The New Social Unionism: A History of Chicago's Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators

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On Friday, April 1st, the Chicago Teachers Union is holding a walkout and "day of action" to demand a better contract and protest the state's chronic underfunding of city schools. 

"I guess the important thing to say is we're just very conscious of the fact that we're part of a broader movement that needs to figure out how to fund social services," CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey told the 
Chicago Tribune, "and we're trying to ask people to see April 1 in that broader context." For more on Friday's strike, see Mark Brenner in Labor Notesand Micah Uetricht's interview with CTU executive board member Sarah Chambers in Jacobin

Below, we present an excerpt from Uetricht's Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerityon the history of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), the grouping that took control of the CTU in 2010, and which has been largely responsible for the more militant and effective tactics that have come to define the union in recent years. 

In solidarity with the CTU day of action, Micah Uetricht's "Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity" is 50% off print and 90% off the ebook for today, April 1 (North America only).



When the slate put forward by the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) won the 2010 election for the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), it made few headlines. Some Chicago media covered it, as did a few prescient bloggers, but most ignored it. Stories about labor get short shrift in the mainstream press these days, and stories about internal union battles are almost entirely off the radar. But if local journalists had examined the 2010 CTU leadership election closely they would have realized that, in many ways, a referendum on two starkly different visions of teacher unionism by Chicago’s 26,000 educators had just taken place.

There was the incumbent United Progressive Caucus (UPC), which had little to say about school closures in poor neighborhoods of color, attacks on teachers, and the advance of free market education reform. While its early roots were in rank-and-file racial justice caucuses within the union, by 2010 the UPC leadership had long atrophied. They paid themselves massive salaries and pensions, used expense accounts questionably, and were entrenched enough to fend off challengers. Down from its once-lofty ambitions, the old guard came to represent a stale top-down business unionism. And there was CORE — rooted in an organic communityteacher coalition against school closures, a broad left politics, and an uncompromisingly combative and democratic unionism whose raison d’être was in a perceived need to end union capitulation to neoliberal education reform.

The rise of CORE indicated not only a leftward shift in Chicago teachers unionism but also a rejection of a labor model that mandated progressivism from on high. CORE was born out of rank-and-file struggles against unresponsive, regressive leadership; immediately upon taking power, CORE began working to train its members to lead the way in the union. Without CORE’s victory, the 2012 Chicago teachers strike would never have come to pass and Chicago teachers unionism would not have appeared on the national radar as a model for struggle. In two years, the caucus’s left-wing leadership built on relationships with community organizations that had been years in the making to mobilize in support of its strike. It assembled an incredibly efficient organizing apparatus centered around identifying activist teachers, giving them leadership and organizing training, and having them organize every single teacher in their schools. It formed formal and informal relationships with other organizing campaigns throughout the city, tying the teachers’ visions for education reform to broader campaigns for social justice.

At a time when teachers and their unions find themselves under assault, the story of CORE offers some practical lessons for how teachers can take over their unions to defend public education and how radical democratic unionism of all types can spread.

Chicago is the birthplace of American teacher unionism. The multiple unions that existed in the early 1900s and eventually merged in 1937 to become the CTU were forerunners of teacher unionism throughout the country. The city has also been home to activism by rank-and-file teachers dissatisfied with their union’s leadership on issues ranging from general education reform, to pay and benefits, to racial inequity between white teachers and teachers of color. During the Great Depression, for example, after repeated attempts to engage union leadership to help garner months of back pay owed to Chicago teachers by the Board of Education, high school teacher John M. Fewkes led mass demonstrations through the city’s downtown — which included the ransacking of multiple banks and pitched street battles with teachers hurling textbooks at mounted police. Teachers were soon given the back pay owed them.

In the 1960s, progressive white teachers formed Teachers for Radical Change in Education, emboldened by the radical climate at the time and dissatisfied with the union leadership’s lack of action on racial justice and educational inequity. At the same time, multiple independent African American teacher organizations were formed to pressure leadership to advance a broadly progressive agenda and defend black teachers — they included the Black Teachers Caucus and the Teachers Committee for Quality Education. Among their grievances was the fact that the union refused to campaign for the full certification of “full-time basis substitutes” (FTBs) — an almost entirely black group of teachers who worked for years as substitutes because of the racist tests and evaluations required for full certification. These teachers were junior members of the union without full voting rights; they therefore organized a group called Concerned FTBs. After a 1968 FTB strike, which the CTU leadership had officially opposed and begged Concerned FTBs leaders not to go through with, the CTU eventually prodded the Illinois State Legislature into action to allow a path for FTBs to become regular teachers.

These independent efforts have always terrified union leadership. Men’s Teachers Union President C. L. Vestal wrote in a 1932 letter that “the leaders of the teacher organizations wish to do their part to keep our common boat on an even keel in spite of the storm, but the rank and file are becoming even harder to quiet. . . . They are putting more and more pressure on their leaders to ‘do something.’”

The union thus has a long history of rank-and-file members battling calcified, conservative leadership, pushing them to both represent the best interests of teachers and the communities in which they teach.

