In Chicago, Teachers and Black Lives Matter Activists Partner Up to Build a Bigger Movement

A good way to boost our numbers and power is to partner with people who are organized in other ways—building a broader movement as we build our unions. Photo: Joe Brusky (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Extracting wins from the boss has never been easy—and union membership hovering at a low 11 percent isn’t making it any easier. But a good way to boost our numbers and power is to partner with people who are organized in other ways, building a broader movement as we build our unions.

For several years the Chicago Teachers Union has put incredible effort into building unity—not only among its members, but also with parents and neighborhood groups. The results were on display in October as hundreds of volunteers worked daily in the lead-up to a possible strike.

Parents spoke at press conferences, painted banners, handed out leaflets, distributed T-shirts and yard signs, and talked to other parents. My son’s elementary school was one of many where parents and kids joined teachers in an early-morning picket.

One vehicle was the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign, an alliance of dozens of unions and 60 community organizations—including the Chicago chapters of Black Lives Matter and Black Youth Project 100.

NATURAL ALLIES

Alliances take work, but they can be built on natural connections. “Many of us have either worked or been students in the Chicago Public Schools, or have partners who work for CPS,” said Aislinn Pulley, a leader in the Black Lives Matter chapter.

That meant members already understood why public schools are worth fighting for. “A man named Ronald Johnson, who was killed by the police two years ago, had five children who are CPS students,” said Kofi Ademola, another chapter leader. “They are in the care of their grandmother, who lives in poverty, and that family is directly impacted by the attacks on public education in our city.

“The layoff of 1,000 teachers and plan to hire 1,000 more cops was a clear example of the divestment in our communities. They go hand in hand.”

The understanding goes both ways. The teachers union has made racial segregation and school underfunding central issues in its contract campaigns.

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District administrators pay lip service to restorative justice, a disciplinary approach that looks for solutions instead of shunting kids into a school-to-prison pipeline. But it’s the union that has pushed for the funding required to make these programs work.

CTU and a student group got a grant in 2013 to pilot restorative justice in four schools. In the new tentative agreement, the teachers have won funding to add restorative justice coordinators in 20 to 55 schools.

In the run-up to the possible strike, the Black Lives Matter chapter spearheaded organizing a Freedom School to offer parents a safe place to send their kids while teachers were out on the picket lines. Chicago State University agreed to donate its space. Planned activities would include a youth town hall.

THE SAME VALUES

In August the Movement for Black Lives, an umbrella organization that includes Black Lives Matter and other groups, released a policy platform, workshopped with activists from its hundreds of member groups around the country.

The platform declares the movement’s support for workers' right to organize unions. It calls for jobs programs, expanding labor laws to protect domestic workers, farm workers, and tipped workers, no Trans-Pacific Partnership, the renegotiation of anti-worker trade agreements, and the rewriting of tax codes so the wealthy pay their share. Unions have much in common with these values.

Last November, after allegations emerged that the city had covered up video of a police officer killing African American teenager Laquan McDonald, CTU voted to support an elected police-accountability council in Chicago. Teachers joined the protests that followed, led by Black Lives Matter and Black Youth Project 100, to disrupt the lucrative Christmas shopping season. Marchers shut down the Magnificent Mile on Black Friday, chanting, “No justice, no profit.”

That’s the kind of partnership Ademola would like to see more of: “How do we amplify each other’s message and work together to target the oligarchs that fill the politicians’ war chest?”