Democratic to the CORE

The Chicago Teachers Union’s secret to success? The rank and file are in control.

Micah Uetricht and Jasson Perez November 30, 2012

Chicago Teachers Union delegates leave a union hall after voting to end their strike on September 18. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Dur­ing September’s Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) strike, local and nation­al media rushed to frame the fight as a clash of over­sized per­son­al­i­ties: the stub­born, foul-mouthed May­or Rahm Emanuel against the brash chem­istry-teacher-turned-union pres­i­dent Karen Lewis. Even pro­gres­sive media hyped Lewis as the dri­ver of the union’s vic­to­ry, prais­ing her per­son­al tough­ness as more than a match for Emanuel. It was clas­sic Great Man” his­tori­cism, trac­ing the strike’s ori­gins to lead­ers’ per­son­al traits.

Proponents of the CTU’s bottom-up organizing style say there is no other way to win. “Top-down just does not work. It’s the style of the bosses,” says the CTU's Kenzo Shibata.

Few accounts men­tioned the con­stituen­cies behind these lead­ers. For Emanuel, this includes anti-union char­ter-school advo­cates, who donat­ed $12 mil­lion toward his elec­tion. In Lewis’ case, it was the dic­tates of her 30,000 mem­bers. Indeed, the CTU is one of the most vibrant­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic union locals in the Unit­ed States.

Since a 2010 upheaval with­in the CTU, rank-and-file teach­ers have made up the union’s lead­er­ship, and mem­bers make many of its day-to-day deci­sions. Pub­lic actions are typ­i­cal­ly planned and exe­cut­ed by mem­bers them­selves, not paid staff. And the CTU took the incred­i­ble step of extend­ing its Sep­tem­ber strike an extra two days to ensure mem­bers had a chance to exam­ine and debate the pro­posed contract.

As Lewis puts it, We put the pow­er into the hands of the rank and file, where it belongs.”

In recent decades, as the Amer­i­can labor move­ment has declined in mem­ber­ship and pow­er, sev­er­al unions have under­gone a sea change, with new lead­ers propos­ing bold visions for how to revi­tal­ize labor. But rarely have those visions been as close­ly tied to a com­mit­ment to mem­ber-led democ­ra­cy as in the CTU.

Shifts in leadership

Unlike many unions, in which offi­cials cling to pow­er for decades, the CTU has a long his­to­ry of lead­er­ship turnover. Even when lead­ers did not run the union demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly, the CTU’s struc­ture allowed for reform cau­cus­es to devel­op. The Unit­ed Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus (UPC), which was root­ed in racial jus­tice cau­cus­es in the 1970s but failed to push back against cor­po­rate edu­ca­tion reform, held pow­er for three decades. Proac­tive Chica­go Teach­ers (PACT), a reform cau­cus pledg­ing to recap­ture a past union mil­i­tan­cy, briefly unseat­ed the UPC in 2001 — the same year cur­rent Sec­re­tary of Edu­ca­tion Arne Dun­can became CEO of Chica­go Pub­lic Schools (CPS), push­ing an agen­da of clos­ing pub­lic schools and open­ing charters.

Lead­er­ship changed hands three times in nine years — an incred­i­ble fre­quen­cy com­pared to most Amer­i­can unions. Then, in 2010, teach­ers elect­ed the Cau­cus of Rank and File Edu­ca­tors (CORE), a reform cau­cus with deep roots in com­mu­ni­ty-lev­el edu­ca­tion equal­i­ty fights. CORE had learned from PACT’s fail­ures. Upon her elec­tion as CTU pres­i­dent, Lewis stat­ed that CORE would change this into a demo­c­ra­t­ic union respon­sive to its mem­bers.” CORE imme­di­ate­ly began restruc­tur­ing the union. Lead­er­ship broad­ened the rights and respon­si­bil­i­ties of mem­bers in the gov­ern­ing House of Del­e­gates. Four­teen mem­ber-led com­mit­tees, from polit­i­cal action to media, were tasked with cen­tral roles in the union’s day-to-day func­tion­ing. A new train­ing pro­gram pre­pared del­e­gates and mem­bers for union orga­niz­ing and gov­er­nance. At schools, com­mit­tees of teach­ers, par­ents and stu­dents were orga­nized to facil­i­tate activism inde­pen­dent of union lead­er­ship. Quick­ly, edu­ca­tors began to take con­trol of their union. We turned our mem­bers into orga­niz­ers, then we cut them loose,” says CTU staffer Matt Luskin.

Char­lotte John­son has been a teacher’s assis­tant for 19 years in CPS. For most of that time she was unin­volved in the union. I can’t even remem­ber what the president’s name was,” she says, refer­ring to the UPC era. You’d hear things were hap­pen­ing, but they weren’t good.”

