By Juan Diaz and Florence Oppen
All of us were very inspired by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike since it happened when the labor movement and the working class are at a crossroads in the midst of the 2012 electoral campaign season. Strikes and work-stoppages have been at all-time lows, and labor has been put on the defensive because of strong anti-union rhetoric, legislation and offenses by the ruling capitalist parties (i.e. Democratic Party & the Republican Party) – so a militant and well organized strike has been a defining moment for us socialists, unionists, workers and students everywhere.
CTU’s ability and method for building the 9-day strike galvanized the labor movement, many Chicago parents, workers, the community, and many across the nation were also watching the events closely. The most impressive part was that this happened during the Fall 2012 election period, when the two ruling capitalist parties battled it out to elect their politicians of choice. But behind the “trust-me” face they attempted to show, thousands of the teachers, workers, and community members saw the Democrat Rahm Emmanuel for the real person he is: a cog in the Democratic Party machine pushing the privatization policies of the Obama administration (Race to the Top – RTTP) and carry-over policies from the Bush years (No Child Left Behind – NCLB).
CTU’s strike was a great victory…
CTU’s well-organized strike won some victories during a time while other teacher unions accross the country– from California to New York – were agreeing to far worse and concessionary contracts. These and several other unions among the nation’s biggest districts are also facing the same offensive under Democrat governors – budget cuts, RTTP and NCLB.
To begin with, CTU didn’t just fall back to lobbying strategies and concessionary strategies- in other words, that we must accept cuts to show our “good faith” and hopefully reduce the amount of cuts. They departed from a position of not accepting any more cuts, and to resist the privatization offensive, they used one of the most effective weapons workers have: a well-organized strike that shut-down their workplaces. The labor movement has long forgotten it’s strength – it is not through lobbying and making donations to the Democratic Party, who will turn around and betray us after election. Instead, it is in mobilizing its members in democratic ways to fight back and shut-down our workplaces until we get the working-conditions and living standards we deserve.
Also, the fact that the Chicago teachers managed to hold a strike for a week was a victory. Furthermore, they defeated the anti-labor legislation passed last year in Chicago mandating that 75% (instead of a simple majority) of the union members should authorize the strike. In June 2010, nearly 90% of the teachers voted to authorize the strike. This massive authorization vote gave them the strength to win during bargaining a 20% longer school day (7 hours more/week of education) and to hire back 477 teachers that were laid off over the last 3 years.
But there are other reasons to consider the CTU strike a victory that goes beyond Chicago and that any workers can claim as theirs. First, it was a militant grassroots strike that shut down the school system and won some demands. Second, through this strike it transformed the consciousness of many teachers, students and parents. Third, it gave confidence to working people about what happens when we unite to strike back: we build stronger ties among us, we show real solidarity, we have concrete gains and we experience our real social power: without us, workers, the system cannot “work”.
Contrary to the many two-faced union leaders who agitate the banner of the strike in front of the boss while they tell their members that strikes are “unproductive”, “too confrontational” and “risky”, and thus instigating fear of collective action rather and confidence, the CTU leadership and activist network were serious about the strike. This is because they understood it was the only way to stop the brutal attacks they were facing.
They did not wait for the beginning of bargaining to begin to prepare for a strike. They started one year in advance, building their Contract Action Team network, discussing the bargaining demands in a democratic fashion, and building their solidarity ties with parents, students and the larger community, so the strike would not have been an empty threat. They did not stage a “symbolic” strike, as weak union leaders do when they are really pushed by their base. Instead, they showed their strength by holding the strike for 9 days until they felt some minimum demands were won.
The union activists of CTU that build the strike were convinced that their real bargaining power was not at the negotiation table but in their school sites, in the workplace, and in their alliance with the community. And their actual strike experience can only reinforce this truth. What they did, how they did it, and above all, why they did it. This is so because they were politically convinced that workers only win if they fight the real fight. This is an inspiring lesson for us.
… But it was a partial victory
The contract agreed on by CTU was a partial victory and concessionary in some areas. CTU fought back against merit pay policies (i.e. Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind) that Obama’s administration has been pushing but they only succeeded in reducing merit pay to the minimum imposed federal standards (30%). They also didn’t fully succeed in defeating future layoff threats- though we recognize that no teacher’s unions have layoff protections today.
