When the Chicago teachers rose up

September 12, 2013

In September 2012, Chicago was the site of one of the most important labor battles in decades, as union teachers took on the City Hall bully--and won. After nine days of picketing and protesting, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, his handpicked school board and the city's combined political and business establishment were forced to back down on their all-out assault on the Chicago Teachers Union.

Socialist Worker contributor Lee Sustar is author of a forthcoming book on the strike: Striking Back in Chicago: How Teachers Took On City Hall and Pushed Back Education "Reform." This excerpt from the book's introduction was first published at AlterNet.org. We are republishing it here to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the teachers' victory.

WALKING OUT of the union delegates' meeting on the concluding day of the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike, Sue Garza was somewhere between exhaustion and astonishment. She greeted union sisters and brothers as she slowly made her way to her Strikemobile, a car that had accumulated CTU picket signs, homemade placards, slogans and a bullhorn mounted on top. Every hug, high-five and joyful tear confirmed her feelings: The teachers had won.

Portrayed in Chicago Sun-Times photo a couple of days earlier as a fist-shaking militant angry over the proposed contract, Garza was in fact a part of the union's broad leadership team as a member of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), the group that had taken over the CTU two years earlier. She was one of the CTU's 46 district supervisors, rank-and-file teachers who helped coordinate outreach to union delegates in her area. It was a team that had spent more than a year preparing for the strike that stunned Mayor Rahm Emanuel and brought an outpouring of solidarity from working-class Chicago.

Chicago teachers took to the streets of downtown to demand a fair contract
Chicago teachers took to the streets of downtown to demand a fair contract

It began like any other teachers' strike, with morning school-site pickets. By the afternoon on September 12, though, it was clear that this one was different. As many as 20,000 red-clad teachers had swarmed the Loop, the city's central business district, snarling traffic and taking over the streets near City Hall. "There was a sprig of revolution in the air," said a television reporter on the scene.[1]

For nine days, teachers congregated at busy intersections, protested companies that reap tax benefits while school budgets are cut, and marched through African American neighborhoods hardest hit by school closures. It was impossible to go anywhere in the city without encountering a picket line. Teachers couldn't walk down the block without honks of support from passing cars, greetings from passersby or offers of free water, coffee and food when they entered a corner store. Opinion polls showing support for the CTU[2] reflected the feeling in the street--the sense that teachers weren't fighting just for themselves or even public education. The CTU's stand, four years after the financial crash, won the hearts of the hundreds of thousands of people who could identify with a struggle that wasn't only about pay and working conditions and quality public schools, but also dignity and respect for working people.

THE STRIKE had national implications, and not only because it took place in President Barack Obama's hometown. The Obama administration's Race to the Top legislation--pushed by Emanuel when he was White House chief of staff--had reinforced the anti-union elements of George W. Bush's school reform by tying federal funds to state legislation that weakened teacher tenure, imposed punitive evaluation schemes and encouraged the proliferation of charter schools.[3]

Emanuel, of course, is a major Democratic player, having been an operative in Bill Clinton's White House who'd gone on to Congress after a lucrative turn as an investment banker. Upon his election as mayor in 2011, Emanuel effectively became the political boss of Illinois, too. Even before taking office, he engineered the passage of state school reform legislation, Senate Bill 7, which, among other things, requires the CTU to get 75 percent of its members to vote to authorize a strike.

