The recent strike of Chicago teachers marked a watershed in the class struggle in the United States. In the aftermath of the disintegration of unions in the private sector, teacher unions have become a prime target. The attack has been mounted across the board, undermining wages, benefits, working conditions and job security, while also undercutting the strength of the unions representing teachers.

The confrontation in Chicago was particularly important for a variety of reasons. Chicago is the third largest city in the U.S. Its newly elected mayor, Rahm Emanuel, was previously White House Chief of Staff, and he remains a close ally of Barack Obama. Illinois is also one of the few states where teachers can legally go on strike, although only when the strike involves “economic” issues, wages and benefits, but not when it concerns the whole range of other relevant issues related to working conditions and job security. Finally, the leadership of the Chicago Teachers’ Union includes members of two socialist organizations, the International Socialist Organization (ISO), which was initially an affiliate of the British Socialist Workers Party, and Solidarity, which is closely linked to Labor Notes.

From the start, Emanuel made it clear that he was intent on crushing the teachers’ union. The Chicago School Board has been closing schools, making redundant hundreds of teachers. Emanuel insisted that the closures would continue, and that the principals of the remaining schools would have the total authority to decide which of the teachers from the closed schools would be hired to fill new positions. Emanuel also demanded that teachers spend more time in the classroom, thus cutting preparation time. Teachers would also be evaluated on the basis of the scores recorded by their students on standardized tests, and if the scores fell below some level they could be suspended or fired.

These cutback demands were publicized well before the teachers’ contract came to an end, so the union leadership had plenty of time to prepare. To its credit, the union developed a counter-program, highlighting demands for smaller class sizes, opposing school closures, and condemning the use of standardized testing, both in terms of determining which students could graduate or advance a grade and as the basis for teacher evaluation. The union also undertook a considerable effort to forge connections with parents in community groups, who understood that Rahm Emanuel and the School Board were determined to save money at the expense of their children’s education.

All of this was good, and yet when the strike began, the union’s leadership began to waver. Teachers solidly and enthusiastically supported the strike. Community support was high, and student and community activists joined picket lines at the schools. Nevertheless, the union soon downplayed its demands for positive changes and switched to a defensive posture, hoping to ward of extensive cutbacks.

Strike leaders showed little imagination in devising tactics. There were no mass marches or acts of civil disobedience. The union did not emphasize the necessity of taxing the rich, although Chicago is a primary location for corporate headquarters. Although some of the union leaders are socialists, there was no effort to detail the nefarious role played by the Democratic Party, which has controlled the politics of Chicago for decades and is closely intertwined with business interests. Strike leaders made no attempt to spread the strike to other public sector workers in Chicago, or to teachers in the nearby region. The leadership of the Chicago Teachers’ Union remained passive as the city ratcheted up the pressure.

A week after the strike had started, the two negotiating teams reached a tentative settlement. On that Sunday, the union’s House of Delegates, a representative body with delegates elected from the many schools in the Chicago district, met to discuss the agreement. In spite of the intense pressure of the union leadership, and the outcry of the media and the mayor, the delegates refused to ratify the agreement, insisting that they needed more time to study the terms and to consult with their members. The strike continued for two more days, during which Emanuel threatened to obtain a court injunction ordering the teachers to return to work. That Tuesday, the House of Delegates approved the agreement and teachers returned to work.

The final contract contained a whole series of concessions, albeit less than Emanuel had initially demanded. More schools will be closed, and the principals of the remaining schools will have substantial, although not total, control over which redundant teachers are rehired. Standardized testing will be implemented at every level of the school system, and teachers will be evaluated on the basis of student scores on these tests, although these scores will be only one component of the evaluation, and a negative assessment can be appealed to a review board. Finally, real wages will fall over the three years of the contract, as inflation rates exceed the paltry wage increases of the contract.

The Chicago teachers’ strike thus ended in yet another defeat for the U.S. working class, and, specifically for the Chicago teachers. Indeed, Emanuel has already stated that teacher pensions will have to be cut, as the rollbacks continue.

What are the lessons to be learned? Broad Left caucuses with politics similar to that of the CTU leadership function in teacher unions in Scotland and throughout Britain. There is a great deal of talk of resistance, and little action. The policies of the Labour Party are criticized, and yet the trade union leaders continue to funnel money and resources into the electoral campaigns of Labour Party politicians. There is no willingness to confront the government, and no willingness to take risks. The Chicago strike demonstrates once again that this is a losing strategy. We need to build radical opposition caucuses within the teacher unions, and other public sector unions as well, that will learn the lessons of the Chicago strike.

The following report is written by a Chicago teacher who wished to remain anonymous. It was written in the midst of the strike, after the tentative agreement was reached, but before it was ratified and the strike brought to an end. The report gives a sense of the strike from within. It also reflects the militancy and determination that will be needed to confront the ruling powers and move toward a socialist transformation of society.

