Public school teachers cheer as Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, unseen, arrives unexpectedly to address a rally of thousands of teachers gathered for the second consecutive day outside the Chicago Board of Education district headquarters on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012 in Chicago. Teachers walked off the job Monday for the first time in 25 years over issues that include pay raises, classroom conditions, job security and teacher evaluations. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)
Picket lines can be sordid affairs. When a union is on strike or locked out—like the recent Caterpillar strike in Joliet, Illinois or the Cooper Tire & Rubber lockout in Ohio—the smell of receding worker power can permeate the air. The air in Chicago has none of that. At schools across the city, 29,000 Chicago teachers and education professionals are on strike—demanding both a fair union contract and a radically different vision of school reform than that propagated by nearly the entire nation’s political class. At the largest teachers’ strike in two decades, educators are fired up to fight for wraparound services for students, with more school social workers, counselors and psychologists; a holistic educational environment where all students have access to school libraries, world languages, art, music, physical education; and the preservation of the tenure system—because good teachers are made through experience in the classroom.
The corporate media’s initial dispatches on this fight have been disappointing. Instead of reporting on what the Chicago Teachers Union’s vision for education is (explained quite clearly here), they have instead zeroed in on the CTU’s demand for a 20 percent wage increase (which corresponds to a 20 percent increase in their workweek) and the so-called “personal feud” between CTU President Karen Lewis and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Along these same lines, media reports have emphasized the “dire” fiscal situation of the Chicago public schools—failing to note that the Chicago district spent $25 million on strike contingency plans, that the schools could gain $43 million if the city stopped providing slush funds for wealthy developers or that the state recently gave a $528 million tax break to the owners of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
This strike is the product of twenty years of “education reform” practiced on the backs of Chicago’s students and teachers. As the city witnessed the social destruction that accompanied high-stakes testing and mass school closures in neighborhoods already deprived of resources, a small group of teachers started fighting back against the reform agenda. As education historian Diane Ravitch observes, it was the first movement in the nation “where teachers have stood up to DFER [Democrats for Education Reform], Stand for Children [and] other anti-union, pro-privatization, anti-teacher groups.”
Al Ramirez was one of the co-founders of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE). “I was working on a movie about school closures, and we began posing the question, What do we do about it?” Ramirez’s group started book study groups, hosted public events with education activists and ultimately came to realize that the union was “ineffective at fighting back.” That’s when they began to ask themselves, “What kind of union do we want?”
The answer was a union founded on the principles of member-directed communal action, mutual solidarity and systemic analysis. CORE began having meetings on a consistent basis, including a biweekly potluck at Karen Lewis’s house, as well as doing the kind of organizing against school closures that the old-guard leadership of the CTU simply was not doing. The former CTU president, Marilyn Stewart, failed to appear at meetings where school closure decisions were made.