The always-aggressive Emanuel was certain that the measure would intimidate the CTU from even attempting to strike. Instead, 90 percent voted to empower union officials to take such action. When it was all over, Emanuel, who'd made attacks on the CTU a centerpiece of his election campaign, had failed. His effort to scrap the teachers' traditional contract protections, impose merit pay and accelerate the state-mandated process to terminate "underperforming" teachers went nowhere. At a time when teachers' unions in New Haven, Baltimore, St. Louis and other cities had agreed to contracts that severely undermined tenure--job security--the Chicago teachers held the line.[4]

The union had taken some concessions, including a pay increase that didn't fully compensate for the longer school day, an intrusive "wellness" health care program and a reduction in the amount of time laid off teachers can receive pay and benefits. Still, the union had won major gains. These included a revitalized school-based committee to uphold teachers' rights at work, a contract clause that penalizes bullying principals, and an agreement that the board put at least half of displaced teachers into a hiring pool, a first since school reform began in Chicago. The mayor must have winced when he read the assessment of the Wall Street Journal: "Mayor Rahm Emanuel had to agree to conditions that make it hard to fire some teachers who receive weak evaluations, and to limit some of the power of school principals to choose their staff."[5] Chicago, ground zero for urban school reform since 1995, was suddenly a symbol of teacher resistance.

The strike caught Emanuel by surprise. His schools chief at the time, Jean-Claude Brizard, later said that "we severely underestimated the ability of the Chicago Teachers Union to lead a massive grass-roots campaign against our administration."[6] It isn't hard to see why. Although the CTU had struck nine times between 1969 and 1987, there hadn't been another strike in the 25 years that followed. The once clout-heavy union had seen its power ebb as corporate education reform accelerated. The nadir came in 2008, when the union leadership imploded into rival factions even as the CTU faced its greatest challenge in decades.[7] The split in the union's old guard allowed CORE, then less than two years old, to win control of the CTU in 2010.

To outsiders, the untested leaders of the CTU looked like easy meat for Emanuel and corporate education reformers. Veteran TV news anchorman Walter Jacobson wrote on the eve of CORE's election victory: "The bosses downtown are rooting for the rookies to get them to a bargaining table and eat them alive."[8]

What Jacobson and others didn't count on was CORE's systematic work to broaden and deepen the activism of CTU members. Strike preparation was organized at the base of the union, with some two to three thousand union members actively participating as delegates, contract committee members, strike captains and more.

The CTU's approach to its contract campaign was very different than the labor movement's typical "mobilization model," in which union members are periodically called upon to protest during contract negotiations but rarely encouraged to organize on their own. Instead, the CTU solicited contract demands at some 600 schools, sifting them upward through the House of Delegates and a bargaining team of 54 that brought together union members from every job category and had representation from all union caucuses. Union officers and staffers consulted retired veterans of the CTU strikes of the 1970s and 1980s. Several read, or reread, the socialist labor classic Teamster Rebellion, an account of the 1934 Minneapolis truck drivers' organizing drive that led to a general strike.

At the same time, the CTU drew upon Chicago's long history of struggle against racial injustice in the city's schools. The mass Black student boycotts and protests of the 1960s civil rights movements were the reference point for the union's work in African American and Latino communities that had been resisting the closure of neighborhood schools, a fight that CORE members had joined years prior to forming their caucus. Months before the strike, the union issued an exhaustively researched 46-page report, The Schools Chicago's Children Deserve, which detailed the "apartheid-like system" in CPS and called for full financing for public education and an enriched curriculum.[9] The CTU made it clear to parents and community members that it was fighting not just for its own members, but to defend and improve public education. It was the sort of social movement unionism rarely seen in Chicago since the 1930s and 1940s, when militants and socialists in the Steelworkers and Packinghouse Workers unions made anti-racism and support for civil rights central to their organizing.

The CTU officers, staff and executive board members had plenty of debate and disagreements about how best to prepare the union for a possible confrontation. All were agreed, however, that if the struggle were to be successful, it would require a level of self-activity among union members that Chicago teachers--and the wider labor movement-- hadn't seen in more than a generation. Effective strike action would come only after months of sustained engagement with union members in every school across a sprawling, segregated city, they concluded.

