Lessons of Chicago teachers’ strike

State Budget Education

By DAVID BERNT

CHICAGO—In the aftermath of the historic Chicago teachers’ strike there are many lessons to be learned. The strike of 26,000 teachers was the most significant strike in the United States since 15 years ago, when UPS workers walked out in a national strike. In striking, the Chicago Teachers Union was able to halt the worst of the massive concessions that Mayor Rahm Emanuel had sought. The teachers won important gains, while accepting some concessions at the same time.

The leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union, elected in 2010 as a reform caucus, mobilized their rank and file and maintained a level of union democracy that is sadly very rare in unions these days. CTU did just about everything that could have been done to win the best contract possible. The fact that CTU was compelled to give some concessions is more a reflection of the general situation facing the entire labor movement than anything the Chicago Teachers Union did or didn’t do.

The labor movement everywhere, and especially in the public sector, has accepted massive concessions. When the rest of the labor movement is accepting concessions, it makes it that much harder for individual unions to resist concessions and make gains. In the case of CTU, its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, has been on the “cutting edge” of accepting concessions, agreeing without a fight to much of what the Chicago Teachers Union was fighting against.
Much of the labor movement’s failure to fight against concessions can be traced to its near universal support and dependency on the Democratic Party. The leadership of the labor movement is trapped in the two-party shell game, in which massive resources are spent electing Democrats and all hopes for gains are placed in those Democratic politicians elected with labor support delivering gains for working people.

The problem with this strategy is twofold. On the one hand, the elected “friends of labor” rarely deliver on the most modest of demands from the labor movement, such as EFCA. Certainly, the Democrats in general talk better on labor; however, their politics generally differ little from that of the Republicans. While defenders of the lesser-evil position will point out the most technical of differences—for example, appointments to the NLRB, which can make some difference to workers, such as in the NLRB’s ruling on Boeing—the differences are so minute that they hardly register in the day-to-day life of most union members.

That being said, the reasons for the labor movement to not support the Democrats extend beyond the small differences that might exist between the Democratic Party and the Republicans. Any gains the labor movement makes are due to mobilizing, or threatening to mobilize, its members—especially through their power to stop production. There is no clearer example of this point than the Chicago teachers’ strike and the Democratic Party’s role in opposing it.

The Democratic Party at every level, from Chicago aldermen to the White House, supported the attempt to bust CTU. Thirty-three of the 50 Chicago aldermen, including several “progressives,” signed a letter demanding that teachers abandon their strike. The most treacherous of the bunch was Alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno (who previously made national headlines and praise from liberals for his opposition to the opening of a Chik-Fil-A restaurant in his ward based on the chains homophobic owner’s opposition to same sex marriage). During the strike Moreno appeared on Fox Business News, where he appeared indistinguishable from the usual far-right Fox commentators, stating that CTU doesn’t represent “good” teachers and is an impediment to school “reform,” and calling for more charter schools. Moreno nodded approvingly while anchor Melissa Francis said that public schools should be “blown up,” the entire CPS system replaced with charter schools, and the teachers unions eliminated.

Barak Obama refused to take a public position on the strike. However, his public “neutrality” was a thin veil over his union-busting politics and intended only to not appear anti-union in an election year, when he depends on hundreds of millions dollars from unions and thousands of union volunteers to win reelection. In fact, Obama’s footprints were all over the attempt to bust the teachers union.

Obama’s signature education policy is “Race to the Top,” a program that offers states money in exchange for the adoption of teacher-evaluation systems that rely heavily on standardized testing, lifting caps on charter schools, and encouraging merit pay. Race to the Top was the motivation for SB7. Obama has been a vocal proponent of everything Rahm Emanuel wanted CTU to accept, including merit pay, elimination of seniority, more charter schools, and teacher evaluations based on test scores.

To summarize, the Democratic Party president created a program to encourage states to adopt anti-union laws, while the Democratic -controlled legislature passed such a law in Illinois, signed by a Democratic governor. This law, drafted to weaken teachers unions’ rights, was used by the Democratic mayor of Chicago, a former chief of staff and longtime ally of the president, to pressure the Chicago Teachers Union into accepting huge concessions. This effort was backed by the city council, which is 100% Democratic. It’s hard to make any clearer which side the Democrats were on in this labor struggle.

The truth is that a political party cannot serve the interests of both the Chicago Teachers Union and billionaires like Penny Pritzker. When confrontations between unions and the ruling class arise, politicians must choose a side, and it could not have been any clearer which side the Democrats supported.

Rank-and-file teachers often led chants at rallies calling for CTU President Karen Lewis to run for mayor. This was a reflection of the idea that working people should run their own candidates for public office, as opposed to the present subordination of the union bureaucracy to the anti-worker Democratic Party.

The need for a labor party—based on reinvigorated, democratic unions in alliance with the oppressed—has never been more striking, as Democratic and Republican governors and mayors alike demand historic concessions from public sector workers. A labor party could advance the interests of working people because it would be controlled by workers’ institutions. The unions would not have to fight for space with the Penny Pritzkers of the world, since the billionaires who call the shots in the Democratic Party would be excluded from a labor party.

Unfortunately, nearly every union, including CTU’s parent union, are enthusiastically endorsing and working for Obama’s reelection campaign. Labor unions will spend hundreds of millions of dollars and donate the time of tens of thousands of members and staffers to support Obama.

While many locals actively supported CTU and tens of thousands of rank-and-file workers played a role by attending rallies and picket lines, donating money, or volunteering with strike support efforts, the national labor bodies and international unions, who have plenty of resources on hand, could have and should have done more. The AFL-CIO and Change to Win Federations could have called for a national mobilization on Chicago and bused in workers from across the country as well as holding solidarity rallies in every city.

CTU called for a “Wisconsin-style” rally on the first Saturday of the strike, calling on unions from across the country to march in solidarity. While some unions did mobilize, including Madison teachers, the march of 10,000 would have been much larger if the national labor federations had mobilized in the same way they are mobilizing for the Democrats this November. A march of 100,000 instead of 10,000 could have only strengthened the teachers in bargaining.

Every gain that CTU made in bargaining was due to the pressure on the political ruling class created by the strike and the mobilization of the 26,000 rank-and-file teachers and their allies. No political endorsements of Democrats helped the teachers; there were no “friends of labor” in City Hall. This is a critical lesson, as the labor movement generally and the bulk of progressive social movements are supporting Obama’s reelection even though they are disappointed in his failure to enact any significant progressive reforms.

The old “lesser evil” argument is repeated once again; defenders of supporting Obama claim we must reelect him or else face a much more reactionary administration. However, as the Chicago teachers’ struggle clearly showed, teachers—and union members generally—will only gain from struggles in the workplace and the street. The reality is that no matter who wins the November election, working people will have an opponent in the White House. The question is whether the labor movement will be prepared to fight that opponent.