Eric Chester, 4th October 2012

It’s like this. There are issues across the city that we have made catch fire via our Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) signs and chants and rallies. If we only get something for ourselves in this contract now, that will be shameful. The following must be declared by CTU to be NON-NEGOTIABLES before any contract is ratified (or even presented to the House of Delegates (HoD), a representative body of teachers within the CTU that has to approve a tentative contract]): class size, wrap-around services, standardized tests, and school closures. (And we need to add small parts of the longer school day in there.) THERE IS NO DIGNITY IN WALKING BACK INTO OUR SCHOOLS WITHOUT ANY CONTRACT LANGUAGE ON THESE ISSUES over which we have rallied others out there (students, parents, community members, and strangers at gas stations in Indiana for crying out loud) to fight for with us.

“What about ‘Children First’ for the CTU?” Please, don’t tell me these are not legal items for contract negotiation. WE CAN DO THIS. We know we won’t “get everything.” But we should hold strong for MORE than stopping this strike this weekend would probably get us. Ten years from now, will one or two more weeks (or more) have mattered in this fight, if you are someone who is thinking that we can’t face it anymore right now? “Short term pain for long term gain.” Deferred gratification. That stuff we try to instil in our students on a daily basis. If this results in only “more money for the employees” then we will be seen as the hoodwinking snake oil peddlers of all time. I can hear it already: “They were only in it for themselves from the start.” “Look how they only got something for themselves but nothing for us.”

If the contract proposal (that is, If the Board puts into writing this last-minute, “miracle framework” no one will tell us anything about until the last minutes of a made-up make-believe unrealistic 24/7 media run deadline (much as the City Council must be run I imagine) does not include ANYTHING FOR OUR STUDENTS AND THEIR FAMILIES but it has “satisfactory” pay increases, then I suggest we try this: We change our minds and very publicly ask for at least a 200% pay increase for each teacher, counsellor and clinician. WHY? Because although we don’t really want two or three salaries for each of those of us remaining in this system, if the Board won’t hire more teachers/clinicians/counsellors, then the rest of us need to be just plain paid for working those NEEDED positions as well. (If this is supposed to be a movement, similarly exploited, overworked labor across America should hear that message from CTU right now.)

1) CLASS SIZE: IF we do not have any official lowering of class size numbers in that contract, we have shamefully reneged on our very public declaration that has become a hopeful promise to our students, and I can’t walk back in with any “dignity” on that one. n our school, we set up a space with craft materials on our picket line to keep all the kids occupied, and they made their own signs by copying some of the CTU signs the neighbors had up near the school.

What do I tell them about their protest signs for smaller class sizes if I go back in with no Board concession on this? Lots of kids from across the city marched in our rallies wearing similar signs.

So, If Chicago Public Schools (CPS) keeps these class sizes over 20-25, we need to demand the pay that would have gone to the other teachers research tells us the students should humanely have – so pay us for THAT since you are asking me to be an extra teacher on top of being the teacher. We will not be labelled “greedy teachers,” we will be admired as “those smart teachers” getting for their students what they can get as they can get it under the dictates of that stupid 1995 law in Illinois setting up mayoral control of CPS. And we will be pointing some of this RED anger deservedly toward Springfield. We say: Hey, everybody! Here’s a loophole for the 99% finally. We can only bargain or strike over pay, okay, then compensate us for being two-teachers-in-one with the class sizes we can’t bargain about in Chicago.

2) WRAP-AROUND SERVICES: SAME CONCEPT. IF we do not have any official contractual language lowering case loads or increasing the numbers of clinicians in our schools (sorry, your kid can only have a meltdown from what happens on the streets on Tuesdays and Wednesdays because that’s when the social worker is here), then we have further shamefully reneged on our very public declaration that has become a hopeful promise to the families we claim we want to serve so well. So… IF CPS keeps the status quo on that, then we need to stay on strike bullying, wrongheaded, research-rejected, immoral pieces of crap LAW/ with a demand that the pay which should be going for new clinicians now go to the remaining teachers and clinicians – so pay us for THAT since you are asking me to be a nurse, social worker, and psychologist (and every other clinician) on top of telling me to be the teacher or having one clinician do the work of 10.

Thus, as a CPS teacher or clinician, I can legitimately demand and continue to strike over the expense of at least three or four salaries now.

The public would GET THIS. And the 24/7 news-cycle mentality would keep the talking points of CTU’s latest demands going for at least another week of public attention span interest on talk radio and the like.