FOR SUE Garza of Strikemobile fame, strike preparation began at home--literally. She'd started by organizing a labor solidarity rally a year earlier, on August 31, 2011, outside her house in the South Chicago neighborhood, a few blocks from the Indiana state line. The idea was to gather CTU members who often had difficulty getting to union events downtown, about 16 miles away. Garza's own workplace, Jane Addams Elementary, where she's a counselor, sits just over a block from her house.

There were plenty of reasons to protest. A few months earlier, Emanuel had ordered the cancellation of CTU members' scheduled raises, and was publicly preparing to subvert the teachers' contract by instituting a longer day on a school-by-school basis.[10]

What Chicago teachers needed to understand was that they were part of broader movement, Garza concluded. So she decided to link Chicago teachers' battle to the mass labor uprising in Madison, Wisconsin that had challenged anti-labor legislation the previous winter. It wasn't difficult. Garza's brother, Ed Sadlowski, Jr., a union organizer, was among those who were central to turning a one-off protest into an occupation that featured weekly mass rallies of 100,000. Her son, Ryan, a teacher in a Chicago charter school, had been active in the Madison protests, too. He'd been featured in a front-page photograph in the New York Times, straining to keep the Capitol doors open to occupiers while police pushed back.

The notice that Garza put out for the rally was tailored to an audience of Southeast Side teachers: "First CEOs destroyed our jobs in manufacturing and the steel mills. Then the big banks ran our economy in the ditch. Now they blame the crisis on teachers and other public workers. Let's roll up our sleeves and discover new ways to fight back!"[11]

Among the first speakers at the rally was Peggy Coyne, the president of Madison Teachers Inc., the union that led a two-day teachers sickout that went statewide, allowing thousands of teachers to converge in Madison. "There are anti-teacher, and anti-public school propaganda threats that are going to try to sap our strength," Coyne said. "But I refuse to let them to let me feel powerless or ineffective. We are not going to let other groups, other people, take our voice away."

Following Coyne was Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. In little more than a year in office, Lewis had already become the best-known labor leader in the city, overshadowing the officials at the dominant unions in the Chicago Federation of Labor, a body known for quietly working the political system from the inside.

Lewis took a decidedly different approach. She made it clear in her speech that wider working class issues were central to the teachers' clash with Emanuel and the CEOs driving school reform. "These people make more money than their corporations pay in taxes," she said. "And we wonder why are schools are not appropriately funded."

Lewis was in her element. She's the product of a South Side union family herself. Both her parents were teachers and CTU members. Lewis found her own way into the classroom after a setting aside her ambition to be a stand-up comic. Instead, she used her wit and one-liners to tame back-talking students for years before turning her sarcasm on Rahm Emanuel and revving up teachers and community members at countless meetings and rallies. The notoriously foul-mouthed Emanuel--he famously said "fuck you, Lewis" at a meeting between the two--didn't faze her. When you're the first African American woman to graduate from Dartmouth, you learn to stand up for yourself.

The CTU president's defiant attitude was on full display at the South Chicago rally. "Taking away our ability to organize is not school reform," she said. "Taking away our collective bargaining rights is not school reform. Transferring public funds into the hands of the already wealthy is not school reform. And taking democracy out of the public schools is not school reform."

She concluded with a call to action:

Let's talk to every single neighbor and tell them, "Help us, stand with us." The time is now, because they're coming after us, they're coming strong, and it's not just here. It's not just in Wisconsin. It's the entire country. They want to destroy publicly funded public education. Don't think for a minute that these people care about our children. They never have, and all of a sudden they're interested in it?

The reason they pick on teachers and our unions is because we are the last line in the sand. And they want to take the middle class lifestyle away from all of us. They want to have the very rich, and the rest of us.

The rest of the Wisconsin labor speakers amplified Lewis' points. Madison teachers had been "the tip of the spear" in the Wisconsin movement, said Eric Cobb, a building trades official who'd played a pivotal role in the protests there. Now, he said, it was Chicago teachers' turn. "Leave your fear behind," he said.

