Creating a New Model of Social Union: CORE and the Chicago Teachers Union

by Robert Bartlett

June 18, 2013

The success of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike in September 2012 was a stunning rebuke to the forces of privatization and corporate education reform. The defeat of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s ambitions to deal a decisive blow against the largest union in Chicago took on national implications precisely due to continued implementation of the school reform model of closing public schools and replacing them with publicly funded but privately run charter schools. Chicago teachers and a majority of the parents of Chicago students fought back against the national basis of this campaign, fronted by Arne Duncan, the former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Obama’s current Secretary of Education, through national programs like Race to the Top.

Three years ago when the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) ran for leadership of the CTU, few would have predicted their ability to turn the union around from six years of do-little leadership into a force capable of taking on a nationally funded, bipartisan “education reform” movement that seemed likely to achieve its goal of weakening and possibly destroying the largest remaining union sector in the United States—public education unions. CORE and the CTU’s success was not due to replacing a weak leadership with a militant one willing to strike, but rather to the creation of a layer of union members in the CTU who saw the struggle as one for what CTU president Karen Lewis calls “the soul of public education.”

I would like to trace the evolution of CORE as a coherent and fundamentally different union leadership that transcended traditional trade-union politics and became the inspiration for a new vision of social unionism. This new model is needed if the union movement is to survive the corporate onslaught, much less expand to champion the needs of the increasingly impoverished working class. Secondly, the articulation of a new type of unionism capable of both mobilizing teachers and reaching out to a community that is underserved by underfunded schools had to be carried out both within the CTU and in the community of parents and students who make up public education in Chicago. There were significant barriers to achieving this melding of trade union demands and the needs of Chicago’s students that had to be overcome during the course of organizing for the strike. A key part of how this was accomplished was by building alliances between the union and the community that involved developing a shared vision of what education should be, and pointing out where it falls short.

Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee

Building CORE out of the Failure of Traditional Union Reform

CORE might not have come into existence, much less risen to lead the third-largest teachers’ union local in the United States, if it were not for the failure of a previous reform group in the CTU, the Pro-Active Chicago Teachers (PACT). PACT in 2001 had ousted the local chapter of the national caucus that controls the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the Progressive Caucus, then led by Sandra Feldman, now led by Randi Weingarten. The United Progressive Caucus (UPC) had an uninterrupted leadership of the Chicago local since the 1960s and was known as the group which had led the CTU in a series of eight strikes, including the last previous strike in 1987. After it, relations between the union and the city became routine, and the UPC settled into a complacency in the face of a steady erosion of teacher rights, exemplified by the 1995 state legislation that eliminated system-wide seniority and limited the ability of the CTU (but not other teachers’ unions in Illinois) to bargain over issues other than wages and benefits. Specifically excluded from the scope of bargaining were matters like class size, staffing, contracting out, and other areas that affect both working conditions and pedagogy.

PACT was founded by Debbie Lynch, who had previously worked in the national AFT, but had left that job to return to Chicago and go back into the classroom. There had been previous opposition candidates to the UPC, coming out of caucuses built around the newspaper Substance, that had received as much as 30 percent of the vote, but whose support was concentrated in the high schools, which tend to be more militant, and the votes for whom were primarily protest votes. PACT capitalized on the weak UPC leadership of Tom Reese, who succeeded the more militant Jacqueline Vaughn after her death. Reese’s lack of charisma and the lackluster leadership of the union in the beginning phases of the corporate agenda led to an opening that the dynamic and articulate Debbie Lynch was able to use to propel her caucus to leadership in the CTU in 2001. The next three years saw some modest improvements in how the union was run, but PACT leadership got bogged down into a consuming factional warfare. But for a bungled attempt to sell a new contract that was initially voted down by members unhappy with the modest wage increases and higher health care premiums, the Lynch leadership might have won reelection, but instead it was narrowly defeated by the UPC in 2004.

The PACT experience was one that a number of the activists who formed CORE went through, and it provided a bitter lesson in the limitations of traditional union reform. One lesson was the severe constraints of the traditional top-down leadership model that Debbie Lynch and most union reformers follow, and the inability to transform PACT into a broad-based caucus that was independent of Lynch. Because those in PACT’s leadership layer who went into the union staff were consumed by the challenges of running the union, the caucus languished and was unable to grow significantly. The radical caucus had a rather traditional role of supporting the elected leaders of their own radical caucus and did not play a role in developing rank-and-file members as leaders who had some responsibility in debating issues and making decisions as to what the policy of the caucus would be—a problem for all insurgent groupings.

