The Chicago Teachers Union’s new report, A Sea of Red, the story of the impact of the September 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, is instructive and inspiring. Researchers from Roosevelt University, Harper College, and Texas Christian University interviewed 32 Chicago public school teachers, three district clinicians, one para-professional and one counselor. At the time of the strike, fifteen were elementary school teachers, seven middle school teachers, five high school teachers, and three working in schools across the grades. Their comments indicate that while some had been active in their union before the strike, others became more engaged as the union reached out to them.
The authors report on bonds created among teachers, parents, local business owners, and progressive community organizations before and during the September 2012 strike, but the most fascinating content is about the transformation of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) itself—that moved from what the authors call “service unionism”—that takes a reactive stance as union staff and leaders respond to complaints and attend to grievances, arbitration, and contract deadlines—to “social-organizing unionism”—as leaders organize, energize, and activate the members who then develop and frame an agenda the entire membership can embrace.
Through 2011 and 2012, CTU and its members faced growing external pressure that forced the union to develop a new strategy. Nationally test-and-punish policies through No Child Left Behind and programs like Race to the Top mandated “a pedagogical regime where high stakes testing became both rampant and an end in itself.” In Springfield, Senate Bill 7 created a requirement that 75 percent of a local’s membership must vote affirmatively to authorize a strike; removed the length of the school year and the school day from the contract—giving control of this issue to the school administration; reduced protection of due process in the evaluation and termination of teachers; and threatened seniority job protection.
To make matters more threatening for CTU, Jonah Edelman, the executive director of the national anti-teachers-union organization, Stand for Children (headquartered in Oregon), bragged on YouTube from the Aspen Ideas Festival about investing thousands of out-of-state dollars to hire Springfield’s most influential lobbyists to push through Illinois Senate Bill 7 and break the union. Edelman’s anti-union rant went viral across the country. Locally Chicago was also pursuing “portfolio school reform” with school closures, an expanding number of charter schools and turnaround schools with charters able to hire non-union teachers. Finally Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried to “rescind the contractually agreed upon 4 percent raise for CTU educators in the 2011-2012 school year.”
In this context, CTU turned to a strategy of bottom up, informed, and organized collective action. CTU effectively empowered teachers by ensuring they were well enough informed to counter the anti-union message coming from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the school district in the lead-up and during the strike. “The CTU has actively developed an independent set of ideas which provide rank and file educators with the tools to identify and act upon their own interests as educators, professionals and unionists… CTU media now takes up topics such as the corrosive effects of charters, privatization, and tax increment financing on the very foundation of open, inclusive, and equitable public education… The frame ‘for a better school day, not just a longer school day’ and ‘teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions’ meld together the two roles of unionized labor and professional educators. The CTU is demonstrating to unions and educators nation-wide how to combat this false division between ‘the union’ and ‘the profession of education’ by reframing the issue as one of teachers taking a stand to defend the common good of quality public education.”
Teachers were so well informed by their union that they could confidently seek out parents, even walking the neighborhoods of their schools during the strike to talk with parents about the issues. The report’s authors point out that the strike became important for parents who shared the concerns of the striking teachers: “Parents who supported the strike were most supportive of the attention that the strike was bringing to funding inequalities between schools, along racial lines, and the lack of wrap around support services in so many CPS (Chicago Public Schools) schools. Parents were becoming increasingly aware of how CPS was becoming a tiered system of schools with charters, selective enrollment and neighborhood schools.”
The report’s authors describe CTU’s embrace of social-organizing unionism as having a lasting impact among Chicago’s teachers, many of whom have engaged more actively in their school’s Professional Problems Committee and their Local School Council as they have discovered more ownership of their professional lives.
Despite its length—28 pages—I urge you to take a look at this report. Its authors demonstrate that the September 2012, Chicago Teachers Strike was the action of well-informed, deliberate professionals whose union had provided the infrastructure, issues education, tight communications and outreach that enabled teachers to reach out to parents and other community allies to preserve an essential community institution. The teachers let the community know that the strike’s purpose was to make it possible for them to do their work on behalf of Chicago’s children.