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A Future for Teachers Unions, But Only with a Fight

Educators in Chicago, incited by union passivity amid continued assault from corporate reformers, organized to defend their communities, schools, and profession

James Cersonsky

“Things are the way they are” in urban schools, Michelle Rhee professes in Waiting for Superman, because “it all becomes about the adults.”

While teachers unions generally scoff at this sort of sloganeering, most lack any effective strategy of resistance to the “student”-focused, union-busting, scorched-earth privatization pushed by Rhee and her billionaire colleagues. Chicago’s teachers union, the third largest in the country, is a light forward. On Friday, teachers surpassed the 75% quota necessary to authorize a strike, which would take place come the fall if the union decides to move forward with it. More impressive than this figure is the work that made it possible.

Under the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), the CTU boasts an organizing model that cracks into Chicago’s teaching workforce and neighborhoods as doggedly as the city’s Democratic machine. While the city shutters, charterizes, segregates, gentrifies, intimidates, and fires, the union has created a member organizing department where one didn’t exist before, trained over 200 shop stewards, held countless public meetings and protests against school closings, and organized in hand with parents, students, community groups, and other unions—altogether, a new vision for twenty-first century teacher unionism.

Adulthood according to Rahm Emanuel

The blitz on Chicago’s teachers is a coked-up rendition of national trends. In 1995, Republican state legislators gave Mayor Richard M. Daley control over the city’s school board. Under current mayor Rahm Emanuel, teachers face intensified threats to the existence of their schools, intimidation from mayor-appointed principals, and the rollback of institutional safeguards against the whims of the machine.

With Emanuel’s backing, the Illinois legislature recently passed SB 7, which undermines seniority as the basis of job security, extends teachers’ probation period for test-based evaluation from two years to four, removes bargaining disputes from the Illinois Labor Relations Board, and ups the union’s strike quota to 75% of all covered employees (this last provision only applies to Chicago; the quota remains at 50% elsewhere). Since his election, the mayor has phased in longer school days while simultaneously demanding wage cuts—2% raises spread over a five year period, a net loss accounting for inflation and increases in healthcare fees.

"In Chicago, school reform is as much about real estate as schools per se. Large swaths of black neighborhoods have no open-access public schools, and mayors have used tax-increment financing to draw money from poor districts and shuffle it elsewhere."

Emanuel is the poster child of Chicago’s Commercial Club, whose 2003 report on student performance in Chicago schools, Still Left Behind, became the blueprint for city policy. The report advocates “tough-minded” teacher evaluations, “broad outsourcing of the management of failing schools to independent organizations,” and the complete elimination of teacher tenure—which first came about in the 1920s to protect women from firing for pregnancy or marriage.

“Emanuel is really helping people understand how our government and schools are set up, because he’s just not being subtle,” says Jen Johnson, a ninth year high school social studies teacher. “The way that our mayor has shoved things down our throats, people are much more aware that we are at the center of a national struggle.”

Taking back the land

In Chicago, school reform is as much about real estate as schools per se. Large swaths of black neighborhoods have no open-access public schools, and mayors have used tax-increment financing to draw money from poor districts and shuffle it elsewhere or, even worse, let it sit. In a report from the Data and Democracy Project, Pauline Lipman and colleagues show a disturbing correlation between neighborhood school closings and areas undergoing gentrification.

Since the city announced “Renaissance 2010” in 2004—a plan for massive conversion of district schools into charter schools, contract schools, and “performance” schools—over 100 schools have been hit with turnaround, charter takeover, or some other extreme measure. On average, the district schools’ replacements turn over 66% of their teachers over four years, and 80% of displaced students land at schools performing no better than their previous ones.

Incited by the union’s inactivity around school closings, teachers assembled in early 2008 to create CORE. “We talked to teachers, we talked to parents, we went across the city for Board of Education meetings, and in the process we started learning that these policies were affecting a lot more people than just teachers,” says co-founder Al Ramirez. “We started noticing that this is a part of gentrification, about real estate. Where did the families have to go?”

"Alongside groups like Parents United for Responsible Education, Blocks Together, and the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, teachers continue to fight school closings while campaigning for humane student treatment..."