The United Progressive Caucus is a study in the tension between the poles of conservative and confrontational, staff/ leadership-led and teacher-led, self-interested and community-centered styles of unionism. It was formed as an amalgamation of several racial justice caucuses in the early 1970s and held power for nearly four decades. Like much of the labor movement, the union under the UPC eventually lost its broad social justice vision but was willing to occasionally use militant tactics to win gains for members: the caucus led the union through five strikes over the course of a decade and a half, including one in 1987 that lasted nineteen days. UPC leadership negotiated some large economic gains for CTU members, particularly under Jacqui Vaughn, who became president in 1984. After Vaughn’s death in 1994, Vice President Tom Reece took her place. Vaughn had what her obituary in the Chicago Tribune referred to as “cult-like adoration” from the union’s membership; Reece, however, was seen as too prone to capitulation to the Board of Education.

Jesse Sharkey, the CTU’s current vice president, who was a high school teacher at the time, saw the UPC leadership negotiate a contract in 1998, a full ten months before it expired, “without so much as a single rally. It was pitiful.” He and other reform-minded unionists were drawn to a reform caucus that would go on to challenge the UPC.

In 2001, the ProActive Chicago Teachers (PACT) caucus unseated the UPC, promising progressive reform. Debbie Lynch, a white elementary school teacher who previously directed the CTU’s Quest Center for teacher development, had run as an oppositionist within the union for years, drawing on the discontent of varied groups of rank and filers. She ran on a platform of ending corruption, increasing the union’s role in training teachers, and restoring bargaining rights over noncompensation issues that had been lost in the 1990s — a kind of liberal reform in a union that had drifted into conservatism and lost ground for its members.

PACT’s election brought a shift from the conservative UPC. But Lynch’s tenure at the helm of the union would be brief, and the 2003 contract fight would seal her fate. She negotiated a contract that, by many accounts, included decent raises but also entailed increases in health-care costs. She sold it, however, not as an imperfect recesssion-era agreement that included some wins and some losses but as a nearly flawless contract; and she attempted to ram approval through the union’s House of Delegates. She hired an outside public relations firm to produce several videos to be shown to the union’s membership, trying to market the contract as a good deal.

“You asked me to bring home the bacon,” Lynch said at the time, in words that almost any CTU activist and staffer can still repeat today, “and we brought home the whole hog.” Members from both outside and within her own caucus disagreed, feeling that they had been sold a bill of goods, and revolted against the proposal, voting overwhelmingly to reject the contract. Lynch, not wanting to face the press and the Board of Education with the news that her membership had attempted to overrule her, tried to ratify the contract despite the house’s disapproval. It was a fiasco; Lynch’s autocratic behavior contrasted sharply with the reform mantle she had claimed. Supporters like Sharkey, who favored democratic reform efforts, left the caucus.

The contract was eventually approved, but Lynch’s fate as president was largely sealed. In addition to the members’ discontent around the contract, she was unable to neutralize the virulently anti-reform efforts of much of her staff, many of whom were members of the UPC and were engaging in what Norine Gutekanst, a teacher and PACT executive board member at the time, referred to as a “sabotage movement within the union.” Just weeks before PACT took over the union, the lame-duck UPC president worked with the union’s staff to form another independent union — one that would protect the staff from firings while it tried to sabotage efforts to reform the union.

“We erred on the side of having open arms,” Gutekanst, a former bilingual education teacher who is now CTU organizing director, said of the unionized staffers. “And we shouldn’t have, because these folks were trying to destroy us.”

“And it was those of us who were on the Left who tended to take those positions,” said Debbie Pope, another former PACT member and current CTU staffer who had taught for several decades.

Lynch, one of the few constant voices of critique of the UPC, had maintained an opposition caucus for several years. But her vision of reform for the union did not entail a radical shift in how the union operated. “Her critique of the old guard wasn’t that it was a service model. She just felt that shecould be more competent, hard-working, and honest than them,” said Sharkey.

“She was a classic liberal reformer — a technocrat,” said Jackson Potter, who became a teacher during the Lynch administration.

She didn’t think she’d have to have a program about union democracy, or engagement of members in entirely different ways, or resistance at the school level, or establishing a culture of solidarity. She thought bringing in ethical people would be enough to engender a cultural change in the union and increase our leverage over the Board of Ed and the corporate forces against us. But that vision wasn’t going to stop this tremendous attack on our profession and on schools.

Without shifting the way the union engaged with its members, introducing a new culture of union democracy and member-led governance and action, and preparing for the inevitable counterattack from the union’s conservative elements, the limits of PACT’s liberal vision were quickly reached and the group was sunk.

In 2004, the year after the contract’s negotiation, the UPC returned to power, with Marilyn Stewart assuming the presidency for the next six years. Like Reece, Stewart failed to capture the imagination of the union’s members and would oversee the negotiation of another particularly unpopular contract in 2007 — one that saw Stewart ask for the yeses at a House of Delegates meeting, then run out of the meeting before the no vote could be called. She then declared to reporters that a contract had been settled and a strike averted, while a crowd of several hundred angry union delegates, including CORE members, chanted “No! No! No!” (with some actually burning physical copies of the contract) outside of Stewart’s press conference.