Thus, the Chicago school district could still take advantage of the contract to fire teachers using merit/work performance. In addition, weeks after the strike has ended, Rahm Emanuel is still pushing the closure of up to 100 public schools and convert others into charter and private schools. Most schools under threat are predominantly attended by black and Latino working class and poor students – making Chicago’s school district one of the most segregated in the USA. This new “Jim Crow” in schools is a travesty of our civil rights.
We must be clear: this contract fight has not managed to put an end to the attacks on teachers and public education. But we must also be honest: one union in one city is not going to be able to defeat a federal plan to dismantle the public education system, attack the quality of instruction and get rid of teachers rights and benefits in a single contract fight, especially when the neo-liberal plan against education is a bi-partisan one, implemented previously by former president Bush and now the Obama administration.
In order to stop the generalization of standardized testing, merit pay, cuts to benefits, increase of class sizes and the spread of charter schools, we need to build a real campaign at the statewide and national level. One union can help spark this campaign, but it cannot lead it alone. The forces behind the privatization of education and the attack on public teacher unions were too big for CTU to be able to stop them all. In this context, until we build a successful national campaign where several unions are ready to strike back against the government plan, all our victories will be partial.
What really limited the gains of the CTU strike?
We cannot blame the limitations of the strike on the CTU leadership alone. Even if some tactical mistakes were made, what was lacking was real support. Specifically, through credible work actions, coming from the rest of organized labor. This would’ve been in order to give to CTU activists the confidence that fight fight could last longer and begin to involve larger sectors.
The ultimate responsibility of the limitations of the CTU contract rests with the labor leadership in the AFL-CIO in Chicago and throughout the country. This is because the remainder of the labor movement leadership did not show real solidarity with the CTU struggle. In other words, they did not call for sympathy strikes, sick-outs, and other militant actions that would have strengthened CTU’s demands for the stronger contract it was fighting for.
It was the task of the labor movement to prepare for solidarity work. This was because many knew CTU’s strike was on the horizon months before it happened. For CTU’s strike to have been fully successful (i.e. winning a contract guaranteeing less students per class, more social workers, school funding, etc.), it was necessary for other workers, students, and community members to join in a mass campaign with mass direct actions in support of CTU but also against Obama’s plan for education. CTU’s strike did not have the conditions to create a mass movement like the student strikes in Chile and Quebec, or the popular uprisings in Europe and Egypt. However, this is because our labor movement leadership has never sought to expand the mobilizations to other teacher unions and sectors.
We need a national plan to combat austerity and real labor solidarity!
Yet the fight is now over. More cuts and attacks to public workers and basic social services are on the line and we must learn from the strengths and limitations of the CTU strike. The labor movement needs to learn from CTU’s reform caucus CORE and needs to apply its lessons everywhere with one caveat: every union facing attacks needs to organize to strike like CTU, but next time other unions need to step up and organize real solidarity actions.
The reality is that only mass strike of all the education unions and students, supported with real labor solidarity will be able to push back the austerity measures and attacks on public education and services that Obama’s administration and his ruling-class allies are pushing. We are not there yet, but CTU is showing that popular and massive strikes are possible and successful. This means that the rest of the labor movement in AFL-CIO and other independent labor unions need to start working together to coordinate strikes and work-stoppages to create conditions for strikes, and need to launch a national campaign to confront the austerity and privatization plans of the government.
It is difficult but necessary to pressure AFL-CIO leadership to start undertaking solidarity strikes when other labor sectors going on strikes. Our task is to contest the role and path that the labor movement is taking, organizing against the concessions and business-partnerships that today’s labor leadership takes for granted.
Union reformers and socialists must not only fight our own union bureaucracy, but must also convince others to reform their own unions and locals. The labor movement must create a network to coordinate the struggle to reform our unions in a democratic manner, involving the rank-and-file to change the role of the unions. We need unions that are fighting back against austerity and privatization rather than negotiating the way that workers and students will pay for the economic and social crisis that the capitalists and politicians caused with their trillion dollar bank bailouts and imperialist wars. When we take back our money that they stole, we can at last fully fund universal health care, free public education, public services for all, and more!