A second expression of reform from above was a rhetorical opposition to some of the changes that had been imposed on the CTU, through a strategy of playing an inside game of attempting to lobby for changes, rather than mobilizing the membership. Negotiation of the contract was kept within a small group, and no one outside of the negotiating team knew what was being fought for. When Lynch came out with an agreement that had modest wage gains plus increases in health care premiums, those issues seemed more important to members than broadening the scope of permissive bargaining, which was limited by state laws. A clause in the contract that forced the Board to eliminate a non-tenured category in which teachers were kept indefinitely was an improvement, but the overselling of the contract, as the best that could be gained, allowed the UPC to campaign against it and led to its rejection. The contract fiasco led in large part to the PACT defeat.

A layer of CTU activists had finally changed what they viewed as a corrupt and weak UPC leadership, only to find that the impulse of the “reform from above” movement had been stymied by conservative forces within the union and the lack of a real ability to involve the members in changing the course of the union. People who later played key roles in the formation of CORE left PACT at this time in response to its limitations, and its overwhelming defeat in the subsequent 2007 union elections further disillusioned these activists who saw that PACT had become tainted through its missteps and its inability to transcend the domination of Debbie Lynch. The ground was ripe for a new type of union reform.

The Genesis of CORE

During the six years of UPC rule from 2004 to 2010, the corporate reform agenda began to take hold and gather steam. Corporate groups proposed a plan in 2004 to restructure Chicago schools that was adopted by Mayor Richard M. Daley and became known as Renaissance 2010. It proposed to close low-performing schools and replace them with a mixture of publicly funded and privately run charter schools and a process of “turnaround” schools where the entire staff—from principals through lunch ladies—lose their jobs and are replaced with an entirely new staff. This new staff was often predominantly white and young, with little or no teaching experience. This program was led by CEO Arne Duncan, who himself had no teaching experience, and who was appointed by a school board handpicked by the mayor without any democratic public input.

Under Renaissance 2010 the sector of privately run charters expanded, which siphoned off students from the neighborhood schools, reaching about 10 percent of the CPS student population by 2010. Teachers in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Chicago, with predominantly African-American staffs, began to lose their jobs as their schools were either closed or “turned around.” Jackson Potter, the person most responsible for starting CORE, related the response of the UPC to this burgeoning crisis: in a meeting of the soon to be fired staff at his school, the UPC union leader told the members to “start polishing up their resumes.” That was when he said that he knew another caucus had to be formed. Shortly thereafter, in 2008, he invited a small group of teachers he knew to a meeting to start what became CORE.

One of the early CORE activities that influenced the future direction of the caucus was the visit of British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF) leader Jinny Sims to speak at a forum. Her talk about how the BCTF organized province-wide to bring their issues to the public and involve their entire membership in a contract campaign that culminated in an illegal strike, and their work against standardized-testing encroachment provided a concrete model from which CORE could learn. The BCTF program of member education and involvement in the process of educating the public over their issues in a conservative province was influential in shaping the future activities of CORE. The initial group ranged from teachers in their twenties to people in their fifties, including socially conscious teachers attracted to groups like Teachers for Social Justice; former PACT members; and members of socialist groups like the International Socialist Organization, Solidarity, and the Progressive Labor Party, as well as unaffiliated radicals. This group discussed the global nature of the changes that were threatening public education and began to form a coherent vision of the scope and nature of these threats and to talk about what was needed effectively to counter this new manifestation of global capitalism. A shared vision of the source of the problem or the weaknesses of the current union leadership was not a program or a plan, however. That remained to be developed through a series of shared experiences confronting the forces of school reform.

People who wanted to fight back against the encroaching privatization began to be attracted to CORE, which started a series of audacious actions against school closings. When a school was targeted for closing or turnaround, CORE members went to the school and met the teachers and parents who wanted to fight the closings and did whatever they could to help build a resistance in that community. This ranged from leafleting at the school to camping out overnight in front of the Board of Education in January or in front of schools with parents. Kristine Mayle, who later became the financial secretary of the CTU, met and joined CORE when they visited her school after it was put on the list to be closed.

Most teachers threatened with losing their jobs do not automatically respond by trying to fight back, but a critical layer started going to school board meetings, bringing with them parents and teachers from the affected schools, as well as community organizations that were also opposed to board policies, to testify at board meetings and become a public opposition to privatization. This involved a considerable commitment of time, since any members of the public who wanted to testify at the school board meeting (which was held during school hours) had to arrive at the board headquarters by 6 AM to be in line to sign up for their two minutes in front of the board.

