Book Review of Robert Bruno and Steven Ashby’s “A Fight for the Soul of Public Education”:
By Ed Hershey
I received Bruno and Ashby’s book as part of a staff “Secret Santa” event. A little of my background is probably in order, before going into the book. I started my career in CPS at Lindblom in 2006. I was around CORE from the beginning, but I was not particularly active with the union until somewhat later. I became much more active in the run-up to Emanuel’s election, and was very active in the strike. I participated as a building activist. I became an associate delegate in the wake of the strike. Which is to say I lived the events in the book, but I was not party to the goings on in say, the Big Bargaining Team.
The book does a creditable job of laying out the background for the strike, and giving a feel for the details of the lead-up and of the main events of the strike itself. It gives a condensed version of how CORE grew as an organization, where union militants and teachers active around Teachers for Social Justice began to work together, latching onto fighting school closings, using the Board Meetings and Substance to gain a wider hearing. Ashby and Bruno get a lot of interesting quotes from James Franczek, the Board’s lead negotiator for two decades.
But there are deficiencies. The book came out at an odd moment. The 2012 strike is pointed to as a CTU success story. In its wake, the organized opposition to CORE was pulverized within the union, CTU leadership went largely unquestioned, so much so that Karen Lewis and the current leadership slate ran unopposed in the most recent election.
The 2012 strike was a notable success story for the labor movement -- one that unfortunately has not been duplicated five years on. We read in the book how CTU leadership outmaneuvered the Board in the run-up to that strike. Ashby and Bruno describe how the Board was caught off guard, how the whole Democratic establishment was blindsided – they took for granted that a strike vote would come AFTER the fact finding process. But the SB7 law which imposed the onerous legal restrictions on bargaining is silent on when and how the strike vote takes place – allowing a vote to be set after a deliberate campaign that was a model of member engagement. They had a plan, and that plan was flexible enough to allow for significant rank-and-file initiative. The leadership’s strategic aggressiveness in 2012 contrasts sharply with their lack of initiative and vision in the drawn out contract process of 2015-2016.
The biggest deficiency of the book can be boiled down to this: the narrative of the union given is, by and large, the narrative that the union leadership would tell of itself. It’s the story as you hear it from them – as you would hear, say, from the podium at the House of Delegates. (Ashby does serve as an advisor to the union, and calls CTU his ‘favorite union.’) There is a fawning over the strike and over CTU leadership that one expects at the LaborNotes conference, but which is not particularly useful for militants or aspiring militants who want to fully learn the lessons of the CTU experience. I expected the book to be hard-nosed and historical, but found it wanting in substance.
The treatment of the negotiations around SB7 is one of the biggest examples. SB7, CORE’s “original sin”, cannot be whitewashed completely. But the SB7 debacle is treated with kid-gloves, defending the leadership, without giving critics of the process any chance to weigh in.
Another place we see this is in the quotations. Most of the quotes of CTU members fall into two categories: anonymous “flavor” quotes from rank-and-file, and quotes from the leadership: the officers, leading staffers (Jackson Potter, Norine Gutekanst). Sarah Chambers is the only “rank-and-file” member who is quoted repeatedly, and she is closely identified with the leadership. Yes, CORE leadership was at its strongest in the run up to the strike. But it would be good to hear other voices. Where are the Lou Pysters, the George Schmidts, the Susan Zupans, the Howard Heaths? One does not come away from the book with a sense of these voices, there is no sense of contradictions or cleavages within the union or within CORE. Sue Garza is not mentioned in the book until after the strike, where she’s introduced as a CTU member who beat the machine and won an aldermanic seat. Not mentioned is her work as a regional activist on the Southeast side, holding one of the big community events on the Friday of the strike. Also not mentioned is the “One Day Longer, One Day Stronger” chant she raised at the House of Delegates on the Sunday of the strike, when leadership pushed to go back to work.
Which leads to the next big oversight: the book is very detailed in its description of the bargaining process – these chapters were authored by Bruno. These chapters alternate with “organizing” chapters written by Ashby, which talk about the community work, Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign, and the like. The book mostly overlooks the House of Delegates, where several major turns took place. Again this is exactly the venue where one would hear voices other than the leadership or the staff. Delegates meetings are not open to outsiders as a rule, so that may partly explain it. But the lack of insight into the House is a reflection on the leadership-centered paradigm of the book.
I will end with a few notes on errors of fact – of which there are several that I found.
The LaborNotes Left tends to inflate crowd numbers – I find the crowd numbers range from greatly exaggerated to being on the high side of plausible. It is possible to count crowds, given some effort, or, with large crowds, adequate technology (photos from high elevations, estimates of the lengths of a march, etc.) The crowd numbers are given without formal citation, so I will take my personal, admittedly imperfect “crowd gauge” and put it against the authors’. They give “15,000” as the attendance at the Labor Day rally before the strike, saying “the plaza overflowed.” I recall that event being satisfyingly large, but we were talking four to six thousand – a notable success, given the rally was called on short notice. The Monday downtown rally of the strike is given as “thirty-five thousand” – I would put that on the high side of plausibility. People who recall the Saturday rally in Union Park near the end of the strike remember it was not as energetic, and was smaller than the major downtown rallies that Monday and Tuesday. Ashby gives puts the attendance at 15,000 – I would reckon it much lower than that.
In the run-up to the strike, the union called for “Contract Action Committees” to be formed in schools – a committee of building activists to each be “assigned” to be responsible for keeping ten members of the school informed. “By Spring, 2012, hundreds of schools had Contract Action Committees.” (Page 113). If by this, they mean that hundreds of schools had formal teams that met, then this claim is almost certainly untrue. The authors cite CORE as being the strength behind these committees, but I recall being at a CORE meeting in 2013, post-strike, sitting at a table, and many of the activists there had never heard of Contract Action Committees – “what are those?” Hundreds of schools had active teachers, that is true. But an active committee at 30-50% of district schools? No, I don’t buy it – again it’s what the leadership wanted to happen when they proposed it – the reality on the ground didn’t play out that way.
On page 66, the authors say CPS “challenged [Jackson Potter’s] eligibility”, when they clearly had no right to do so. It was UPC that challenged Jackson off the CORE slate. (Article for reference can be found here on Substance).
I end here with the biggest factual error, on page 107: “the Arab Spring began in December 10th, 2011”. One year off a hundred years ago is one thing, but we are talking about recent events. The paragraphs preceding this line talk about the occupation of the Wisconsin Capital building in February 2011, and then the beginning of Occupy Wall Street in October of that year. The Arab Spring, having started in December 2010, was a reference point for those actions, not a result.
Maybe these are just points of imprecision. But combined with the issues of perspective, they make it hard to take the book as seriously as one would like.