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Reflections from Chicago: What Kind of Union Do We Need?

By Al Leisinger, Mathematics, NTT Grievance Officer


The Chicago Teachers’ Strike this fall was a signal that we don’t have to lie down and take the attacks on public education that have come down from both Democratic and Republican administrations.  Of the more than 26,000 CTU members who went on strike, just 20 crossed the picket line.

On Tuesday, October 16, Carol Caref, who heads the CTU’s professional development center, gave a wonderful, thought-provoking talk at UMass Boston.  She spoke about how, until 2010, the CTU was controlled by a leadership that did “business as usual.”  She termed this kind of union a “grievance union.” In the past two decades, scores of the city’s public schools have been closed or handed over to private operators, while 100 new charter schools, staffed predominantly by non-union teachers, have opened. Significantly, these school closings began under Obama’s current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, former “CEO” of the Chicago school system. Caref explained that while schools in poor and black neighborhoods were being closed down, more schools were opened  in wealthier areas of Chicago.  Still, the union merely filed grievances as usual. 

Nor do teachers in Chicago have so-called excess” rights.  In the Boston Public Schools, for example, a teacher in good standing, who loses his or her job because of administrative changes, joins an “excess pool” giving the teacher rights to any open job posting within his/her specialty throughout the city. In Chicago, teachers who worked at schools slated for closure were out of a job, and had no more access to a job posting than anyone from outside the system. As a result, the composition of Chicago’s teaching force has been transformed since the advent of “education reform.” In 1995 45% of the city’s teachers were African American—today that number is just 19%. A handful of teachers, including Ms. Caref and current CTU president Karen Lewis, formed a caucus within the union to fight school closings.  They reached out to parents and students with the idea that only a unified movement of teachers, parents and students could win a fight for better schools, and began organizing demonstrations against the closures.  The teachers also took on the task of winning leadership of the CTU, by doing as a caucus what the old CTU leadership had refused to do: connect the struggle for better teaching conditions with the fight for a decent education for all students. Furthermore, the caucus spoke openly about racism as a theme in the privatization plans of Mayor Emanuel’s administration.

On June 11, 2010, the caucus was elected into leadership of the CTU. They organized a collective base of support, by means of actions, small and large, that demonstrated unity.  As they bargained over their contract, they faced open hostility from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former Chief of Staff for President Obama.  Ms. Caref termed Mayor Emanuel “the gift that just keeps giving.” By this she meant, that after every attack by the Mayor, the union went back and organized more broadly and deeply.

With negotiations stalled, union leaders began building for a strike, a process that took two years of preparation. Here’s an example of one successful tactic. In a small but obvious sign of solidarity, teachers were encouraged to wear red, the color of the CTU, on Fridays. Teachers, under attack, and facing a the imposition of an evaluation system they opposed, began to see the potential of mass action as a reality.  There had been no strike by Chicago teachers for 25 years. 

The CTU set up a contact person and an active organizing committee in every school.  They tried to involve every teacher in the mobilizations, discussions, decisions, and actions before the strike. Ultimately 90% of the entire membership, and 99% of those voting, voted to strike. The State of Illinois had passed a law that, in order to strike, a public teachers’ union needed 78% of the ENTIRE MEMBERSHIP to vote in favor.  (The proponents of the law, wanting to attack all the public sector unions, figured that to be an impossibility.) 

The strike was a difficult battle.  By strength and unity, the CTU won a temporary victory, winning concessions on the teacher evaluation procedure, and some rights for excessed teachers, and held the line on class size. (To see the CTU pamphlet, “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve,” which was widely disseminated to parents and students, visit In these times, we have to fight as hard as we can just to win a little bit.  The CTU is now preparing for future battles. But the lessons of this historic strike should be learned by all of us.

For example, the Massachusetts Teachers Association leadership, and the Boston Teachers Union leaders, like the old CTU leaders, operate as “grievance unions.” We face attacks on public K-12 and post-secondary education in our state, as well as nationally.  Could we turn the 1.3-million member NEA and our Massachusetts affiliate, the MTA, into the kind of union that the CTU has become?  I think we can. Send comments to