Joe Conway, head of the Madison firefighters' union, reminded teachers of the hypocrisy of politicians who were about to wrap themselves in the flag to praise fallen public employees on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks, yet who keep targeting their unions. He closed his brief speech the way he had at dozens of Wisconsin rallies, citing the young Muhammad Ali's challenge to the heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston: "Fight me here, fight me now!"

AS THE rally wound down, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey quietly joined the crowd, a late arrival following meetings elsewhere. He glanced around at the 500 or so teachers clustered in patches of shade as they listened to a succession of brief speeches. "The union office had almost nothing to do with this," he said.

To many labor leaders, that observation would have been made with anxiety. Was the rank and file getting worked up with unrealistic expectations for the next contract? Or, worse, were they contemplating a challenge to incumbent union officials? But Sharkey was smiling. A teachers' rally organized directly out of the schools was a moment for satisfaction for him. A former union organizer turned rank-and-file teacher activist, Sharkey had helped to found CORE along with Lewis and others who were aghast at the CTU's failure to oppose school closings and the shrinkage of their union.

The Southeast Side rally highlighted the rapid changes in the CTU in the preceding months. It wasn't just the size of the turnout, but the resolute mood. Teachers who'd never had much to do with the union, let alone CORE, had forged a network among different schools and come out in large numbers even before classes had begun in most schools.

Sharkey paid close attention to the final speaker, Ed Sadlowski Sr., father of the siblings who'd organized the event. Sadlowski had given his children their first lessons in trade unionism when they were kids, often rousting them from bed at 5 a.m. to take them to the factory gates to pass out leaflets for the Steelworker Fight Back campaign in the 1970s. Sadlowski had run an insurgent election challenge for the presidency of the United Steelworkers, and nearly ousted an incumbent union machine that had been in place for the previous four decades. So it was a given that Sadlowski, by then in his 70s, would climb onto the back of a truck on a sweltering late-summer day to address several hundred teachers and supporters.

Sadlowski gave a wry welcome to his part of town, once known for union struggles like the dark moment in 1937 when Chicago police fired on striking steelworkers during a Memorial Day protest, killing 10. Sadlowski recalled that as a boy, he thought the graphite that floated through the air from U.S. Steel's South Works mill, and ruined the laundry on the clothesline at his family's apartment, was as natural as snow. South Works is gone now, and the air is a lot cleaner, he noted. "They didn't shut down steel because of a pollution issue, or thinking about you as an individual and your health. They shut down steel by virtue of the technological advances in that industry. They did it to make more money."

The closure of South Works in the 1980s created a chain reaction of economic decline and a spike in poverty. The plant has since been razed, with its site given over to the Lakeside development project, a 45-year plan to create the "ultimate urban experience" of green--and expensive--residential and commercial property. The aim is the creation of a satellite downtown Chicago, the crowning achievement in the ongoing gentrification of the South Side lakefront. This real estate grab has displaced tens of thousands of African Americans since the 1990s and led to the closure of multiple schools on the South Side.[12] Like many other development projects in the city, Lakeside will rely on Tax Increment Financing (TIF), in which the city diverts property taxes from schools and libraries to subsidize real estate development projects. That policy has steadily drained the CPS budget, hastening budget cuts and school closures.[13] It's no coincidence that the man spearheading Lakeside plans to include a charter school on the site.[14]

In 2011, that promise of future local prosperity seemed very far off to those living and working in South Chicago and the wider Southeast Side. The area's most abundant remaining resource was inexpensive houses, which in the last three decades drew an influx of immigrants, mostly from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries but also from many other parts of the world. For teachers in the area, the changes have brought the challenge of meeting the needs of English language learners, whose families often face economic hardship. Elementary schools in the area are overcrowded. The CPS solution: Build a new elementary school on a heavily polluted industrial site purchased from a family member of a former alderman who'd served time in prison.[15]

The travails of the Southeast Side weren't news to the teachers who turned out for Sue Garza's solidarity rally. So Ed Sadlowski moved on to his main point: The looming teachers' battle was the latest chapter in an ongoing struggle of working people in Chicago and beyond to defend not just their own livelihoods, but the wellbeing of future generations. A central issue, he said, were the wars that drained tax dollars from public education. The goal of the labor movement, Sadlowski said, should be "making a world where no one is hungry. Making a world everyone is accepted as a human being. Making a world that we will be not be ashamed of."

