The power of struggle

October 11, 2012

The teachers' strike was the polar opposite of what passes for "politics" in the U.S.

THE CHICAGO Teachers Union (CTU) put the power of struggle back on the table after their nine-day strike won against politicians and education officials who tried to vilify them.

Rank-and-file union members were united, determined and active in standing up to the offensive against teachers and public education that has swept through cities around the country, leaving behind privatization and hamstrung unions. Instead, the Chicago teachers fought back, and they convinced a strong majority of Chicagoans to support them.

Their contract isn't perfect, and the stage has been set for new struggles to come. But in the face of a decades-old assault on unions and workers, the teachers scored a tremendous victory in holding the line and more against Rahm Emanuel and the corporate school deformers.

Now we are seeing the consequences of that victory. Many workers across the country were watching the CTU, and the strike inspired them--and reshaped, to greater and lesser extents, how they view their own struggles.

Chicago teachers march with thousands of supporters during their strike
Chicago teachers march with thousands of supporters during their strike

In a few places, the teachers' strike begat more teachers' strikes. A few weeks after the CTU suspended its walkout, teachers in the Chicago suburb of Evergreen Park hit the picket line. "I think [Chicago teachers] let us know we can do this," Melissa Rehfield, an aide at Northeast School, told the Southtown Star. While the CTU strike was underway, teachers in Lake Forest, north of Chicago, also walked out.

Workers outside the schools also took inspiration from the CTU strike. In Elwood, Ill., warehouse workers went on strike against Wal-Mart after the company retaliated against workers who were protesting dangerous working conditions and non-payment of overtime. The small group of three dozen strikers found enthusiastic support at the mass rallies in support of the teachers. The Wal-Mart workers won the principal demand of their 21-day strike and returned their jobs--with full pay for the time they were out.

And for those who didn't go on strike, the CTU strike had an effect in presenting a new way to address the drive for austerity and cutbacks gripping states and cities around the country. The Chicago teachers showed the alternative: Don't accept concessions and belt-tightening as the only "realistic" course, but draw a line in the sand and organize to fight back.

There is no guarantee that this victory will be followed by more of the same--no doubt our side will face setbacks in the future as we try to turn the tide. But we can say now that the CTU strike represents a sharp departure from business as usual for the labor movement. The CTU organized its members for a fight; it reached out to the working class as a whole for support; it challenged a national leader of the Democratic Party; and it won.

WHAT LESSONS should labor and other activists take away from the teachers' strike?

First of all, that union members were engaged at every step in the struggle. Preparations for the strike began more than two years before when the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators won a sweeping victory in local elections and took over the top positions of the union. The new CTU leaders began systematically building strong leaders in every school in every part of the city.

That grassroots strength showed itself last spring when CTU members stunned Emanuel with a 90 percent strike authorization vote. In fact, among teachers who cast ballots, an incredible 98 percent supported authorizing a walkout. As a strike appeared increasingly inevitable, union members were active with informational pickets at schools and events around the city to raise awareness of the issues.

During the strike itself, virtually every union member was involved every day--starting with morning pickets at schools around the city and continuing at mass rallies and marches later in the day. When the city finally backed off its all-or-nothing agenda and CTU leaders reached a tentative agreement, the union's 800-strong House of Delegates decided to continue the strike into a second week so every teacher could discuss and debate the contract.

Every development, before and during the strike, reflected the union's commitment to democracy and grassroots empowerment. The lesson for all was: Why can't every union operate this way? Why not the government, too?

The organization and mobilization of the whole union was a critical factor in winning public support. The teachers didn't have big advertising dollars. They didn't have lobbyists. They certainly didn't have the support of political officials, their wealthy backers or the media.

What teachers did have--and what proved to be the deciding factor in this fight--was solidarity.

The unity of the teachers won over many parents of Chicago Public schools students, even though the strike posed difficulties in their personal life. The CTU also devoted significant resources, from long before the walkout, to reaching out to community organizations and other potential allies.

Last winter, the CTU was part of the fight--ultimately unsuccessful--to stop the city from closing or "turning around" 17 schools, all of them on the poorer and disproportionately Black and Latino West and South Sides. And during the strike, the union continually focused attention on the broader issues of education justice--even though state laws barred it from making these the focus of the strike.

