It was a strike that was not supposed to happen -- at least not from the point of view of the Democratic Party machine and the top national leadership of the American Federation of Teachers.
With only a few months left before the presidential election, at a time when the Democrats had featured Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel at the Democratic Party's national convention in Charlotte as a "friend of working people," what could be worse for President Barack Obama and the Democrats than to have an important section of the labor movement up in arms -- and out on the streets in mass picketlines -- against this very same Emanuel and against the Democratic Party's policies of "education reform"?
But that's what happened.
The Chicago teachers -- led by a rank-and-file reform caucus, CORE, that defeated the slate supported by AFT President Randi Weingarten -- withstood the torrents of attacks in the mainstream media, the bullying from Emanuel, and the pressure from their own AFT leadership. They refused to accept a concessionary contract.
The Chicago Teachers Union and its 26,000-plus members stood their ground and asserted their independence in relation to the bosses, the politicians, and their own national union leadership. And they ultimately prevailed, wresting major concessions from Emanuel and the board of the Chicago Public Schools and winning a huge political victory for all working people.
CTU Forces Emanuel to Retreat
At a time when education unions across the country -- with the acquiescence of the leaders of the two main teachers' unions, AFT and NEA -- are being forced to accept Merit Pay (a major blow to the unions and to seniority), larger class sizes, and huge cuts in pay and working conditions, the Chicago teachers defeated the Merit Pay proposal and held on to significant gains in their contract. They even forced the school district to make numerous concessions of their own.
All this was possible because the CTU understood what it means to build a truly independent trade union movement, effectively breaking with the model of "business unionism" that is literally killing the U.S. labor movement today.
They reached out to their community allies and built a powerful labor-community alliance that turned into a huge army of strike supporters. On the first day of the strike, 30,000 rallied for the teachers in the Loop.
And they practiced internal union democracy every step of the way, making sure till the very end -- despite the threat of an injunction by Emanuel -- that every representative to the union's 800-member House of Delegates had a chance to read and debate the negotiated agreement before voting on whether or not to suspend the strike.
The strike was a major morale uplift for the working class in Chicago, as well as nationally. One could not drive down Chicago's streets without hearing just about every motorist (buses, trucks, cars) honking in support of the teachers' picketlines. This struck a blow against those in the labor movement who have carefully avoided job actions over the years. (On the eve of the strike, the leadership of AFT Local 1600 -- City Colleges of Chicago -- rammed through a rotten contract when they still had months before it expired. This was then flaunted by Emanuel as an example of "cooperation" without confrontation.)
Because of this powerful stance, the Chicago teachers and their union have pointed the way forward for all unions and all working people in the fight to stop the budget cuts and concessions that are being unleashed by the twin parties of the bosses -- the Democrats and the Republicans -- with a relentless fury.
Major Challenges and Pitfalls Ahead
Having said this, we would be remiss if we did not point out the huge challenges that lie ahead for the Chicago teachers and for all education unions across the country.
Emanuel has thrown down the gauntlet and announced that he is still planning to go forward and close down at least 100 poorly performing schools in Chicago. All students will still not have equal access to arts and libraries. But there is more.
While standardized testing as a basis for teacher evaluation was reduced to the state minimum in the new contract, the fact remains that 30 percent of all teachers' evaluations in Chicago will henceforth be based on the test results of their students, with the percentage rising to 35% in the fourth year of the contract.
This downside of the proposed contract cannot be placed on the shoulders of the CTU. City and state governments in Illinois -- controlled by both Democrats and Republicans -- have created laws in recent years legally limiting the CTU's ability to fight for non-economic (teacher wage/benefits) issues in any contract.
One such law is the Performance Evaluation Reform Act (PERA), which was adopted by the Illinois state legislature in August 2012 with the aim of enabling school districts to fire teachers with "unsatisfactory" evaluations resulting from their students' low test scores. But we all know that low test scores are not the result of "bad" teachers; the source of the problems in education in low-income Black and Latino schools is the economic and social collapse of those communities brought about by the decay of the capitalist system in which we live.
CTU President Karen Lewis was absolutely correct to denounce PERA and Emanuel for wanting to use standardized testing as the basis for getting rid of 6,000 Chicago teachers over the next two years. But after the strike came to an end, Lewis was forced to acknowledge that while the union was able to fight back against PERA, limiting the damage, the fact remains that testing will now play an important -- and growing -- role in teachers' evaluations.
Teachers in Chicago -- and, more generally, public-sector workers in cities across the country -- also face another big threat: Plans are under way to make huge cuts to their pension funds on the grounds they're "going broke." But there is more than enough money to pay all pensions if the government were to tax the rich, slash military spending, reclaim the $1.7 trillion in Wall Street bailout funds still sitting in the banks collecting interest, and more. The CTU, in fact, pointed to many of these solutions in their pre-strike campaign.
What It Will Take to Stop the "Education Reform" Privatization Steamroller?
Fighting the privatization of public education -- pushed by both Democrats and Republicans in the name of "education reform" -- will require two things.
First, it will require building a powerful rank-and-file movement in the AFT and NEA to defeat the union leaderships' overall support, despite some criticisms, of the basic tenets of the Democratic Party's "education reform" policies. Without the support from the main leaders of the teachers' unions, Obama, Arne Duncan and the rest of the education privatizers would not be able to implement their destructive agenda.
The CTU stood up and has shown the way forward. Independent, militant strike action against cuts and concessions can force the government and the politicians in its service to retreat. But it will not be possible to turn back the steamroller of Charter Schools and Race to the Top in just one city. We will need one, two, three, many Chicagos in the immediate period ahead. And this, in turn, will require building reform caucuses nationwide such as CORE in Chicago, MORE in New York City, or Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU) in San Francisco and Massachusetts.
But even this is not enough. In state after state, the legislatures are passing laws enabling the corporate assault on education to move forward and restricting the union's ability to fight back.
There's a reason why Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter praised what he called an "historic" agreement in Chicago that "mayors across the nation will be following." (Under the leadership of Nutter, also a Democrat, Philadelphia has announced plans to close 64 schools over the next five years, in preparation for eventually turning the entire district over to for-profit charter companies.) Nutter understood that for the first time in Chicago, the state law on standardized testing has now been codified in a collective-bargaining agreement.
Stopping and reversing this privatization steamroller will require that the labor movement break its ties of subordination to the Democratic Party and begin to run independent labor-community candidates for school boards, city government, state legislatures and Congress on a Labor Party ticket willing to go head to head with bosses and their twin parties.
This is a key lesson of the Chicago teachers' strike: Labor needs its own political party -- sooner rather than later!