wages, hours and work­ing con­di­tions are the only manda­to­ry sub­jects of bar­gain­ing for pri­vate-sec­tor work­ers. The Taft-Hart­ley Act, passed in 1947, impos­es fur­ther restric­tions, includ­ing a ban on wild­cat, juris­dic­tion­al and sec­ondary strikes. And the 1959 Labor Man­age­ment Dis­clo­sure and Report­ing Act says sec­ondary strik­ers can be held liable for damages. 

But by build­ing pow­er, work­ers can tran­scend these lim­its: Rank-and-file West Vir­ginia teach­ers demon­strat­ed as much in 2018, when they went on strike in a state where pub­lic-sec­tor strikes are ille­gal — and then stayed out on strike after union lead­ers and the gov­er­nor announced the strike was over. And indeed, Light­foot even­tu­al­ly agreed to bar­gain with CTU on social jus­tice issues, thanks to teacher pressure.

The prin­ci­ple that work­er pow­er — and not labor law — should deter­mine the shape and scope of labor strug­gle is espe­cial­ly poignant now, as the world hur­tles into an ever-wors­en­ing cli­mate cri­sis that is dri­ven by the cap­i­tal­ist class in indus­tri­al­ized coun­tries but dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly harms the poor and work­ing class­es, par­tic­u­lar­ly Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties and peo­ple in the Glob­al South. The glob­al cli­mate strikes in Sep­tem­ber saw 4,500 school walk­outs and protests in 150 coun­tries, with most actions led by young peo­ple whose lives will almost cer­tain­ly be shaped by envi­ron­men­tal cat­a­stro­phe. While the move­ment uses the word strike,” it’s fall­en short of orga­niz­ing mass-scale work stop­pages, although some unions have sup­port­ed the protests — and some work­ers have walked off the job. A cli­mate labor-strike, in which work­ers with­draw their labor, would be the great­est pos­si­ble social dis­rup­tion — and there­fore the ambi­tious social jus­tice union­ism we need to meet the urgency of the moment.

It’s a dif­fi­cult road from here to there, but Chicago’s intre­pid edu­ca­tors are teach­ing us that an old tra­di­tion is still rel­e­vant, and its prin­ci­ples remark­ably straight­for­ward. As Nicole Bron­son, a strik­ing spe­cial edu­ca­tion teacher told me as thou­sands of strik­ing work­ers gath­ered at a ral­ly down­town, This is about giv­ing back to the com­mu­ni­ty that gave to me.”

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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