Chicago Teacher Win A Victory For All
by Bill Onasch
September 19, 2012
An Inspiring Rare Win For Our Side
The tentative agreement between the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) will not be final until it has been considered and ratified by the more than 26,000 CTU members. In a union rebuilt around the principle of jealously guarded rank-and-file control, this is no mere formality. But the approval of the 800-member House of Delegates, representing every school in the system, by a 98-2 margin, indicates the likelihood of overwhelming membership endorsement of the deal brought back to them by their negotiators.
And well they should. This is the biggest and most inspiring union victory since the 1997 UPS Teamsters strike. It clearly demonstrates the resilience of unions said to be dying and proves the obituaries of the traditional strike tactic to be bogus as well. At the same time however, it reminds us of the limitations of what even the best led unions can accomplish through collective bargaining alone today and implicitly poses the need for a labor party to be built by resurgent working class fighters–in unions or out.
The CTU deserves not only our praise but emulation. While their experience cannot be exactly and immediately replicated in every union much of what enabled them to prevail against long odds is universally relevant for worker struggles. I won’t attempt a comprehensive analysis here but I want to outline several factors that I see as enabling the CTU breakthrough.
The CTU leadership departed from the prevailing strategy of class collaboration, “partnership” with the employer, pursued by officials of most mainstream unions. They not only correctly viewed the Mayor and unelected Board of Education as adversaries, not partners; they also understand that the national ruling class sees public education as a long neglected opportunity for expanded private profit. This national attack is coordinated by the Obama administration through Education Secretary Arne Duncan, former CEO of CPS. The Race to the Top scam has not only facilitated expansion of public funded Charter schools. It has also been a bonanza for companies doing the mandated testing, publishers of outrageously priced text books, capital expenditures for computers, buildings, buses, etc. Along the way, Obama and Duncan have not hesitated to smash teacher union resistance to these “reforms,” including the temporary firing of every public school teacher at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island.
The CTU has not hesitated to expose the impact of social conditions in the Urban Core abandoned by white flight on learning. They fault CPS management for their neglect of the worst schools in the poorest neighborhoods of color. A sample of their outlook was presented by CTU president Karen Lewis in an excellent interview Race, Class at Center of Education Debate. This honest, proactive approach facilitated winning allies within the community, including Rev Jesse Jackson.
The CTU has a turbulent history of regime changes. The present one has proven to be legitimately committed to promised democratic functioning. All of their strategy was discussed, modified and decided with near consensus before negotiations began. The bosses knew the union bargaining team had solid backing from the members–crucial to any successful outcome. When the central leadership, with the best of intentions, sought to expedite the end of the strike the House of Delegates politely, but firmly said we need more time. After a couple of days consulting with members in every school, the Delegates gave their near unanimous consent.
Battling For Public Opinion
Many union officials, thinking private meetings with the bosses get things done, avoid publicity. That’s not the CTU leaders style and the impact of their strike meant they were going to be the lead news story of the day, like it or not. The spokespersons for the union did an exemplary job in getting their message out in the media to compete with the CPS lies and distortions. Early polls showed far more supported the union rather than the Mayor.
The picket lines at every school, and in front of CPS headquarters were not glum, token gestures. Teachers that hadn’t done much chanting or singing since college football games found their voice and also engaged the public at these lively actions. In addition, there were at least three mass rallies involving thousands. The strike showed a sympathetic human face,.
While the strike ran counter to what most unions do these days, support among union ranks was strong and most officials gave at least lip service well wishes. Some, such as National Nurses United, SEIU, and ATU demonstrated enthusiastic substantial solidarity. Even the tiny National Writers Union, a UAW affiliate to which I belong, did what they could do to help with their very meager resources
What the CTU Didn’t and Couldn’t Win
When you look at a comparison of what the bosses initially seriously sought to what’s in the Tentative Agreement, the achievements of this short strike are impressive. When you consider the present collective bargaining climate–especially in the public sector–where the norm is wage and benefit cuts, along with gutting of working conditions, it is in fact remarkable.
Nevertheless, the union negotiators acknowledge that while they got the best deal they think they can presently obtain it falls short of many of the goals of the union’s program for revitalizing public education. They are faced with the brutal reality that laws passed by labor’s perfidious “friends” severely restrict bargaining for so-called “non-economic” issues. They can’t even mandate class size or demand air conditioning in sweltering school buildings–much less more far reaching needed changes in public education or redirection of funding to support them.
This is another specific example of how even organized workers cannot rely on collective bargaining alone. As long as the ruling class maintains a monopoly of all things political we’re SOL on some of our most vital issues.. I urge the CTU leadership to follow the logic of their class perspective by lending the prestige they have earned by calling for the revival of the movement for a Labor Party.
In any case, I join in saluting the 26,000+ working class heros of AFT Local 1–the Chicago Teachers Union.