Chicago Teachers: Notes from a Fighting Union
When I stepped down as Chicago Teachers Union president earlier this year (the union has a dynamic new officer team led by Stacy Davis Gates), I did it partly because I was ready for a change, partly to make room at the top, and partly because I think we need a reckoning about the direction of the labor movement.
Stepping down gives me a chance to write and speak out without the constant and overwhelming work of running a 26,000-person local. This article is the first in what I hope will be a series in which I share some of the insights CTU learned through our struggles.
The Chicago Teachers Union gets a lot of attention among the people who make up the fighting wing of the labor movement—for our high-profile strikes over the past decade and our unapologetic, anti-racist critique of what’s wrong with our schools and our society.
For these same reasons, many other labor leaders either ignore us entirely or avoid examining our work for any lessons that might upset the business-union apple cart. For example, when teachers refused to enter their school buildings and worked from snowbanks in the dead of two Chicago winters, most union leaders found it politically inconvenient to talk about the racial and class divisions around Covid safety when the whole country was getting back to business.
The CTU has not, as a general rule, spent a lot of time going around the country promoting our “model” or expounding on our theory of the labor movement. We have preferred to work hard in Chicago and let our work speak for itself.
But there are limits to this approach. Open discussion of ideas is scarce among unionists in the United States. Our “show, don’t tell” approach has allowed us to focus on local affairs, but it hasn’t challenged the dominant pattern of a union movement with too little strategic discussion and vision.
BEYOND THE STATUS QUO
I want to begin by sharing an insight about union leadership.
Many union leaders think about governing a union in an administrative or bureaucratic sense. Leaders hire and direct union staff, manage the budget, run meetings, lead negotiations, and ensure the union addresses member problems at work.
In this view, the art of leadership involves balancing all these pressures—managing the members and the apparatus.
I do not mean to trash this idea entirely. Even as charismatic and visionary a leader as CTU’s Karen Lewis would have succumbed to the moderating pressures of the bureaucracy or been thrown out of office if she and her team hadn’t worked long and hard to manage the details of leading a real institution in a competent way.
But I don’t think that administrative incompetence is the biggest problem facing our unions. A much bigger problem is that too many of our leaders preside over status quo unions. And the status quo sucks.
Our members are getting pounded at work—inflation is eating our wages and the ever-increasing pace of work is breaking our backs and destroying our psyche. Public schools and hospitals have too few resources while the government passes out record tax breaks to the rich and attacks our civil rights.
We just watched the billionaire class rake in record profits while workers struggled to get basic safety gear and a million people died of Covid. Even those who worked from home were treated like crap—expected to show initiative and work round the clock, but treated like children and denied any voice.
No wonder pro-union sentiment measures at record highs. Yet strikes are still near all-time lows. Something has to give.
Our unions have so much potential power to confront these problems, but we need leaders bold and visionary enough to try something different. Doing the same thing and expecting a different result will not work.
SICK OF LOSING
In the CTU, a group of rank-and-file teachers and staff started organizing in the 2000s because we were sick of losing—of watching our schools close and our co-workers suffer while our union told us there was nothing we could do. We called that group the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators.
CORE put forward a vision that our union would fight for well-resourced schools, dignity and rights on the job, and justice for our students and communities. We advocated for campaigning and organizing on every front: in the courts, in public, at our worksites, through the grievance procedure, and by striking for a good contract.
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Even before we were in office we put those things into practice where we could. At the CTU we call this approach social justice unionism; others call it class struggle unionism.
I won’t repeat the story of CORE here because it has been told elsewhere (see, for example, How to Jump-Start Your Union by Labor Notes), except to say that when we decided to build a caucus in 2008 (two years before we came to office) the path ahead looked narrow and treacherous.
RISKS AND REWARDS
The CTU did not build the solidarity and momentum necessary to strike in 2012 just because we endeavored to do it. We took many decisions that involved real risks—legal risks, economic risks, and threats to our unity.
For example, in CORE’s first week in office in July 2010, the employer demanded that we reopen our contract and give back a 4 percent raise or be hit with mass layoffs. We refused and the pink slips came.
Thousands of members—especially those laid off—were furious. It took time, but eventually we were able to win the argument with our best activists that giving in to such threats would have undermined our future contract fight. The union regained its morale.
In 2011, our union was forced to participate in a process in the state legislature where the so-called education reformers tried to make it impossible for the CTU to strike. They set a high legal bar—we would have to get 75 percent of the votes of all members (not just those voting) to authorize a walkout.
We were organizationally unprepared for this attack. Karen Lewis, our president, was isolated and eventually agreed to support the bill to stave off even worse concessions.
When CTU members found out what was in the bill, they were outraged. Our House of Delegates, angry at the officers, voted to remove the CTU’s support from the bill that our president had acceded to.
Lewis took a risk that our union could pass the high bar; our member-leaders took a risk that they could vote their displeasure without breaking the relationship with their officers. Both those risks worked out—but not without a difficult period of weeks where it seemed like it could go either way.
IT STARTS SMALL
Our unions need to energize members with a vision of dignity, rights, and a voice on the job. They should raise expectations, take risks, lead strikes and other fights, and challenge the rotten status quo.
Even if you are in a union where there are too many obstacles or too few co-workers who think that way, remember that our work in Chicago started with a vision and a few co-workers, too.
Jesse Sharkey is a teacher at South Shore International High School and former president of the Chicago Teachers Union.