Amid the chaos, a group of activist teachers who had learned from the failures of the Lynch administration were beginning to get organized.

A former history teacher, Jackson Potter is a slender, bearded man who grew up in Chicago yet somehow gained a mysterious accent that much of the city’s labor movement finds untraceable. He grew up in a family of radical activists, including a leftist Teamster father and an activist lawyer mother. He began teaching in 2002. Soon, he found himself and his students on the receiving end of neoliberal education reform: His school, Englewood High School on the city’s South Side, was facing closure. A union delegate, Potter gave multiple speeches at meetings of the union’s House of Delegates to try to drum up support from the union and its members to fight the school’s closure. The union, however, continued to do little.

After one meeting, Potter was approached by Sharkey — another delegate and a teacher at Senn High — whose school was threatened with conversion into a public military academy. The two had seen each other at past union meetings, and Sharkey wanted to discuss the possibility of collaborating. In 2004, CEO Arne Duncan and Mayor Richard M. Daley introduced Renaissance 2010 to Chicago Public Schools; it was a plan first to shut down and later “turn around” low-performing and underutilized schools by firing all the former staff and converting the majority into charter schools run by private operators. Sharkey began traveling around the city to talk to groups of parents, educators, and other activists to publicize the upending effects that Ren2010’s closures and turnarounds would have on teachers and neighborhood schools.

After Sharkey and Potter continued agitating among the membership and against the leadership around the union’s inaction, the leadership relented, creating a committee to address Ren2010. Both Potter and Sharkey were made members of that committee, along with other teachers at schools targeted for closure. They and a few other like-minded teachers organized education forums on the subject, inviting community members and teachers to attend. They persuaded the union to provide buses and do some basic turnout to give testimony at public hearings and a few small rallies, “but that’s as far as it went,” said Potter.

Unknown to Potter and Sharkey, the union had formed Chicagoans United for Education (CUE), a communitylabor coalition ostensibly to focus on Ren2010 and school closures, and chaired by a union staffer with little power. No one from the union had told either Potter or Sharkey — who were among the members most actively engaged in the very issues the coalition was tasked with addressing — about CUE’s existence. Like many conservative union leaders, CTU staff were likely wary of activist members who might attempt to push the union’s agenda beyond the boundaries narrowly defined by the official leadership. The more union members like Potter and Sharkey pushed, the worse the elected leaders looked — putting them in danger of losing future elections to upstart activists. After those activists agitated to simply be allowed to attend the coalition’s meetings, the union grudgingly let Potter, Sharkey, and another delegate at a closing school, Tony Walden of Bunch Elementary, join the meetings on behalf of the union.

As a result, the three discovered that while the community groups were interested in mounting an effective fight against Ren2010 through rallies, organizing at the neighborhood level, and taking on the district in the press, union leadership was not. “They were more committed to things like a back-to- school concert with [the rapper] Common,” Potter said. Entering into battle with the district over the closures was not a priority; the union seemed to be willing to allow closures and turnarounds to continue unchallenged and did not want CUE to become a body that would begin that kind of battle.

The three immediately began pushing other union representatives in the coalition to take stronger action. Community group representatives said they agreed with the union members — why didn’t the union’s leadership? Seeing the growing dissatisfaction with their leadership within the coalition and fearing that it could be used to fight them, the union dismantled CUE.

The small group of activists left over from the coalition began building on their relationships with community groups throughout the city. The Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, headquartered in a gentrifying African American area of the city’s South Side, sat in on CUE meetings and had long been active in matters of education. They began working with the small group of activist teachers. Potter sat on the board of the Pilsen Alliance, a community organization in a Mexican immigrant neighborhood, and they too became involved. Blocks Together, a community organiza- tion in the Puerto Rican neighborhood of Humboldt Park, Teachers for Social Justice, the policy group Design for Change, and the group Parents United for Responsible Education joined as well. These groups and others had already been organizing community members to show up at hearings about school closures that had been part of Ren2010 and had testified against the closings. The group of dissident teachers and community members pressured the union to act on Ren2010, the school closures, and issues outside of teachers’ pay and benefits that were affecting CPS families.

The coalition grew, but its activities were not enough to save Potter’s South Side school: one day in 2005 Potter walked into Englewood High and saw the union’s Vice President Ted Dallas, who told him the school would be closing and that the union’s hands were tied. “This doesn’t look too good,” Potter recalled Dallas saying. “There’s really not much we can do.”

At that moment, Potter realized that there were no prospects for reform within the current union leadership. It would continue to witness the advance of free market education reform, the closing of schools, and the firing of teachers without mounting a fight.

“This is not a fighting union,” Potter remembered thinking. “There’s not a bone in its body where it’s willing to put itself out there on behalf of its membership or on big public policy issues that affect large swaths of public schools across the city.”