As a result, the teachers were seen by many parents and community activists as allies in the struggle against what the CTU called in one report "apartheid in Chicago schools."

As a result of all this, the teachers had strong majority public support for a strike. This is no small matter. The scapegoating campaign against public-sector workers, and teachers in particular, was supposed to have turned public opinion permanently against any militant action by teachers' unions.

Rahm Emanuel's arrogance during negotiations during the walkout no doubt stemmed from his certainty that public support would be with him if the teachers dared to strike. He and other political leaders believed that the scapegoating campaign against public-sector workers, and teachers in particular, had convinced most people that the teachers were selfish, and the union cared only about its members.

But Rahm was wrong. From the beginning, a majority of Chicagoans said they trusted the teachers far more than the city about schools. Two out of three parents of Chicago school kids supported the CTU in their action--an unprecedented sentiment in a citywide teachers' strike. Among Blacks and Latinos, support for the union was even stronger.

Ultimately, the CTU succeeded in resurrecting the best traditions of the labor movement: That a strike by a group of workers is part of the struggle for working-class people in general--because an injury to one is an injury to all, and a victory for one is a victory for all.

By striking, Chicago teachers provided an up-until-now missing voice in the debate over the future of public education and the austerity drive in U.S. cities and states. As historian Mark Naison said of the Chicago struggle, "Nowhere else has a teachers' union said, 'Enough is enough.' This is ground zero of resistance to corporate education reform."

Beyond the debate about school deform, the teachers began to shift the national discussion about the recession and who should pay for it. The CTU strike threw into question the accepted logic of rulers around the world--that there is no other option than austerity for workers, while the banks and big business continue to profit.

"The strike transformed the teachers from powerless to powerful" is how former Republican education official-turned-school deform critic Diane Ravitch--someone who knows a lot about transformation--described it.

John, a teacher at a South Side school in Chicago, put it another way:

I've been a delegate for 11 years, but I've never seen anything like this. I've had some success in getting people involved, maybe to do some lobbying or advocacy, but the level of unity and participation in this is incredible. Sure, there are some things in the contract that I wish were better, but we can go back to work stronger and better prepared to organize and fight again.

THE TEACHERS' strike was the polar opposite of Election 2012 and what passes for "politics" in the U.S.

With the Democrats and the Republicans defining the limits of mainstream political debate, elections become about choosing between two candidates who differ in their rhetoric and sometimes even on the details of their proposals, but who share more in common when it comes to priorities and basic policies.

This became clearer than ever during the Chicago teachers' strike, since the union was going up against an all-Democratic city political establishment. There was no difference at all between the two mainstream parties when it came to the teachers' struggle--both were against it.

The Democratic "friends of labor" had nothing to offer labor during the teachers' strike--in fact, they led the attack on one of the more important remaining bastions of union power in the CTU. Yet we're told that people on the left who take politics seriously have to vote for Obama and the Democrats anyway, in order to avoid the "greater evil" from winning. It's hard to think of anything less serious than this.

In 1900, the Socialist leader Eugene Debs described how Democrats of the time turned a blind eye to plight of workers, like a strike of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, miners crushed by federal troops:

We hear it frequently urged that the Democratic Party is the "poor man's party," "the friend of labor."...If the Democratic Party is the "friend of labor" any more than the Republican Party, why is its platform dumb in the presence of Coeur d'Alene? It knows the truth about these shocking outrages--crimes upon workingmen, their wives and children, which would blacken the pages of Siberia--why does it not speak out?

We're taught that the important decisions in society are made by the experts--the government officials, their advisers, their corporate think-tanks. The job of ordinary people is to vote for the person they believe will best represent them--and it ends there.

The Chicago teachers' strike--like many labor battles before it throughout U.S. history--provided a different vision of what "politics" should be: Not a phony debate among elite candidates or an expensive attack ad, but ordinary people discussing, organizing and mobilizing at the grassroots so they can become a force powerful enough to turn their beliefs and demands into reality.

This is real politics for socialists--the politics of class struggle--and it's where social change comes from.

We also know that our side faces many challenges in the struggle to come. It's time to apply the lessons of the Chicago teachers' strike to those fights--in our unions, our workplaces, our schools and our neighborhoods.

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