After the rally, Sadlowski said he wasn't bothered by the mayor's threats. "Rahm Emanuel is the bully at the end of the bar who talks tough and keeps everybody scared," he said. "But the minute someone stands up to him, he'll run away."

When the CTU did stand up--for teachers, for students, and for public education in Chicago and beyond--Emanuel backed down. The union prevailed by linking its fate to a wider working class struggle by focusing on controversial issues of race and class, subjects that labor unions usually avoid. When politicians used their standard script for bashing public employee unions--attacking the CTU as an overpaid and self-interested group unconcerned about the needs of children--Chicago teachers pushed back.

There are lessons for the wider union movement here. The CTU offers an example of a kind of leadership seldom seen in organized labor, where potential union officers are usually bred for docility by self-perpetuating bureaucracies. At a time when strikes are rare, union membership is shrinking and concessions to employers are commonplace, the CTU's boldness stands out. Here was a union prepared to risk everything to win a victory rather than passively accept a decline into irrelevance.

The strike didn't halt corporate education reform in Chicago, where neighborhood school closures proceed and charter school proliferation continues. Even so, the CTU's resistance has helped to strengthen the growing national movement to save our schools. It's an example of what working people can achieve when they're united and take collective action.

Ed Sadlowski can say that he saw it coming. "You're going to win," he told teachers at the rally a year earlier. "You're going to win big, too. The real question at hand, though, is when you win, what do you do with it? Well, it's a natural question, and it's a natural answer. Pass it on, sisters and brothers, pass it on."


1. "Thousands Of Striking Teachers, Supporters Rally Downtown," CBSLocal.com, September 10, 2012.
2. "As Chicago teachers strike enters fourth day, a new poll proves majority of parents and taxpayers approve of fair contract fight," Chicago Teachers Union, September 13, 2012.
3. Lyndsey Layton, "Rethinking the Classroom: Obama's Overhaul of Public Education," Washington Post, September 20, 2012.
4. Lee Sustar, "Holding the Line for Teachers," Socialist Worker, May 15, 2013.
5. Stephanie Banchero, "Union Vote Ends Strike by Teachers in Chicago," Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2012.
6. John Byrne, "Brizard Takes Shot at Emanuel," ChicagoTribune.com, August 23, 2013.
7. George N. Schmidt, "Stewart Ousts VP Ted Dallas While Teachers are on Vacation," Substance News, September, 2008.
8. Collin Hitt, "Chicago Teachers Union Votes to Move Left," Illinois Policy Institute, June 14, 2010.
9. Chicago Teachers Union, The Schools Chicago's Children Deserve, February, 2012.
10. Monica Davey, "Rahm Emanuel Angers Teachers Union Over Longer School Day," New York Times, September 17, 2011.
11. Chicago Teachers Union,
"Cookout and Organizing Meeting--Unions United for a Better and Fair Society," August 12, 2011.
12. Pauline Lipman, The New Political Economy of Urban Education Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City (New York: Routledge, 2011), pp. 65-73.
13. Ben Joravsky, "Why Your Tax Money Keeps Going Down the TIF Portal Hole," Chicago Reader, July 23, 2013.
14. Kari Lydersen, "Southeast Side: Will New Community Rise on Old South Works Steel Site?" May 31, 2013.
15. Joel Hood, "Chicago Public Schools Plan Causes a Stir on Southeast Side," Chicago Tribune, January 29, 2012.

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