The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) Strike of 2012- beyond mythology
By Earl Silbar
The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike of 2012 is widely believed to be a major success, a big win for progressive, member-driven leadership. Indeed, there were big successes won both by the strike preparation and from support for the strike among members, the wider public, and esp. by parents. However, there were major problems both in strike strategy and the settlement itself.
|The 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike was the first strike in 25 years.|
I write this to bring out some of both aspects for consideration and to learn from. The 2012 CTU strike had the potential to accomplish far more than it did. By choosing not to fight over school closings, the leadership undermined its stated goal “Defend and improve our schools! Don’t close them!” What’s more, major concessions greatly enhanced management’s freedom to terminate teachers with satisfactory ratings and established student “achievement” in teachers’ evaluations 2 years before legally required.
This account discusses some features of the strike preparation and the settlement that are widely misunderstood. As educators and as part of the wider working class, we face unending and increasing corporate-inspired attacks. By sharing oft-hidden facts about the strike and the settlement, I hope to dispel rose-colored myths and share unknown strengths. My goal is to assist in the pressing challenges facing public education and educators - organizing effective resistance to these corporate attacks and fighting for the education our kids need to confront the hard times they/we all face.
Fifty years of left activism have taught me that facing hard facts is more useful than building on the sands of comforting myths. Friendly critical evaluation of the CTU strike can help generate the effective, working class solidarity that can effectively resist and lay the basis for the people-first, sustainable world so many of us want and must fight for. Hopefully, this is a small contribution in that process.
Organizing for the strike vote
The CTU leadership, its staff, dedicated activists (esp. in the administration caucus CORE) and allies conducted a classic and creative campaign to win the strike authorization vote. They expressed long- held teacher resentment and frustration with decades of deteriorating conditions of work with no union resistance. Calling for a Yes vote in order to pressure the CPS administration in contract bargaining, the CTU leadership team developed active contract committees in many schools. Through these committees, the union caucus CORE, and individual efforts, they did outreach to parents, held local school-based rallies, and engaged many students around the theme, “ “Improve our schools, don’t close them!”. Facing a legal hurdle that they had to win 75% of all members’ votes, the CTU members shocked everyone with a spectacular 92% (of all members) strike authorization vote in late Spring, 2012.
Even before the strike began, this unprecedented and massive strike vote startled the city’s elites and won major concessions from corporate-backed Mayor Emanuel : the CTU won 500 art and music jobs (if for only 1 year), forced the mayor to drop his proposal to replace teachers’ pay schedules with “merit pay”, and broke the mayor’s strategy of isolating the CTU as “just greedy and selfish teachers”.
This internal organizing campaign deserves close study; it set the stage for all the gains. Strike rallies and local school strike pickets illustrated strong support from younger teachers, people who often see unions as conservative obstacles to educational innovation. The focus on “improve our schools” and “our kids deserve the best” set the terms of the fight, creating public support while energizing the members. The CTU leadership essentially defined the fight, taking it to the Mayor by contrasting his kids’ education (in the University of Chicago’s Laboratory Schools) with the sorely-lacking public schools. In effect, they made the fight appear to be over class privilege and fairness- a winning PR campaign that energized members and won parents’ crucial support.
Strike Contract Settlement: Hidden defeats and lessons
Following 4 days of a spectacularly supported strike with mass marches filling sections of Chicago’s downtown with striking teachers in red union tee shirts during working hours,CTU Pres. Lewis recommended that the Union accept the negotiated settlement, which members eventually did. Make no mistake, there were real gains that were won before the strike and some improvements in contract language and a small raise.
However, At the same time, most accounts have ignored several important concessions by the union (visit www.ctunet.net for contract provisions)
1. The CTU accepted student “achievement” as 30% of teachers’ evaluation, effective Fall, 2013. State law mandated the inclusion of student achievement, but not before 2015. Furthermore, the CTU contract set standards higher than the 25% minimum in state law and before methods for such evaluation had been established.
2. The CTU contract stipulates that two consecutive years of acceptable evaluations constitute the basis for termination should management wish to do that. This further undermines what little job security remains and further opens members to Board and management bullying, intimidate and discrimination.