He and other activists would have to create that fighting union themselves.

The impetus to convince others that this was the case would be provided at a union-sponsored press conference in early 2008 with Dal Lawrence, the former president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers. Amid the fight by activists like the still loosely affiliated coalition of rank-and-file teachers and CPS parents — who were working to keep neighborhood schools open, and to prevent hundreds of educators from losing their jobs — the union presented its idea for reform: fire one tenth of the city’s teaching workforce.

“The way to improve schools is to improve teaching,” Potter remembered Lawrence saying in his speech, “and the way to do that is to fire 10 percent of the staff.” Union President Marilyn Stewart nodded approvingly; she supported the plan.

Potter had grown accustomed to union acquiescence in corporate reform efforts, but this proposal left him dumbstruck.

In early 2008, he and a few other educators called a small group of like-minded activist teachers together at the United Electrical Workers hall, west of the city’s downtown, home to the left-wing union whose workers occupied their Republic Windows and Doors factory in protest of layoffs in 2008. Potter and Al Ramirez, another teacher activist, began the night with a tape of the press conference with Lawrence. After the tape ended, Potter addressed the group.

“This is our union’s solution to the problems we face,” he recalled saying. “Do any of you agree with this solution? All these community partners raising hell all these years, and this is how our union wants to deal with this?”

No one disagreed that the union’s response was beyond pitiful, even actively hostile. But some in the gathered group were skeptical about possibilities beyond continued engagement with the union leadership, like forming an opposition caucus to force leadership to the left or vying for power themselves. A few previous members of the Lynch administration were present; a few years earlier they had taken power only to immediately lose it after one term. Others came from socialist political traditions accustomed to “boring from within,” engaging with existing leadership and attempting to push them left rather than mounting open opposition to them.

“My position was, that’s not possible,” Potter said. “These people will destroy our union before we have a chance to make anything happen.”

The teachers who had gathered remained skeptical, but they were intrigued by the prospect of taking the reins of the union. Among the less than a dozen educators present, the idea had been planted.

Since losing his teaching position, Potter had enrolled in a history graduate program where he heard about the annual conference of the Trinational Coalition, a coalition of American, Canadian, and Mexican teachers unions. It was there in 2008 that he first encountered Jinny Sims, president of the British Columbia Teachers Federation. Sims led an illegal strike of 44,000 teachers against a liberal government in British Columbia in 2005; in the face of potential jail time, she and the rest of the union successfully assembled a community coalition to support the teachers and defeat the liberal government’s demands.

The parallels were clear: Chicago teachers, like British Columbian teachers, were facing brutal attacks on their profession and on public education by liberal parties — those who were supposed to be their friends. A pushback against those attacks could be carried out in Chicago in ways similar to how Sims’s union had: by building genuine, deep ties to communities outside the teaching profession.

A few months later, the group invited Sims to come to Chicago to speak to the group of activist teachers, pooling their money to pay for her plane ticket from Canada. Sims met for five hours with a group of about two dozen CTU activists.

“She spelled out a program for how you really engage with and activate members,” Potter said. “She talked about how to take on a moribund political system and a political party that doesn’t really represent the interests of workers and poor folks.”

Potter recalls a story Sims told about her husband insisting that they transfer the title of their house to his name, just before the illegal strike, to ensure that their property would not be seized by the government. She refused, arguing that she would have to take a principled stance to put herself and her husband in harm’s way if they were going to ask the same of their members.

That night they held a forum down the street from the library, at the community center Casa Aztlan, attended by 115 teachers and parents from twenty schools. The forum was put on by a new group who now had given themselves a name: the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, or CORE. The loose affiliation of teachers that Potter, Sharkey, and others had started organizing a few years before was now an official organization.

A pamphlet circulated at the time features a crude rendition, hand-drawn by Potter, of an apple gnawed to its core — projecting less an image of scrappy teachers with fire in their bellies than a group worn down to its bones by nonstop attacks from without. The slogan beneath the apple contained an unfortunate typo: “A union that actually fights its members.”

Graphic design and copyediting shortfalls aside, CORE pushed forward. They began holding regular meetings. They held multiple forums on cuts to public education. They continued building relationships with community organizations fighting school closures. Membership grew into the dozens. They held a study group on Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, which argues that neoliberal reform is pushed by elites during times of political crisis, when the population is disoriented. Potter described the study group as “a light bulb going off”: The teachers realized that “education reform” was being carried out in the same way as other attempts to destroy public goods through the free market throughout the world.

CORE’s membership, and the political consciousness of those members, was growing, but according to Potter, attempting to take leadership was not yet on the agenda.

“We knew that if there was an opportunity, maybe we would figure out a way to do it, but most of us really didn’t have that experience in a big bureaucracy. We were all rank and file who had been activists.”

In late 2008, CORE members had obtained, from CPS’s central office, a leaked list of the schools slated for closure the next year; they then began organizing teachers in those schools to join the caucus and fight the closings. In January 2009, CORE held a massive public forum on education reform in Chicago. In the middle of a blizzard, some five hundred people, including hundreds of teachers whose schools were soon to be closed, attended.