From its inception, CORE spoke at every Chicago Public Schools hearing on school “actions” alongside a spate of community allies. In 2008, CORE pushed the city to remove six schools from its annual closure list—the first time in four years that more than a single school was saved. In the middle of a blizzard in January 2009, it held a forum on Renaissance 2010 with over 500 people from some 80 schools. 

To its name, the caucus reached out to fellow rank-and-filers—which, in a profession dominated by contract-oriented business unions, is all too uncommon. CORE held steering committee elections, school-by-school meetings, “fun-raisers,” and study sessions on the union’s contract and school budget. The organizing paid off; in 2010, CORE swept union executive board elections and became synonymous with the CTU.

Dominance and collaboration

While CORE protested outside the “Advance Illinois” breakfast in June 2009, Arne Duncan’s homecoming party after moving from CPS to Obama’s cabinet, then-CTU president Marilyn Stewart sat inside and applauded him. As current president Karen Lewis sees it, “The problem is that management thinks that collaboration means that I tell you what to do.”

The CTU’s unwillingness to submit to ill-advised collaboration is a promising departure from most other teachers unions. Unions in Providence, New Haven, Denver, Baltimore, and elsewhere have won serious hand-clapping from Duncan at his annual “Labor-Management Collaboration Conference,” public opinionators like Nicholas Kristof, and other wide-eyed champions of “Scandinavian-style” partnership.

New York’s United Federation of Teachers illustrates what this sort of partnership can mean in practice. While rank-and-file groups like Teachers for a Just Contract and the Independent Community of Educators have tried to shake up the union, the size of the UFT’s membership and the existing regime’s sophisticated patronage system have held such forces at bay. This same leadership, decidedly pro-charter to begin with, folded under threats to funding from Duncan’s Race to the Top program by allowing the city to double its cap on charters and fasten teacher evaluations to test scores. Before she left to lead the national AFT, UFT President Randi Weingarten endorsed Mayor Bloomberg’s control over city schools.

The CTU does have a certain luxury in standing up to Emanuel—it has its own collaborators. Alongside groups like Parents United for Responsible Education, Blocks Together, and the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, teachers continue to fight school closings while campaigning for humane student treatment, a CPS CEO with a background in education, an elected Board of Education, and greater community input into school curriculum design. The union also has a network of critical education researchers at its side—a partnership that is unique to Chicago. Foremost is Pauline Lipman, whose research on the geography of school reform is the backbone of the union’s thinking on closing and turnaround policy.

A future for teachers unions?

In 2010, the CTU’s incumbent United Progressive Caucus put out flyers declaring, “Stop Mob Action, Stop Radical CORE!” This was a desperate attempt in the heat of union elections to red-bait CORE for the leftist affiliations of some of its central figures. In practice, CORE’s “radicalism” boils down to a recognition that teachers unions have to take on the hard task of organizing—inside and out—to combat well-funded corporate revolution.

The Chicago Sun Times headline following a 4,000-strong CTU rally last month—“Angry teachers rally despite Mayor Emanuel saying they deserve raise”—reflects how not to understand the union’s current struggle. Indeed, Emanuel did make such a posture. “Chicago teachers deserve a pay raise,” the Sun Times quoted. “They work very hard.” But to suggest that a line item could appease this crowd confuses contract demands for the member-driven, coalitional movement driving them.

Building organizing capacity, particularly in prep for potential strike, has its birth pangs. “There’s the fact that we can’t get in a time machine and organize people ten years ago for this fight,” says English teacher Kenzo Shibata. “A lot of people who we’re talking to are being talked to by the union for the first time.”

It’s the four years that rank-and-filers have been talking that must be taken seriously. Teachers unions and public education advocates hoping to resist Emanuel-style “reform” ignore the history and vision of the CORE-led CTU at their peril.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

James Cersonsky

James Cersonsky is a Philadelphia-based writer and organizer. His work has appeared at Dissent, AlterNet, Common Dreams, and elsewhere. Email him at jcersonsky [at] or follow him on Twitter @cersonsky.

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