This increasingly public activity was very different from traditional union oppositions, which often limit their activities to internally voiced critiques of the current leadership. In addition to bringing the issue of school closings up in monthly CTU House of Delegates meetings, CORE began to function as a dual leadership within the union. The inability of the faction-ridden UPC leadership to propose effective action opened the door for CORE to begin to mobilize other CTU members and, most importantly, to begin to forge links to community organizations that were also opposed to the shuttering of schools in their neighborhoods. In the mid–2000s, years before CORE formed, some of its leaders had developed links with community groups who were fighting gentrification and the destruction of schools in response to Chicago’s Plan for Transformation in Chicago’s Mid-South area. Groups like the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) and Action Now began collaborating with CORE and formed the basis of the broadening of ties to other community organizations. This period of organization and actions against the board policies attracted more people to CORE, as the UPC leadership continued to abstain from any consistent resistance to the privatization movement and refused to try mobilizing the membership.

This growth would most likely have continued, but an internal crisis within the UPC that led to the expulsion of union Vice President Ted Dallas over charges of financial improprieties forced CORE to consider running for office. By the time of the union election in 2010, five groups were contending in the campaign, and no group won a majority in the first round. Interestingly, the campaign itself provided an opportunity to widen the mobilization of the union. When the UPC adopted a CORE proposal to hold a rally of union members in downtown Chicago, weeks before the election, it became a spirited and militant march of several thousand members to the Board of Education headquarters. Flatfooted and slow to respond to the changed climate in Chicago, the UPC lost to an increasingly confident CORE by a 60 percent to 40 percent vote in a runoff. However, despite CORE’s vision and growing involvement in activities to defend public education, its victory was due more to the memberships’ willingness to try a new path to confront the attacks on them and the demonstrated lack of capacity of the previous leadership to effectively oppose the corporate led attack.

Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee

CORE came into office with a dedicated and talented group of members and officers, but these lacked experience in running a union, which led one television commentator, Walter Jacobsen, to opine that the city leaders were waiting to “feast on the rookies.” Despite their lack of experience in running a union, one key difference in the group of people now elected to office was that, instead of having a caucus built around a dominant personality, there was a group of people who had worked together to form the caucus and develop its program. This group was not focused on the struggle to gain power within the union, but to oppose the attacks on public education and the union. Jackson Potter, on the evening when the election votes were counted and it was clear that CORE had won, memorably stated that they would have to go on strike when the current contract expired—a daunting challenge in a union that had not struck in over twenty years.

The course of the last ten years of attacks on teachers and education had led to the growth of a talented and farsighted team of people leading the radical caucus and now the union. This leadership was forged through their history of open meetings, spirited debate and discussion over their plans, and was selected on the basis of both their participation in previous actions and their articulation of a program of involving the members and the community they serve in a common struggle. One symbolic representation of this was that radical caucus members would stand behind and together with their representatives in the early days of going to testify at board meanings—in order to provide a show of unity. Now the challenge of running a union determined to fight the attacks on public education began.

Changing the Culture of the Union

One important symbolic change that was instituted was a reduction in the salaries of teachers who took union jobs. Traditionally, union officers and staffers were paid salaries that were far more than that of a classroom teacher. Under CORE, staff salaries would be tied to the lane and step system of classroom teachers, and they would be paid based upon the twelve-month calendar of the union contract. This freed up a significant amount of money that could be used to hire more staff to further the organizing plans of the new leadership, and sent a signal to the membership that it was not going to be business as usual.

One of the first tasks was to change the union from a service model. The main task of the leadership and office staff in this model is to process grievances, defend the contract, and represent the membership. CORE had a different model in mind when they decided to put forward an “organizing model.” It was beyond the ability of a small staff to take on the national forces that were propelling the growth of charters, led by hedge-fund billionaires, groups like the Gates and Walton Foundations, and supported by an aggressive push on the part of the Obama administration through programs like Race to the Top. A mass movement was needed to stand up to this attack. The union membership had to be fully involved in all aspects of the unfolding campaign, and able to articulate the vision of a quality education to parents and community members. It could not just respond to calls to attend a demonstration if a successful contract were to be negotiated.

Structural changes in the CTU included the creation of an organizing department that was responsible for internal organization of the membership and developing ties to the community organizations and parents who were the natural allies of teachers. The shift of resources from the grievance department to organizers who spent more of their time in the schools and community than in the office was no symbolic move; it was integral to the fight that loomed in two years when the contract expired. With 600 schools spread across the city, the small grievance department was stretched to be able to adequately cover them all.