Surveying the widespread anger of teachers at the union’s refusal to fight and CORE’s abilities to mobilize teachers and community members, caucus members realized that they actually might stand a chance at taking the leadership on.

CORE, still regularly attending school closure hearings and giving speeches alongside affected parents, eventually formed the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM). It was a replacement of sorts for CUE, which had been dismantled by the CTU leadership. The caucus functioned as a kind of parallel leadership within the union, taking on the kinds of organizing projects among the union membership and with community members that the union staff was unwilling to support.

CORE had become comfortable with its role as a caucus in open opposition to the UPC’s current leadership, and fully embraced the idea of running against the old guard. They held a nominating convention in August 2009, choosing Karen Lewis as their presidential candidate and Potter as their vice president. (Later, because of challenges led by the UPC over his eligibility to run for union office, Potter would step down, to be replaced by Jesse Sharkey.)

But throughout much of that year, the caucus remained unsure about its ability to actually defeat the incumbents in an election. They would have a practice run in a November pension trustee election — a usually boring race where an incumbent had never, in the history of the CTU, been defeated. On hearing that CORE was to run two candidates in the election, Debbie Lynch told Potter not to waste his time. “Nobody ever wins those. You can do it, but I wouldn’t bother,” he recalled her saying.

Treating the election with utmost seriousness, CORE mounted a real campaign to elect its two candidates, Jay Rehak and Lois Ashford. They began a get-out-the-vote effort and sent out mailers to all union members reading “Vote J-Lo.” Both candidates won.

Shocked, members began looking toward the union’s general election in May 2010. “We’re thinking we can win this,” said Potter.

The other opposition parties don’t think so. They assume their name recognition is enough—that we got lucky in the pension election and we’ll soon implode. When it comes down to the serious question of who’s going to defend their interests, there’s no way [members] are going to pick the inexperienced, radical group.


Still, the leaders of other caucuses recognized CORE’s organizing abilities and sought to siphon off some of their key leaders by adding them to the existing caucuses’ leadership.

“All of these caucus leaders say, ‘We’ll go in a backroom and put together a slate’ ” that includes some CORE candidates, Potter said. “And we say, ‘No. We actually are starting to get lots of members. We might actually be able to beat you.’” What’s more, factional fights that began within the UPC had come to a head in 2008, with some caucus members expelled from the UPC going on to form their own caucus — likely splitting the UPC vote and presenting a new opportunity for the radical challengers.

On January 9, 2010, CORE hosted another mass-education forum, at Malcolm X College, where the caucus made their official announcement: They would run for union leadership in the May election.

In the spring of 2010, CORE began to make its case to the CTU membership. It established a campaign to blanket the city’s schools in order for CORE members to reach out to the rank and file. The UPC had relied on a top-down campaigning model for decades; it entailed simply sending members of a leadership slate to a small number of the nearly 700 schools in the CPS. But CORE created a decentralized field campaign with more than a dozen trained members giving presentations simultaneously throughout the city. The UPC stood little chance of winning against such a campaign, lacking the required trained staff, whereas CORE had many members who were well able to speak to teachers about the caucus.

Recognizing the insurgent caucus’s vastly superior ground game, the UPC actually turned to CPS officials to try to prevent CORE and other caucus challengers from organizing, colluding with principals to stop caucuses from campaigning on school grounds. The union worked hand-in-glove with the administration to maintain its leadership positions, leading to confrontations between principals and CORE activists at schools as well as threats of arrests.

Debbie Lynch, the former CTU president, filed a lawsuit against these practices so that her own caucus, PACT, could campaign. Email correspondence was subpoenaed for the case, which revealed that CTU officials had named CORE activists like Potter in exchanges with CPS to single them out for discipline because of their campaigning. Again, Potter was shocked.

“The fucking union was working with management to displace members!” he remembered. “There was an active collaboration between the union and management to take us down!” The conservative leadership was willing to go to surprising lengths to prevent the radicals from winning.

The lawsuit was successful, ending the prohibition of campaigning on school grounds by caucuses. CORE continued making their case to CTU membership, and on CTU’s election day, May 22, 2010, CORE took 31 percent of the vote to the UPC’s 32 percent, with three other competing caucuses winning the rest. CTU bylaws required an outright majority to win an election, leading to a runoff vote that CORE won handily, taking over 60 percent of the vote. The dissidents had triumphed.

Immediately after she got news of the victory, President-elect Karen Lewis outlined her caucus’s vision.

“Corporate America sees K–12 public education as a $380 billion trust that, up until the last ten or fifteen years, they haven’t had a sizable piece of,” Lewis stated. “Our union...didn’t point out this simple reality: What drives school reform is a singular focus on profit. Not teaching, not learning — profit.” That drive for profit was what the union would directly confront.

“This election shows the unity of 30,000 educators standing strong to put business in its place: out of our schools,” Lewis said.