3. No limits were set on the Mayor’s proposed closing of 50 neighborhood schools. This failure undermined perhaps the largest focus of the Union’s outreach and public support - “Improve our schools! Don’t close them!”. School closings was a legally ‘ permissable’ subject of bargaining, meaning that management could and did refuse to bargain over that issue. It also meant that the union could not legally strike over that issue. However, being “permissible” also opened the door for other forces - parents, community groups, students, religious and union organizations- to have intervened and pressured the Board to negotiate over the closings. Did the union work to make that happen? In fact, there was no internal CTU member education or preparation towards that end. There were no public initiatives or mobilizations to force the issue. Public relations rhetoric, yes. Effective action? No.
At the end of the day, there was no fight to stop the closings. (49 of those schools were in fact closed in Spring, 2013.) This failure left the Union and its members vulnerable to the charge that it was all about narrow self-interest despite the successful rhetoric. The CTU’s refusal to prepare for this fight also left some teachers wondering if the CTU was serious about this fight.
Flouting his successes, the Mayor publicly gloated over winning his key corporate agenda in the contract: closing 49 local schools while increasing charter schools, winning the longer school day with no proportional pay raise, and tieing teachers’ evaluation to student “achievement”. He was so visibly exuberant that the CTU leadership had to publicly ask him to stop gloating because it made it hard to “sell it to the (CTU) members.”
“ Yes, there is a class war, and my side is winning!” Warren Buffett. Our alternative?
Was there another road to have taken? I think so, but that would have required a different vision and strategy. Forcing the School Board and Mayor to negotiate over the threatened closings would have meant refusing to follow court injunctions to stop the strike. In fact, a local judge did issue an injunction during the strike but withheld it to allow the leadership time to promote the contract’s acceptance and end the strike without the confrontation
Preparing to actually force the closings issue would have meant preparing members for normal consequences facing unions and workers who refuse to obey court injunctions: leaders can get arrested and jailed; unions can face huge fines ; individual teachers can face charges, fines, and firings. The stakes are big, but winning strikes erase these actions. Hence the need to prepare the ground, among members and allies alike. In fact, the CTU leadership did none of that.
Forcing the fight to save the schools and turn the tide means serious consequences for which people must be prepared with cold facts and effective organizing to gather determined allies. Making this fight would have required winning teachers, parents, students, community groups, other unions, and wider working class public support for mass direct actions like marches, strikes and occupations to back it up and make it happen. These are examples of organizing our side in the really-existing if one-sided class war acknowledged by America’s No. 1 capitalist, Mr. Buffett. Rather than test the waters for such a path, the CTU leadership team avoided even the discussion with the membership.
To make such a serious challenge to the corporate education agenda requires that we understand and act on the common interest in quality education for working class young people especially, not just the few. It also requires an awareness of our place as part of the working class in the class war Buffett openly acknowledges. Organizing practical solidarity on that basis can establish the common threat posed by the corporate agenda to public education and to working people’s jobs, pay, benefits, our environment, etc. This class-based strategy can help fight really-existing pernicious and deep-seated racism and sexism and build more powerful links of solidarity. In short, it requires organizing based on working class solidarity around everyday, real-life issues. (For those who think this wildly unrealistic, google South Africa’s largest union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, NUMSA.)
This CTU leadership team had no such plan or vision. They never initiated discussion among the membership of what such a fight would take nor the stakes and potential ramifications. With its choices, the CTU leadership rejected waging such a fight in the Strike of 2012. Instead, it relied on deeply moving rhetoric, meticulous and brilliant pre-strike organizing, and carefully limited militant tactics. Adopting a strategy of class-based organizing is no guarantee of success. It does allow us to see how far we can go. Ultimately, we saw again the road-most-taken union strategy of limiting the fight while making and then masking major concessions. We can do better.
Earl Silbar is a veteran Chicago socialist who was elected to many union positions (AFSCME 3506) in his career as an adult educator for the City Colleges of Chicago. After retiring in 2006, he was an active associate member of CORE ( caucus of rank-and-file educators)from 2008-2011, working on campaigns to fight school closings across Chicago. As such, he helped elect the current CTU leadership on the CORE slate. To share experiences and views, email@example.com