Today’s lesson is solidarity

September 14, 2016

Elizabeth Schulte reviews Schoolidarity, a documentary about the 2012 Chicago teachers' strike with lessons for today's fight to defend public education.

THE 2012 Chicago teachers' strike was like no other struggle in recent memory, galvanizing the power of rank-and-file teachers alongside parents, students and the rest of working-class Chicago against a privatizing mayor and corporate school reformers intent on destroying public education.

The strike by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) holds for today many lessons about building bottom-up power with the strength to challenge a powerful and well-connected politician like Rahm "Mayor 1 Percent" Emanuel.

Now, the independent film Schoolidarity, recently made available for purchase on Amazon, introduces a new audience to this fight.

And for those of us who call Chicago home, the film is not only a good reminder of what kind of organizing made the strike a success, but it also comes at a key moment, as the battle for a new contract for Chicago teachers is really heating up.

The strike's significance reaches far beyond Chicago. People around the country drew inspiration from teachers' uncompromising stand for public schools. For that reason, Schoolidarity situates itself in the national fight to defend public education from the so-called school reformers, from for-profit charter schools to high-stakes standardized testing to teachers' right to organize.

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

The documentary links the 2012 strike with the massive 2011 protests of Wisconsin public employees defending their right to collective bargaining, the high point being the weeks-long occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol building. Madison teachers, who organized a district-wide sickout, were at the forefront of this struggle.

The film emphasizes the fact that while attacks on public-sector workers in Wisconsin were spearheaded by rabid Republican and Tea Party darling Gov. Scott Walker, the drive to privatize and destroy the power of unions is bipartisan. So in Chicago, it was Emanuel, a longtime fixture of the Democratic Party, who led the assault.

In the film, Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History, describes the Democrats' backing for school "turnarounds" and charters, in addition to the Obama administration's broken promises to organized labor, such as the unfulfilled pledge to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.

Schoolarity also recreates the agonizing betrayals of Wisconsin legislators who were hailed as the "Fab 14," but eventually sold out the Capitol occupiers and union members. Footage of Democratic State Rep. Brett Hulsey shows him telling protesters, "We are winning, and one thing winners do is they know when to back off a little bit," as he implored them to give up the Capitol. It will make your blood boil.

Review: Film

Schoolidarity, a documentary written and directed by Andrew Friend.

THE STARS of Schoolidarity are the teachers, parents and students themselves.

Some of them will already be familiar to education activists: CTU President Karen Lewis, Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Erica Clark and Rhoda Gutierrez of Parents 4 Teachers and 9-year-old activist Asean Johnson. The filmmakers make a priority of highlighting the voices of working-class Chicagoans who formed the backbone of this struggle.

And there are also familiar faces from the other side: Obama's former education secretary and school "reform" architect Arne Duncan, members of the wealthy and well-connected Chicago School Board and, of course, the king of privatization himself, Rahm Emanuel.

As Jitu Brown, who helped lead the fight to keep open South Side Dyett High School, argues in the film, if the privatizers were to succeed in pushing through their demands, they had to defeat all resistance to it.

In Chicago, people had to decide which side they were on. "It was a people's strike because you had hundreds of parents and hundreds of students who walked the line with those teachers," Brown says in an interview for the documentary. "That's what made us so powerful."

Key to the strike's success was the solidarity built way before Chicago teachers set foot on a picket line. Years before, neighborhood organizations like KOCO were already organizing to take on Renaissance 2010, CPS's plan to restructure the district with for massive closures and the proliferation of for-profit charters.

In the film, Steven Ashby, a labor historian and member of the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign, marvels at the unprecedented solidarity that was built so far ahead of the strike itself. Wisconsin teachers were also there early on, showing the solidarity that Chicago teachers showed them just months earlier in Madison.

The CTU--headed up newly elected members of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE)--understood the powerful forces they were confronting, but they also understood the potential power of a mobilized membership and the active support of the community.

The union debunked fantasy accounting numbers offered by CPS and showed that rather than being a broke district bearing the burden of dozens of so-called "failing" schools in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, there was plenty of money to go around--and plenty of alternatives to make neighborhood schools better.

The CTU's Schools That Chicago's Students Deserve report made clear that it was teachers, not the mayor, who were really working in students' interests, and the report offered a plan for what a well-funded public school system might look like.

The teachers had something else going for them: the fact that the mayor's "open for business" approach to Chicago's essential services, from parking meters to education, had made Emanuel one of the most hated politicians in Chicago history. And Emanuel was showing no sign of backing down. As Kelvyn Park High School teacher Jerry Skinner says in the documentary:

We have to thank our enemies, too, not just our leaders. We are blessed by our enemies sometimes, because they have pushed so hard, squeezed so much, they have attacked so relentlessly that finally, with our back against the wall, we could not go back. We had to push forward. We saw that.

BY THE time teachers walked out on September 10, 2012, there was already the sense that a David-versus-Goliath struggle was in the making, and that the growing solidarity of working-class Chicago was the rock in the CTU's slingshot.

Schoolidarity's footage of the picket lines that began each day of the strike, with teachers standing with supportive parents and students, followed by massive rallies that gathered later in each day, turning the downtown Loop streets into a sea of CTU red, really helps to capture the defiant and contagious mood of the strike.

The film also shows the impressive CTU marches through the neighborhoods hardest hit by school "restructuring" on the West and South Sides. Teachers from every neighborhood, even those who worked in better-funded schools, turned out to shine a spotlight on neglected parts of the city--and show they were all standing together.

The documentary also captures the process of teachers reaching an agreement. It was a highly democratic process that engaged members in the decision-making process--in marked contrast to the tradition of backroom deals between union officials and employers.

After a tentative agreement was reached, the CTU House of Delegates nevertheless voted to extend the strike so that fellow teachers could read and discuss what was in the offer. The mayor went on the attack, accusing the union of holding children "hostage" by refusing to call off the strike. The compliant Chicago media echoed the charge.

But the CTU stuck to its guns, as teachers took the time they needed to debate and vote on whether to accept the contract. It's inspiring to see footage of teachers sitting in a circle of lawn chairs in front of their schools, debating the contract, as a parent assures them that she will stand with them whatever they decide.

While not all of their demands were met, teachers came out with a solid contract that pushed back on many of the concessions that other teachers' unions around the country were being forced to accept, such as merit pay.

THE FIGHT to defend public education is, of course, far from over. CPS followed up by putting hundreds of schools and jobs on the chopping block and holding sham public hearings that drew thousands of angry and sometimes tearful residents, who told their stories as CPS officials ignored them.

Today, CTU members are still working under an extension of the contract they won in 2012, and teachers, parents and students are gearing up again for another showdown with Emanuel and the school board. If they end up walking the picket line again, they will at least go into it with the experience of 2012 under their belts.

And Schoolidarity will provide an important tool for teachers, parents and students to use in the lead-up to a potential walkout. Now is a perfect time to organize a viewing in your classroom or in your living room with fellow teachers, parents and classmates.

As Kirsten, an elementary school teacher, concludes:

I think of it as a long prizefight, and we just went through Round One. We gave Rahm and corporate deformers a bloody nose, but we've got to go for the knockout. It's going to take a few rounds, but I think we're going to get there, and I think we're more powerful now.

Further Reading

From the archives