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IN THE midst of a gloomy scene for labor came the biggest and boldest example of social unionism in decades—the 2012 strike by some 27,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union. Launched a few days after a raucous Labor Day rally that put thousands of teachers and supporters into the streets, the strike began with more than 20,000 CTU members swarming downtown Chicago, immobilizing traffic and leaving Mayor Rahm Emanuel sputtering. Daily mass rallies, including ones in predominately African-American working-class neighborhoods, highlighted the popularity of the strike, which was confirmed in opinion polls that found that sixty-six percent of students’ parents backed the teachers. It was almost certainly the most popular big-city teachers’ strike in US history. Working-class Chicago not only identified with the teachers’ demands for fair pay and the defense public education, but also saw the teachers as fighting for the dignity and respect of working people generally.
- Building a viable reform caucus takes time and teaches some hard political lessons. The Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) was founded by teachers who had been through the experience of an earlier reform leadership that was turned out of office after one term for having negotiated a concessionary contract. The activists who formed CORE had concluded that the previous reform president, Deborah Lynch, had focused on winning office, neglected building a base in the schools, and was out of touch with the membership when it negotiated the contract. When the contract was voted down, the union threatened a strike—but had made no preparations for one. The membership, skeptical of Lynch’s ability to lead a strike, voted to accept a somewhat improved contract but then turned her out of office months later. It took two disastrous, scandal-ridden terms of the old guard before CORE won union offices.
- Winning union office brings enormous pressures to compromise—but rank-and-file pressure can be a counterweight. In negotiations over state education legislation, CTU President Karen Lewis initially supported the Illinois state law known as SB7 that imposed a requirement that seventy-five percent of union members must vote to authorize a strike. But CORE members on the executive board rejected that decision, as did union delegates. While the legislation passed anyway, the CTU’s rejection of SB7 sent an important message that CORE would not compromise on its principles.
- A union that pours resources into organizing the rank and file can get results. CTU officers cut their own pay and put money into internal organizing, chapter by chapter. Training for delegates and other CTU members went well beyond the usual network of activists to create an organizational backbone of 1,000–3,000 teachers and paraprofessionals who led discussion about contract demands and made the argument that a strike would be necessary.
- Preparing for a serious strike takes months. By the time most union leaders call strikes, defeat is in the air as panicked negotiators realize too late that management won’t budge. Where the bosses are prepared with union-busting operations, the unions lurch into action at the last minute. The CORE leadership of the CTU, by contrast, began making the case that a strike would likely be necessary almost as soon as they took office. Thus when the school board and the mayor took aggressive action against the teachers, CTU’s perspective was vindicated and the rank and file was prepared.
- Social-movement unionism is essential, especially for public sector workers in struggle. CORE’s first activity as an opposition caucus was a campaign against school closures, which take place almost exclusively in African American and Latino neighborhoods. Once in office, CORE put substantial union resources into developing that alliance. At the same time, it campaigned politically around its well-researched document, The Schools Chicago’s Children Deserve, which highlighted “educational apartheid” in the city. By the time the teachers took to the streets, they were seen as popular defenders of social services while the mayor’s popularity had ebbed.
- Union democracy is indispensable to building a fighting union. By a vote of union delegates, the CTU strike was extended two extra days after a tentative agreement was reached in order for delegates to take the deal to the picket lines for debate. Hours-long meetings on sidewalks around the city examined the contract in detail. By contrast, strikes in the United States are usually suspended days before members get a chance to see even highlights of a tentative agreement. In the CTU’s case, taking the deal to tens of thousands of members enabled the union to end the strike with a sense of unity and victory.
- Socialist politics make a difference. The role of radicals and socialists of various political traditions in the CTU was important in many aspects of the strike, from organizing picket lines, to framing negotiations, to politically preparing the union from the attacks by labor’s Democratic Party “friends.” Starting from a perspective that the union’s power is in a self-activated rank and file, the left in the CTU succeeded in creating networks of militants that went well beyond the union’s formal organizational machinery.
The dramatic success of the CTU strike stands in contrast with the record of most unions since 1995, when the New Voices slate led by John Sweeney took over the AFL–CIO. The promise Sweeney made then was to build up labor’s political muscle in the Democratic Party, step up efforts to organize the unorganized, and revive labor-management partnership on the basis of a more active union membership—the “mobilization” model that he had backed while president of the SEIU.
Labor’s disarray has, understandably, provoked an urgent discussion among labor intellectuals, one that was featured in a recent issue of the magazine Logos. Veteran labor and racial-justice activist Bill Fletcher makes the case that the revival of the left is essential to the renewal of organized labor. The roots of labor’s decline, he argues, date from the 1940s when “more than anything else organized labor refused to accept the inevitability of class struggle and instead insisted that the elimination of the left wing in labor helped to ensure that a productive relationship could be built with capital.” Labor’s unwillingness to organize the South—and to confront racism in that region—allowed “right to work” laws to stymie union organization to this day, undermining the labor movement as a whole, Fletcher notes. Labor’s renewal will be difficult and will depend on the ability of the movement to follow the example of the Chicago teachers’ strike with an inclusive social-movement unionism that takes up political issues as well, he concludes.
Since the anticommunist purges of the unions in the 1950s, socialists have fought to reestablish themselves as a significant current in the labor movement. In the mid-1960s, Stan Weir, a widely experienced labor activist who was a member of the Independent Socialist Clubs, a predecessor organization of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), wrote an article called USA: The Labor Revolt which discussed the early stages of the rank-and-file rebellion that would peak a few years later.
The labor movement in 2013 faces a stark choice: continued accommodation to employers and gradual decline into irrelevance or a turn to struggle in which victory is far from assured and the possibility of a major defeat is considerable. In many circumstances, a serious struggle can mean betting the survival of the union, whether by calling an illegal strike in the public sector or by physically challenging scabs during a strike.