Teachers, parents and community activists rally on Chicago’s West Side Saturday against school closings. (Sarah Jane Rhee, loveandstrugglephotos.com)
Internal union elections are unlikely to capture much attention, especially at a time when media coverage of labor borders on nonexistent. But the results of a recent election in the Chicago Teachers Union should interest those who care about the future of public education, as they suggest that progressive teacher unionism in Chicago is here to stay for at least the next few years—and may spread among teachers around the country.
The Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE), the group headed by Karen Lewis at the helm of the CTU that led 30,000 teachers, paraprofessionals and clinicians out on strike last September, was re-elected Friday by an overwhelming majority. Eighty percent of the union’s voting members opted for the CORE slate, with the remaining 20 percent voting for the opposition, the Coalition to Save Our Union.
The election was remarkable not because of the personalities chosen to lead the union once again but for the vision of unionism Chicago teachers embraced. At a time when teachers and their unions are under attack nationally, the vote was an endorsement of the CTU’s brand of democratic, progressive teacher unionism that sees itself as a central piece of a larger movement—alongside community members and students—for educational justice.
It’s a vision that has always existed among American teachers unions, but has long been a minority position. The Chicago Teachers Union leadership, now looking forward to another three years in charge of the country’s third-largest educators’ union, hopes to see that vision expand across the country in the near future.
The competing groups that vied for power in the union largely mirror the choice teachers unions nationally face around whether their unions will be democratically led by members and social justice-oriented, or led by paid staff to improve teachers’ working lives alone.
CORE promised union members a democratic, progressive union, whose power would continue to come from the members themselves, that isn’t afraid to take to the streets and strike if necessary and that works to create a broader movement for educational justice, to as Karen Lewis put it in The Nation in March, “fight for the whole society.”
The opposition Coalition based their challenge on the perception of teacher dissatisfaction with worsening compensation and teaching conditions. Lewis’s caucus, they argued, spent too much time in the streets and too many resources organizing. Teachers principally want their monthly dues payments to be used to advance their self-interests, the Coalition argued, not build a movement.
“[CORE’s] platform is larger than the CTU,” the coalition’s presidential candidate Tanya Wolffe-Saunders told me before the polls closed Friday. While she thinks such a focus is important, “We want to make sure the union returns to the teachers’ needs.” Citing past union contracts’ wage gains, Wolffe-Saunders says, “We had four percent raises that we got every year. Last year, we didn’t get our 4 percent raise.”