The early days of running the union brought immediate challenges, as the Board of Education tested the union by demanding that they forego a contracted pay raise or face layoffs of members. CTU refused, and the board responded by firing 1,500 teachers. While this was challenged legally, it was also used as an opportunity to continue the mobilization that had marked the end of the election campaign. As the union responded to school closings and the firings of members, it faced a relentless propaganda campaign designed to paint teachers as the villains, legislation designed to both weaken the union and make it impossible to strike, and the election of an aggressive new mayor. It also began to form a plan to prepare for the contract expiration in two years. Along with waging defensive struggles, the new leadership had to prepare the membership for the likelihood of a strike. This involved internal organizing, broadening ties with community and other groups, and beginning to take on the forces that were leading privatization and denying the schools needed resources through, among other things, projecting an alternative vision of what education should be for Chicago’s children.

The internal organizing had a goal of setting up action committees in every school, with committee members responsible for staying in touch with around ten other employees each; these were not just teachers but also members of other unions. Internal trainings of union delegates helped them to become more effective through workshops on contract enforcement. Assessments of the weaknesses in buildings (i.e., individual schools) gave a sense of how prepared the membership was to strike. Regional meetings were held, open to all members, to listen to the union message and express opinions. Organized phone-banking was used to talk to targeted groups within the union—describing actions taken by the board, projecting a vision of how the union could organize to win, and determining the strike readiness of the membership.

Photo: Isaac Steiner

Relationships were built with other groups like Stand Up Chicago, a coalition of unions, community groups, and others, whose bold actions targeting corporations like Bank of America, the Chicago Board of Trade, and the Hyatt Hotels highlighted how money was diverted from the city budget through the use of Tax Increment Financing zones (TIF’s) and given to wealthy and profitable corporations. One protest brought several hundred people to a luxury car dealership that was the recipient of TIF funds; the crowd entered the showroom and disrupted their business, demanding the return of the TIF money. Similar actions were directed at Bank of America branches throughout the city and outside the Mercantile Exchange and Hyatt hotels. These corporate targets were chosen because they were being “gifted” public tax money while schools were being starved. These actions began to raise public awareness that the supposed shortage of money was being aggravated by the siphoning off of tax revenues into a “slush fund” under the control of the mayor. This theme was continually brought up, forming a counter-narrative; it was picked up by sympathetic journalists, putting the backers of corporate reform on the defensive. These actions were not universally embraced within the CTU, but their success overcame the hesitancy of those who were uncomfortable about the propriety of the tactic, and allowed the issues to be framed more broadly than just one of an underfunded school system having to make cuts. The use of issues like these began to get at the base of the inequalities in the city, particularly between the wealthy elites and the black and brown communities that suffer the greatest lack of resources.

Something whose importance cannot be overstated was the alternative vision for education in Chicago that the union articulated in their report The Schools Chicago’s Children Deserve. At a time when the mayor was beating the union and the public over the head with the assertion that Chicago students got the equivalent of two or three years less time in school than students in other cities, a critique of the nature of education given the children in Chicago had to be developed to counter the simplistic claim that the amount of time in school determined the quality of instruction. The facts that over 150 schools in the mostly poor neighborhoods were without libraries, the curriculum was increasingly dominated by test prep, and the testing of students was taking large amounts of time away from learning were stressed to show how the needs of students were not being served by the current policies of the Board. In elementary schools, multiple tests are given three or four times a year, often requiring a teacher to test each individual student, eating up weeks of class time. Counterposing this testing regime to one with a rich curriculum with art, music, and physical education was another way to show how the students of Chicago were being ill-served. The report reinforced the generally positive views that parents have of their children’s teachers as caring educators.

Winning the Support of Parents and the Strike

What ultimately won the teachers’ strike in Chicago was the support of parents. Polls taken during the strike showed that 66 percent of the parents supported the union, and anyone who spent any time on a picket line or in the massive demonstrations that happened in the afternoons of the first week of the strike knows how wearing CTU red T-shirts brought spontaneous declarations of support with people saying they “hoped you got what you wanted.” One retired teacher said he had to stop wearing his red T-shirt because when he went to the store so many people talked to him it took him too long to shop!

To even get to the point of being able to strike, the union had to overcome anti-teacher legislation that required the CTU to get 75 percent of the entire membership to vote in favor of a strike, not just a majority of those voting—a requirement that Jonah Edelman, the CEO of the group Chicago teachers like to call “Stand on Children,” publicly proclaimed would effectively prevent them from striking. This legislation specifically singled out Chicago for this requirement at the behest of Mayor Emanuel, who through the bill also got the power to unilaterally impose a longer school day. This put tremendous pressure on the union to prepare the membership to muster the votes and prepare the public for the prospect of a strike.