Upon her election as CTU president, Lewis stated that CORE would “change this into a democratic union responsive to its members.” Restructuring began immediately.

Union leadership sought to activate its members and involve them in its own democratic processes in a far more profound and widespread way than had ever been done before; it also initiated a shift in the way the union interacted with its members. In the past, the union had operated under a “servicing” model, where the union’s staff handled whatever problems teachers faced in the classroom or with an administrator; if the teacher faced no problems, interaction with union staff was unlikely. Now, teachers themselves were going to be carrying out the union’s broad agenda for educational justice.

This was accomplished in part by shifting resources away from representation and toward a new union organizing department, which had never previously existed. And to fund that department and other union projects, staff cut their own salaries and benefits significantly. In years past, union staff’s pay and benefits were far greater than union members’; staff pay would now be pegged to classroom teachers’ pay.

Leadership broadened the rights and responsibilities of members in the governing House of Delegates. Fourteen member-led committees, from political action to media, were tasked with central roles in the union’s day-to-day functioning. A new training program prepared delegates and members for union organizing and governance. The department began a summer organizing internship program that trained several dozen activist teachers to go out to organize their coworkers, many of whom had no prior involvement in their union.

Contract committees made up of activist teachers and delegates were set up at each school, and each committee member was responsible for communicating with 10 other educators face-to-face, including school employees like cafeteria workers, who were members of other unions. Those committees were encouraged to develop their own actions and engage with parents and community members —  a kind of organizing that had never been done in the union previously. Members of the House of Delegates, the union’s representative body of teachers, received training in bread-and-butter issues like contract enforcement but also, beyond the classroom, in how to fight against school closures. The union also made publicly funded corporate subsidies, most notably through the city’s Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) system, a major issue and worked alongside community groups and other unions to expand the CTU’s organizing beyond even educational justice to include the issue of inequality and austerity for poor neighborhoods of color throughout the city. (For an overview of the shifts in the union after CORE took power, see Norine Gutekanst, “How Chicago Teachers Got Organized to Strike,” Labor Notes. For another assessment of CORE, see Rob Bartlett, “Creating a New Model of a Social Union: CORE and the Chicago Teachers Union,” Monthly Review.)

Soon after CORE’s victory, the Board of Education demanded that the union either give up a contractually negotiated pay raise or face layoffs while, around the same time, it was demanding a longer school day, meaning that the board wanted more work for less pay. When the union refused, 1,500 teachers were laid off. The necessity of a strike to beat back the board was becoming clearer, and the union used the layoffs to continue mobilizing members internally.

Charlotte Johnson, a paraprofessional, became an activist in the union when she was recruited by CORE members to the summer internship program, knocking on doors and having conversations in teachers’ homes, and organizing community forums for parents about educational inequality in the city. During her two decades as a parapro, no union official had reached out to her to try to involve her in the union. “I can’t even remember what the president’s name was,” she said, referring to the UPC era. As she became more involved, her view of the union shifted: “I want to empower [other members] to do more on their own, not just to wait around for the union to tell them to do something.”

Brandon Johnson, a middle school history and reading teacher, knew nothing about the union’s internal politics for years. Like many teachers, he was overwhelmed by his responsibilities inside the classroom; although he came from a union family, the CTU was nowhere on his radar.

“When the union doesn’t require you to be active outside of your own issues as a teacher, you don’t know what to demand of your union,” he said.

A colleague who was a CORE member reached out to him in 2010 about that year’s election, encouraging him to vote for the caucus and explaining that CORE would push a kind of teachers’ unionism that dealt with issues beyond the classroom. Johnson was teaching at a school that seemed a potential target for closure, and the union’s potential for fighting the closing soon dawned on him.

“This [CORE] leadership sees itself as a vehicle to stop those closings,” he remembered thinking. The UPC did not. CORE has played a key role in shifting teachers’ consciousness about their roles as educators. For years, Brandon Johnson paid little attention to issues beyond his own group of students and his ability to help a few of them gain admission to selective high schools.

“You get isolated in your classroom, and that causes you to focus on individual students,” Johnson said. “You begin to judge your accomplishments as a teacher by your ability to help a handful of individual students.”

The work of CORE eventually helped him realize that the unionized teachers’ work needed to be collective liberation.

“The previous administration maintained that all we can do is help individual students. To challenge a system that does not provide quality schools for all of its students was not on the table.” With CORE, “it became a collective struggle rather than an individual struggle.”

Since winning control of the union in 2010, CORE has continued its work. Unlike many rank-and-file caucuses that mount successful leadership challenges and then disband after winning — like the briefly successful reform attempts among the Chicago Teamsters in the 2000s — CORE has stayed active, recruited new members, trained new leaders in the internal structures of the union, and discussed and debated the nature of education reform and how to confront it through study groups and book talks. The caucus serves as a space where a radical vision of teacher unionism can be advanced.

“It gives us opportunities to talk more explicitly about the role of people who have left tendencies in the union,” Potter said. “Within CORE, we can be unabashedly clear about those politics.”

