The striking lessons we learned

May 7, 2014

CTU striker Marilena Marchetti reviews a new book on the 2012 Chicago teachers strike--and recalls her own experiences on the picket line during the inspiring walkout.

READING MICAH Uetricht's Strike for America brought back a flood of memories of my time spent on the picket lines--like a whiff of chlorine instantly revives how it felt to plunge into the neighborhood pool on a hot summer day.

Strike for America is an honest history of one of the labor movement's proudest moments in recent memory. Uetricht explains in vivid detail how the 30,000-member-strong Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) led a successful strike in September 2012 that captured the imagination of people all over the city and the world.

Chicago teachers, who had not been on strike 1987, faced seemingly insurmountable legal barriers and the mainstream media's years-long campaign to denigrate teachers and public-sector workers in general.

The story of how the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), a group that started with about a dozen committed teachers, came to win the leadership of the CTU and transform the union on the basis of democracy and social justice, reminds us why we do what we do every day--especially when it gets hard.

A postal worker shows his sympathy with the Chicago teachers strike
A postal worker shows his sympathy with the Chicago teachers strike (Marilena Marchetti | SW)

And it's getting harder and harder. Last year, some 3,000 teachers and staff in Chicago lost their jobs, and 50 schools were closed. The nationwide push to implement the Common Core Standards, and the high-stakes testing regimens that accompany them, have left parents, students and teachers reeling from the carrot-and-stick policy that uses test scores to lay off teachers, close schools and slash funding.

THE ANECDOTES in Uetricht's book show how the entire city was watching the CTU strike and, moreover, liking its message of workers' rights and education justice. At a September 10 rally, tens of thousands of people painted Chicago's downtown red.

Uetricht, wearing a red T-shirt of his own, describes stepping into a chain coffee shop and experiencing the solidarity and celebrity status conferred on anyone wearing the union's color. A cashier, assuming he was a teacher, remarked, "You all are amazing. We support the teachers 100 percent!" and waved him through a long line of customers.

So many of us experienced this phenomenon, myself included. It proved to us that we were winning, despite the media's prediction that we wouldn't.

At a big rally downtown, I was scouting out ledges and trash vestibules to climb onto in order to snap the best photos I could with my phone. A postal worker in a big white truck waved me down, saying, "Hey! I want you to take a picture of me with your sign!" He held a fat cigar between his teeth that formed his mouth into a grin. He looked just as satisfied as I was.

After being degraded by the corporate media, the mayor and his henchmen in the City Council and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Central Office, taking a stand for ourselves, our children and our community restored us to the level of human beings. I don't think we knew how beaten down we were until we stood up for our dignity in the most powerful way we could.

The spirit on the picket lines was jubilant, righteous and empowered. If you were there, you saw the rhythm in people's step. You rocked to the baritone voice of a veteran CTUer shouting through a bullhorn, "Awwwwww shucks! The union's faaaaaard up! Say Whaa!?" Our picket lines looked like something you might do at a wedding when "The Train" song ("C'mon N' Ride It") starts to play.

As a CPS occupational therapist and CTU member entering my second school year when the strike was announced, I had only a taste of the disrespect regularly meted out by CPS's Central Office to its employees. I had only a taste of the exhausting workload that required me to work early mornings, nights and weekends.

The single phrase I heard, over and over again, from my colleagues with years' experience was: "Every year, it gets worse, and this is the worst it's ever been."

FOR PEOPLE new to the story of the CTU strike and its history, Uetricht's book lays out the context in which CORE came to power, the difficulties the caucus had to overcome, and the lessons it learned from the past that enabled it to lead the largest local in the state through a successful strike.

I thoroughly enjoyed the journey through Uetricht's history of CORE and the strike. I even found myself wishing that chapters, and perhaps new books, would be devoted to elaborating on points that he is only able to touch on.

One example is Uetricht's retelling of when more than 600 elected union representatives voted to continue the strike after a week of picketing. He writes, "Some of the union staff were worried that the union would squander the goodwill it had built up among CPS parents, but the leadership did not try to dissuade the membership from extending the strike."

Looking back on that meeting, the emotional pitch was through the roof. All week long, union members were having political conversations of the utmost seriousness--on the picket lines, at the bargaining table and in private. These conversations reflected the years of experience on the job and acquired political knowledge and training of so many CTU members.

The impact of the union's research and education initiatives, which empowered members and the community to take action around the policies that were driving down the quality of public education, also showed.

The moment that the CTU rank and file voted not to suspend their strike amounted to years and years of lived experience, multiplied by the transformation that had taken place over the days on the picket lines.

Importantly, Micah illustrates significant examples of rank-and-file democracy and how the CTU and CORE brought what so many unionists view as a lofty idea in the clouds down to the earth and put them into practice.

As a brand-new unionist at the time, it didn't occur to me that taking hours and days to examine and debate the ins and outs of a contract before ratifying it was something unheard-of during typical contract negotiations. I had never experienced the opposite, or what it was like to even have the protection of a union on the job.

Uetricht's book brings home how different the Chicago teachers' strike was and how it instilled a sense of ownership in the union and the contract, which laid a basis for building real workplace power over time.

While Strike for America has allowed me to step back and appreciate the radical transformation of the CTU and the role of CORE, it has also made me appreciate that this experience is the standard I will expect and aspire to. The book is a read to sustain all of us who continue to fight for the next victory for education justice and for those who want a vision to fight for.

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