3) STANDARDIZED TESTS: IF we do not stand strong against any standardized tests connected to pay and evaluation (as well as the insane proliferation level toward everything), then we have NOT CREATED A MOVEMENT which we have been told has been passed the Civil Rights’ torch, because FOR THAT to be the case – LEGISLATION should not matter to us!! A MOVEMENT should wake up SPRINGFIELD and WASHINGTON D.C. as well as a pipsqueak mayor (they can’t seem to shut up) in Chicago.

Rosa Parks, and before her all the unnamed others, and the MOVEMENT that followed did not say, “Okay, thank you, we’ll settle for the second seat from the back or even the middle of the bus.” Someone in Chicago is TIRED? Have they been blasted with a fire hose or attacked by police dogs? In 2012 OUR Chicago firefighters and police officers are cheering us on, for crying out loud!

Sidebar: As I was marshalling, one female cop confessed that she was worried about their contract negotiations, and they were watching us. I told her, then maybe after we got our own contract, we could go before and after work from our schools to our neighborhood police stations in CTU RED and chant “CTU! CPD!” and support her. (Cops can’t legally strike.) We both got a total kick out of that picture. (I am anti-brutality but not anti-cop; think about how much of what they have to deal with at the ends in the street is because of how all our hands in the schools are so tied and unfunded at the beginnings in the schools?)

But, hey, let’s just otherwise change the chant WE STARTED across the city.

Take: OUR STUDENTS – ARE MORE – THAN JUST A TEST SCORE! And just replace it with: OUR STUDENTS’ – TEST SCORES – are just going to be, oh, let me see, I don’t know, something like 25% of our evaluations, but look, this is a really good thing because the law mandates it and the board put it higher. (Yeah! GO! forward with THAT chant and watch a movement continue.)

4) RECALL/School Closures: What good is recall if they close so many schools there are no neighborhood public school positions to apply for or we compete like starving dogs for a bone over the few left? What’s the plan for that?

(Another discussion… hopefully NOT with Randi [Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and a right-wing social democrat.)

5) LSD (Longer School Day): In the elementary schools we need to keep what we had. The LSD broke what was working with that small but solid block of prep time in the AM so that our parents are able to meet with teachers when they arrive with the children. This keeps the atmosphere of an elementary school very connected to the students’ homes. I thought that was what was wanted. This is impossible now.

We also need a solid block of prep time in the AM so that we can meet with one another as a pre-kindergarten thru 8th grade faculty as needs be for whole group or for individual meetings and consultations. This keeps us together as a whole. I thought that was what was wanted. This is impossible now.

CLUE: It is NOT HIGH SCHOOL in the elementary schools! (The high schools, I hear, do not like that 14 extra minutes than the elementary schools – that differentiates us, meaning it SPLITS US APART.)

REAL “HOPE AND CHANGE” FOR THE DEMOCRATS: Right now I have never seen the Democrats with their feet more to the fire than by all of the symbolic not-gonna-take-it, healthy channelling of blood red anger on the streets of

Chicago. We cannot pull back on that. Or do we now change that chant to:

“We’re gonna keep on taking it! YEAH!”? If we keep the pressure up, it can work to PUSH them BACK into what some of us still hope for when s/he continues to vote while holding his/her nose from Chicago to Springfield to everywhere else coast-to-coast with this freakin’ cowardly-ass political party that has forgotten that LABOR IS ONE OF ITS MOST IMPORTANT BASES! What BREAK have WE been given? We have been pressured to the point of snapping into broken pieces by these guys. Arne Duncan has been in charge of the nation’s educational system FOR FOUR FULL YEARS with these guys, come on!?! Don’t feel sorry for any freakin’ pressure or embarrassment we’re putting on them right now. THEY EARNED IT! Make them BE what anyone left keeps wishing for every time s/he votes! No more memories, make them BE what they actually USED TO be.


I am going to try to not call anything contract-wise at any point a “sell-out” contract. We’ve all worked way too hard to use that term, even though others will totally use the term. I think the fighters the union needs (and has right now) across the city will vote against such a contract and then vote CORE right out of office over the issues I addressed above and more.

However, the words “settled for less than what we could have gotten” are not acceptable in any way. If we weren’t so strong out there, yeah maybe. But we are strong on the membership end. Let’s make this movement push to its fullest POTENTIAL, like we do for our students in our classrooms. I can’t go back in that classroom with any DIGNITY without this having been at least TRIED at this point in time in which we find ourselves. Is this a MOVEMENT or not?

Don’t pretend or try to sell that “a movement” will continue and we can still lead it if our contract does not have at least a few BIG THINGS in it for our students and their families. And extreme shame will be on us for that if that god forbid there is nothing for students and families but we get a pay increase of any kind. That is not what the vast majority of us is out there so admirably and courageously fighting for right now. Teaching and working in our schools is not just our paid-for job. In 2012, the vast majority of teachers in Chicago have not walked out on their students for money.

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