The union structured a large bargaining team, which represented the broad demographic of union membership—elementary and high schools, regular and special education teachers, Paraprofessionals and School-Related Personnel (PSRP), and other non-certified staff; there were representatives across lines of race and ethnicity, seniority, and from all caucuses within the union. This expanded the number of people who understood and debated the issues that were being bargained over and the counterposed positions of Board, and also made it harder for political opponents of CORE to oppose the contract from the outside.

In many ways the deck was stacked against the union: there was an undemocratic 75 percent strike vote hurdle, the unilateral power of the mayor to impose a longer school day, limitations on the subjects about which the union could bargain, and a “fact-finding” process designed to rule against the union. As negotiations continued, the mayor was able to get IFT Local 1600, that represents Cook County College faculty, to agree to an early contract that specifically agreed to merit pay. The building trade-dominated Chicago Federation of Labor kept a hands-off attitude, hoping to avoid angering the mayor and jeopardizing projects that benefit the trades. All these steps were designed to isolate the union within the city so that a longer school day could be imposed without a corresponding increase in wages and a system of “merit” pay could substitute for the current “step and lane” method of salary increases.

Tactically, the union had to negotiate a complicated timeline of negotiations, a declaration of an intention to strike, a fact-finding period, and the actual strike vote. Within the union a series of carefully escalating actions were put in place, starting with a practice member poll, and culminating in a mass rally on May 23, 2012 of 7,000 teachers that greeted CTU President Karen Lewis with chants of “Strike! Strike!” A sea of red-clad teachers marched through downtown Chicago during rush hour and met with a contingent of supporters organized by Stand Up Chicago at the Board of Trade. The union members had united and were ready to do whatever was necessary to defend public education and their unions. Shortly after the May 23 rally, a date for a strike vote was set in early June. Over the course of three days, 90 percent of the entire union membership, and 98 percent of those voting, approved a strike, destroying the 75 percent threshold.

Photo: Howard Heath

To win the support of parents, the CTU and teachers articulated demands centered on providing a “world-class” education to their students. They said that the reforms that were being pushed by the mayor and his Board of Education had more to do with maintaining a racist system of educational apartheid in which resources were denied to neighborhood schools of predominately African-American and Latino students and shifted to elite magnet schools, while charters were proposed to replace the low-performing neighborhood schools. This willingness openly to state the reality that many black and Latino parents face in underfunded and overcrowded schools, and ally with those same communities to advocate for real educational reform, ultimately was decisive in bringing the overwhelming support of the parents to the side of the union. This support was strongest in black and brown communities, but significant groups of white parents—the 19th Ward parents, Raise Your Hand, and Parents 4 Teachers—were very visible in protesting the Board of Education and the mayor’s policies and supporting teachers.

The details of the union’s strategy during the strike that focused the determination of the teachers into large public manifestations and brought the issues back to the community deserves a separate treatment, along with the details of the contract in the context of the initial Board demands. This is beyond the scope of this article. However, a clear victory was won in Chicago and the movement to force concessions on teachers’ unions was blunted, but not defeated. The example of the mobilization of the membership and the linking of union and community demands has clearly given beleaguered unions in other sectors and cities a model to try to emulate. This should be encouraged, but it is not a gimmick or a shortcut to return strength to a weakened union movement.

Those wanting to learn from the Chicago example should focus on the genuine alliance that is being built between unions and the community members they serve, based upon shared values and a commitment to fight together for reforms that benefit the larger community. That was possible due to the political vision and commitment of the CORE leadership, which was able to articulate the desire of CTU members to improve the education and lives of the children they teach, and spend the time building ties with the parents and organizations in the community that shared a similar desire.

If other unions want to replicate the success in Chicago, they will have to go through a transformation in how they function internally to build real union democracy. They will have to see their struggle as one focused on building a movement to transcend their own particular demands and needs—one that aspires to fight for social justice for all. Issues like the minimum wage, racism, health care, immigration, and foreclosures need to be as important to unions as the grievance procedure. The CTU remains in a fight against very powerful adversaries and is under pressure that will make it difficult to continue to develop its own internal democracy and the political involvement of its members. Its fight represents a new type of social unionism, which is not yet fully formed—but the outlines of which are there for others to build upon.

Robert Bartlett is a high school teacher and was active in the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign preceding and during the strike. He is also a member of the Chicago branch of Solidarity. This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Monthly Review.

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2 responses to “Creating a New Model of Social Union: CORE and the Chicago Teachers Union”

  1. Elizabeth Tedeschi Avatar
    Elizabeth Tedeschi

    Closing down a school is not a solution. I got angry when I read it. The giant gathering proves how much they are concerned.

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