John­son says CORE lead­er­ship engaged mem­bers right away through pro­grams like a sum­mer orga­niz­ing ini­tia­tive, where activists knocked on oth­er mem­bers’ doors and dis­cussed work­place issues face to face in their homes. That’s the only way you can hear from 26,000 peo­ple,” she says.

That com­mit­ment to bot­tom-up engage­ment was on full dis­play dur­ing the 2012 strike. Mem­bers spon­ta­neous­ly planned and exe­cut­ed actions such as protests against Demo­c­ra­t­ic alder­men hos­tile to the strike, often with­out even a nudge from staff.

Kim Walls, a sci­ence teacher at Robert Ful­ton Ele­men­tary, had nev­er been active before CORE mem­bers approached her in 2010. She attend­ed the union’s sum­mer orga­niz­ing pro­gram, where she first heard about tax incre­ment financ­ing (TIFs), a city pol­i­cy that diverts resources away from pub­lic insti­tu­tions such as schools to corporations.

On Sep­tem­ber 14, the union and the Grass­roots Col­lab­o­ra­tive coali­tion planned a ral­ly against TIFs down­town, focus­ing on bil­lion­aire hotel heiress and CPS board mem­ber Pen­ny Pritzk­er. Her com­pa­ny, Hyatt Hotels, had received $5.2 mil­lion in TIF funds to build a new hotel in Hyde Park, where Walls lives.

Walls recalls Luskin tele­phon­ing her days pri­or about the action. I said, Matthew, I’m not going down­town. There’s a Hyatt right here.’ ” She told Luskin she would orga­nize her own protest against Hyatt in Hyde Park. He just said, Go for it.’ ”

So Walls called Hyde Park-area teach­ers and told them to call their peo­ple” to come out to the action. When the day came, 300 teach­ers and sup­port­ers marched on the hotel — with lit­tle to no sup­port need­ed from union staff.

Two extra days

After the strike’s first week, many Chicagoans assumed teach­ers would return to class Mon­day. Emanuel had lost the pub­lic rela­tions bat­tle: Polls showed strong majori­ties, espe­cial­ly among CPS par­ents and Chicagoans of col­or, back­ing teach­ers. The union had the upper hand in bar­gain­ing, and the draft agree­ment CTU lead­ers brought to the House of Del­e­gates meet­ing that Sun­day, which CPS had signed off on, was rumored to be strong.

Which is why many in the local media were stunned when del­e­gates vot­ed to stay on strike for at least two more days — not because the pro­posed agree­ment was unfa­vor­able, but because mem­bers want­ed more time to exam­ine it. Instead of forc­ing mem­ber­ship to decide on a con­tract that they had not read and did not ful­ly under­stand, del­e­gates extend­ed the strike to ensure mem­bers wouldn’t feel like any­thing was being shoved down our throats,” as del­e­gate and first-grade teacher Yolan­da Thomp­son put it.

Favor­able cov­er­age in the main­stream press evap­o­rat­ed. Nev­er­the­less, on Mon­day morn­ing, teach­ers arrived at pick­et lines out­side their schools at 6:30 a.m., eager to review the pro­pos­al but lack­ing a for­mal process. Bec­ca Barnes, a ninth-grade his­to­ry teacher on the South Side, says teach­ers at her school made pho­to­copies of the con­tract, stood against a fence, and spent an hour read­ing through line by line, cir­cling key sec­tions and com­ment­ing in the mar­gins — as though they were grad­ing papers. As they began pick­et­ing, the con­tract was still on their minds. So Barnes and her fel­low teach­ers — about 100 of them — decid­ed, right there on the pick­et line, to walk to a near­by park and read it together.

None of us planned in advance to comb through it col­lec­tive­ly,” Barnes says.

But that’s what they did, at first only for the big picture.

We were going to just go over high­lights,” Barnes remem­bers, but then some­one said, No — we need to read the entire contract!’ ”

So, sit­ting togeth­er at a park, they read through every line, pas­sion­ate­ly debat­ing the vic­to­ries and con­ces­sions hashed out at the bar­gain­ing table.

It was very emo­tion­al,” says Barnes. Some peo­ple were sick of strik­ing. Oth­ers said, This isn’t good enough. This one line is rea­son enough for me to stay out.’ ”

Sim­i­lar scenes took place through­out Chica­go. For the first time, teach­ers were study­ing every word of their con­tract, the prin­ci­pal doc­u­ment gov­ern­ing their work lives, some­times emo­tion­al­ly and con­tentious­ly, but together.

We were gen­uine­ly inter­est­ed in what each oth­er had to say — even the peo­ple who want­ed to go back,” Barnes says. The union vot­ed to rat­i­fy the con­tract Octo­ber 3, with 79 per­cent of mem­ber­ship in favor.