CORE members currently hold power within the union, but members who are now leadership and staffers in the union have stepped down from the caucus’s executive board. While union leadership still exerts a strong influence in CORE, formal power has been given to a new layer of leadership.

In many ways, the caucus serves a role similar to the one served by organized left groups during upsurges of radical unionism in the United States, as during the 1930s or 1970s, when leftists played key roles in workplace activism, strikes, and challenges to union leadership. It forms a principled political base that guides the union’s work and serves as a check on union officials. The caucus brought an insurgent leadership into power, but has acted independently of it, mounting criticisms when CORE members felt that it was succumbing to the tendency for union leaders to embrace bureaucracy and top-down governance.

“People saw the potential for going down a path of traditional business unionism,” Potter said. “CORE has served as a corrective during those moments.”

The fight over Senate Bill 7 serves as an example. In 2011, a bill designed to strip the CTU of much of its power was being pushed in the state legislature by the free market reform group Stand for Children, and the union was to be at the table in Springfield, the Illinois capital. It was the first foray for Lewis, the newly elected president, who a few months earlier had been teaching chemistry and contemplating retirement. In fact, much of the entire leadership of the union would be involved in high-stakes negotiations opposite seasoned machine politicians and shrewd, billionaire-funded education reformers.

As Stand for Children CEO Jonah Edelman explained bluntly during a discussion at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June 2011, the bill was designed to severely limit the CTU’s power. It included new rules on teacher layoffs, evaluations, tenure, and other issues that corporate education reformers had long hoped to impose on Chicago’s teachers. But most important, by setting the bar for a strike approval far above a simple majority, the bill’s sponsors aimed to make a teachers’ strike impossible.

“The union cannot strike in Chicago. They will never be able to muster the 75 percent threshold needed to strike,” Edelman smugly stated.

The leadership team sent Lewis to the state capitol with only a union lawyer who had little experience in such negotiations; she went into battle without a large portion of the union’s membership to back her up (largely because the stakes of the bill and the intentions of its backers like Edelman were not fully understood at the time) or significant member input into the terms of the bill. Lewis herself later called the bill’s passage “a steamroll job” by reformers, saying she was bullied by state legislators into accepting their terms of the law. But not knowing the full details of the law and its designed intent, Lewis gave the union’s official endorsement to Illionis Senate Bill 7 (SB7).

When union members in Chicago heard of the bill’s details, many were incensed. Members recognized that the bill was devastating — true to its designers’ intent, among other things, it seemed to make a strike effectively impossible. Rather than uncritically backing the leadership they had just worked for years to elect, CORE members began an internal discussion between the rank and file and union leadership. Sarah Chambers, a Chicago elementary teacher and activist in CORE, remembers the internal discussion in CORE’s steering committee as having been “heated.” After an internal debate that Chambers remembers having lasted for several months, the caucus insisted that the union would need to reopen negotiations on the bill. At a House of Delegates meeting, a CORE member introduced a motion to overturn the union’s endorsement of the bill.

Chambers says Lewis was not defensive about the move. “I am not the union — you guys are the union. You’re saying that we need to remove our name from this, so I’m going to listen to my members,” Chambers recalls Lewis saying. “Other caucuses and other leadership would have never done that.”

Lewis returned to Springfield and reopened negotiations on SB7, where some of the bill’s most draconian provisions were scaled back, including an actual lowering of the strike authorization threshold to 75 percent of union members.

Faced with the potential to go down a path of top-down unionism and uncritical support of leaders, CORE members balanced backing their leadership while ensuring its fealty to its left, bottom-up principles.

Successfully capitalizing on members’ discontent with centrist unionism by mounting a leadership challenge from the left is a monumentally difficult achievement in its own right. If radicals wrest control of their union, they are faced with endless problems of running a massive union bureaucracy, for which years in a factory, hospital, or classroom have not prepared them. The natural impulse for the supporters of such a group is to close ranks around their leaders, against whom attacks from the boss and the reactionary elements within the union never stop. CORE has managed to simultaneously defend and support its leadership in power and to maintain an open environment to criticize that leadership, to ensure it does not succumb to the conservative forces facing any union.

The Rank and File

While CORE activists based their caucus on the lessons of failed attempts to reform the CTU and the objective conditions faced by Chicago educators in the early twenty-first century, they were also drawing from a long lineage of labor radicals who had transformed their unions into militant, democratic organizations — not just through leadership challenges to replace conservative leaders with progressives but through the building of rank-and-file worker power independent of the union bureaucracy.

Adherents to this strategy see the stratum of labor leadership, the “bureaucracy” highly prevalent in American unions, as having its own set of interests separate from those of the union members, leading leadership to often act on behalf of their own interests rather than those of the workers so as to reproduce their power and prestige — and, often, their wealth. Thus it is often necessary for labor radicals to fight both the boss, attempting to extract more and more profit from them, and the union bureaucracy, who will attempt to clamp down on any kind of worker activity that could loosen its grip on power and threaten its privileged position as the “working-class aristocracy.”

