Before Your Strike Vote, Consider a Practice Strike Vote
The below is excerpted from the Labor Notes book How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers. Available at labornotes.org/store.
Leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union were pretty sure they would need to strike the school district in the fall of 2012 to win what students and educators deserved.
But they had come into office only two years before, and begun helping members organize themselves from the bottom up. They needed to find out just how willing and able members were to strike.
The state legislature had deliberately made it hard for Chicago teachers to walk out. In 2011 it passed a bill requiring CTU to get yes votes from 75 percent of all members (not just of those voting) before calling a strike.
This was supposed to be impossible. “In effect they wouldn’t have the ability to strike,” gloated Jonah Edelman of the corporate “reform” group Stand for Children, which pushed for this rule. Edelman’s group had researched past contract votes and found 48 percent was the greatest share of the membership CTU had been able to muster.
CTU leaders were convinced 75 percent wasn’t impossible. But they knew they needed to vote before the school year was over, while the issues were hot and members were having daily conversations with each other—and they couldn’t go into the vote cold.
In early spring 2012 a delegate (a school-based rep like a steward) decided to conduct a straw poll at one school on whether to strike. When the delegate announced the school’s result—a unanimous yes—to a meeting of the local’s House of Delegates, the response was “electrifying.”
Other schools soon followed suit with their own mock strike votes. The activity was popular with the members, who by now were incensed at the school board. The union office would get calls from delegates: “My staff met yesterday and we voted 98 percent to strike.” And when the union’s organizers went out to schools for meetings, they would ask for a show of hands: “How many here would vote for a strike?”
By April, 150 schools out of 600 had voted overwhelmingly to strike in these informal polls, CTU leaders told the press.
But the union needed a comprehensive snapshot of its strength, in all schools at once. It had already set up Contract Action Committees in each school, member-to-member networks with a 1-to-10 ratio for keeping in touch. The Contract Action Committees took a formal, district-wide, one-day dry run on May 10.
This practice vote worked on multiple levels. It was a way to get committee members out talking to people about the issues, and a signal to members that a strike vote was coming. But most crucially, it was a way to test the rank-and-file organizers’ capacity to mobilize supporters. They would have to drive turnout on a scale they had not experienced before.
Leaders planned the practice vote to closely mimic how the actual strike vote would work. Delegates in each building received paper ballots and instructions by mail. They ran the vote, tallied the ballots, and phoned in the results. Organizers compiled the numbers on giant wall charts in the union’s central war room.
JUST SAY YES
The ballots had a four-question poll with questions designed to elicit a yes (“Do the Board’s bargaining proposals disrespect CTU members?”)—without actually invoking the word “strike.” That way the union could use the vote results in public communications that emphasized the issues teachers were mad about, not the prospect of a strike still months away.
The answers to the survey questions would, of course, be overwhelmingly yeses. The important number to tally in each school would be how many ballots the union could collect.
In some schools—for instance, those without delegates, those with bully principals, and those where most teachers were relatively new—leaders thought support might still be weak. The schools with fewer ballots returned would reveal the areas where organizers needed to focus most.
The numbers came back strong: 98 percent rejected the board’s proposals, with more than 80 percent of members participating—a clear sign that the contract campaign had worked. Many ballots bore handwritten comments like “We must go on strike!” or “I’m ready to strike!”
After the practice vote CTU held a massive rally downtown May 23, with 100 union buses bringing members in their red CTU t-shirts. The chant “Strike! Strike! Strike!” broke out spontaneously; the rally was an “exhilarating, pulsating event,” in the words of one organizer.
CTU leaders now knew they had both the support and the organization to do the seemingly impossible. Still, 20,000 people had to take the courageous leap to vote yes at once, no easy feat of coordination.
The politicians who had passed the anti-strike law had probably assumed the vote would take place on a single day—but that wasn’t specified, union leaders realized. To maximize turnout, they decided to hold voting open for three days, June 6-8. Members left no stone unturned: a delegation from one school even made a trip to a rehab hospital to bring a ballot to a co-worker recovering from surgery.
Just as in the practice round, a delegate ran the voting at each school, but this time the union collected all the physical ballots and counted them in one central location. To guard against accusations of fraud, clergy were recruited to observe the count, which took place each of the three nights.
Elected leaders worked long days. Each morning they were in early, talking to people before school, reminding them to vote. Then after work they hurried downtown to hand-count votes from 4 p.m. to midnight. Clergy members signed their names over the tape when the boxes were sealed for the night, and opened them up again the next day.
The “yes” stack of votes was quickly enormous, and the “no” stack tiny—no surprise. But the key was turnout.
REMINDING & RE-REMINDING
In a room near the count, with walls covered in flip charts, organizers tracked how many votes had come in from each building each day. The next morning, dozens of volunteers (including 30 on loan from a friendly sister union) would be dispatched to the lower-turnout schools to flyer members on their way in to school, reminding them how important it was that they vote that day.
“We need everyone to vote,” was the message, “no matter how you’re voting.”
It took a fourth day to finish counting the more than 24,000 votes. But the results spoke for themselves: 90 percent of teachers—and 98 percent of those voting—had voted to authorize a strike.
As the old saying goes, sometimes the boss is the best organizer. The 75 percent threshold was an anti-union measure, but it also turned out to be a great motivator, adding urgency to the push for every member to vote and for every school to organize a contract action team—things that would be important anyway for a successful strike.
“The union had to be at the height of its game,” said labor educator Steven Ashby.