One CTU staffer, Nor­rine Gutekanst, says she was a bit con­cerned” when del­e­gates extend­ed the strike, think­ing pub­lic opin­ion would turn against us.” It was incon­ve­nient,” she says, “[but] because this lead­er­ship is com­mit­ted to bot­tom-up democ­ra­cy, we just felt like we had to do this, and that it would result in a much stronger union.”

Mark Bren­ner, direc­tor of Labor Notes, an orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cat­ed to fos­ter­ing union democ­ra­cy, says this com­mit­ment sets the CTU apart from much of Amer­i­can labor. There’s a lot of cyn­i­cism in labor about the capac­i­ty of ordi­nary, work­ing-class peo­ple to run their unions,” Bren­ner says. Lead­ers think those peo­ple should have good lives, but they don’t think they have the capac­i­ty to do big things.” That cyn­i­cism, Bren­ner says, has pre­vent­ed oth­er unions from engag­ing mem­bers the way Chica­go teach­ers have. Even among pro­gres­sive’ unions, democ­ra­cy is not high on the list of must-haves. That has real­ly hurt our move­ment,” he says. Democ­ra­cy is what builds the capac­i­ty to take high-stakes, risky actions like the CTU did.”

CTU-style democ­ra­cy dan­ger­ous’

The labor move­ment is still pars­ing the lessons of the CTU strike. Illi­nois’ AFSCME Coun­cil 31 appears embold­ened by the CTU, pub­licly prais­ing the strike and stir­ring rumors of a poten­tial work stop­page in their bat­tle with Demo­c­ra­t­ic Gov. Pat Quinn.

Oth­er union lead­er­ship has been made skit­tish by the CTU exam­ple. Refer­ring to a CORE-style cau­cus fight­ing a recent­ly nego­ti­at­ed Newark Teach­ers Union con­tract intro­duc­ing mer­it pay, NTU Pres­i­dent Joe Del Grosso seemed ner­vous. They had some signs there that we should fol­low Chicago’s lead,” Del Grosso recent­ly told Work­ing In These Times’ Josh Eidel­son. I think that’s very dangerous.”

In New York City, the Move­ment of Rank-and-File Edu­ca­tors (MORE), a dis­si­dent cau­cus chal­leng­ing the cur­rent lead­er­ship of the Unit­ed Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (UFT), draws inspi­ra­tion from the CTU’s rank-and-file democracy.

Kit Wain­er, a social stud­ies high school teacher and mem­ber of MORE, says that under the UFT’s cur­rent lead­er­ship, There’s no real process for mem­bers to have any kind of direct say in the day-to-day direc­tion of the union. There’s for­mal democ­ra­cy, but no sub­stan­tive democracy.”

The prob­lem, Wain­er says, is not that the UFT lacks a broad social-jus­tice vision — it’s that rank-and-file teach­ers are not engaged in demo­c­ra­t­ic prac­tices with­in the union to enact that vision. “[UFT Pres­i­dent Mike] Mul­grew talks about pover­ty, about char­ters as a pri­va­ti­za­tion scheme by the rich,” Wain­er says. The prob­lem is they won’t mobi­lize mem­bers to fight. Their idea of fight­ing is hir­ing lob­by­ists and lawyers to go to Albany, or buy­ing TV commercials.”

If MORE’s slate can cap­ture lead­er­ship like CORE, Wain­er says, We’d build up mem­ber­ship con­fi­dence and will­ing­ness to strug­gle. We could reteach mem­bers what the union is.”

When’s the meeting?

Pro­po­nents of the CTU’s bot­tom-up orga­niz­ing style say there is no oth­er way to win. Top-down just does not work. It’s the style of the boss­es,” says Ken­zo Shi­ba­ta, a CORE mem­ber who taught Eng­lish for 10 years before head­ing social media for the union.

Bren­ner agrees: The strike would nev­er have been suc­cess­ful if they hadn’t spent a year and a half try­ing to iden­ti­fy lead­ers in the schools and give them the train­ing to be real lead­ers in the union.”

Kim Walls sees her union activism, begun in earnest only three years ago, as a start­ing point. She and her col­leagues have been embold­ened through their orga­niz­ing and are con­sid­er­ing find­ing a teacher to run for city coun­cil. She says she texted a CTU staffer about their plans.

He respond­ed, Great. Let me know when the meet­ing is.’ ”

Mic­ah Uet­richt is a labor orga­niz­er in Chica­go and a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times who has writ­ten for Salon, the Amer­i­can Prospect and Jacobin. He is at work on a book on the Chica­go Teach­ers Union.

Jas­son Perez is a native Chicagoan who has worked as a com­mu­ni­ty and union orga­niz­er for 11 years. He is a field orga­niz­er for SEIU Local 73, a mem­ber of Stone Soup Coop­er­a­tive, and a mem­ber of the hip hop group BBU. 

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