Such organizing has often been carried out by socialists throughout American labor history, from the pitched union battles during the Great Depression up to the twenty-first century. In 1934, facing conservative union leadership at the international and local levels, radical Teamsters in Minneapolis organized workers independently of official leadershipto — in the words of socialist leader and rank-and-file organizer Farrell Dobbs — “aim the workers’ fire straight at the employers and catch the union bureaucrats in the middle.” (Some CTU staffers and activists held a study group on Teamster Rebellion, Dobbs’s book, in the lead-up to the 2012 strike.) Eventually the strategy led to not only a string of organizing victories headed by rank-and-file workers but also the Minneapolis general strike of 1934 — an event that never would have come to pass if the dissidents had simply attempted to gain leadership rather than transform their local from the bottom up.

In 1976, members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters formed the reform organization Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). Its aim was to capitalize on rank- and-file anger at corrupt and inept union leadership by posing repeated challenges like no votes on dismal contracts and forming independent worker committees on issues facing long-haul truckers and other members of the union. Nearly two decades after its founding, after years of organizing workers independent of the union bureaucracy, the TDU played a key role — in the first democratic election in the union’s history — in electing Ron Carey as the Teamsters’ international president. This was the election that led to the successful national United Parcel Service strike in 1997 and eventually tipped the balance of power in the AFL-CIO, kicking out Lane Kirkland, its deeply conservative president, in 1995.

Such rank-and-file efforts today are often associated with the organization Labor Notes and have been carried out by everyone from New York City transit workers in the mid- 2000s to New York State nurses today. The key is the recognition of rank-and-file workers themselves as the real movers of reform rather than any individual contender for leadership, no matter how charismatic or politically principled. The CTU is firmly within this tradition of organizing, which helped lead to the overwhelming majority of the union’s membership (79 percent in the 2013 union election) backing CORE’s confrontational, member-led, leftist style of unionism.

The CTU has grown into a dissident, radical caucus of rank-and-file teachers in strong partnership with community organizations; this is the vehicle that brought its signature brand of confrontational unionism into being. But there were no shortcuts to building the kind of fighting union that the CTU has become in the last three years; many of the caucus’s leaders had been fighting this fight for a decade, others far longer. CORE transformed the CTU by educating and agitating teachers about school reform and its place in a broader neoliberal project to dismantle public education, and these now-radicalized rank-and-file teachers would eventually provide the sober vision of what the union was up against—and the kind of confrontational unionism needed to fight it.

At the same time, the union’s left leadership positioned the union as a representative of CPS students and their families. Even parents who weren’t actively involved in union fights knew of the devastating effects that neoliberal education reform had had on their children, including those due to widespread school closures, particularly in poor neighborhoods of color. When the CTU presented itself publicly as an organization actively and uncompromisingly opposed to such reforms — in an explicit way that had not been done by previous union leadership — and made the case for why they hurt students, CPS parents began to back them. In the public battle over who actually represented the interests of poor and working-class schoolchildren, the union won out over the neoliberal education reformers.

Because education reformers are pushing the consensus on education reform to the right by making their case directly to liberals (the traditional backers of teachers unions), effectively splitting those unions apart from the Democratic Party, teachers unions must appeal directly to the American public, on both local and national levels. This must be done not simply through slick public relations campaigns but through genuine partnership with communities. Teachers unions, guided by a vision of education equality and defending education as a public good, should bargain for improved conditions for all students.

While the blame heaped upon teachers unions for the dismal state of much of the urban education system is certainly disingenuous, used as a justification for a project to dismantle public education, it is also true that teachers unions have largely failed the parents of public school students over the years. Too many teachers unions have pursued agendas of self-interest for decades, focusing solely on bread-and-butter issues even at times of great upheaval among communities outside of schools, from 1960s and 1970s-era conflicts in Newark and the Ocean Hill–Brownsville section of Brooklyn to the CTU itself throughout its history.

Where teachers unions could have played key roles alongside community members fighting for better schools, they often remained neutral or actively hostile to activists’ demands, pursuing an agenda that advanced their own interests. The long history of such actions has given the neoliberal reformers a clear opening for attacks.

Teachers unionism without social justice concerns might have been able to survive during the peak of the Keynesian consensus. Now, however, there is a societywide sense that reform requires tacking hard to the right. The only way that collective bargaining in public education can withstand the neoliberal attacks it now faces is to pursue a social movement unionism that genuinely sees its central purposes as fighting for teachers and students and preserving public education as a public good.

Otherwise, parents confronted with crumbling schools and unresponsive bureaucracies will continue to see the free- market reformers as the only ones seeming to be seriously concerned about their children’s education (disingenuous though they may be); the reformers, meanwhile, will have free rein to continue their attacks on teachers unions, likely with parents’ backing.

In short, the only way teachers unions can survive in the twenty-first century is to adopt the kinds of broad social justice concerns — alongside parents, communities, and others — that the CTU has come to stand and fight for.

Excerpted from Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity


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