The Chicago Teachers’ Strike and Beyond: Strategic Considerations
by David Kaplan
June 21, 2013
Last September’s Chicago teachers’ strike raises critical strategic questions for all progressives and socialists seeking to resist the relentless neoliberal austerity attacks against working people and their communities. For teachers and union activists generally, it was a long-awaited event. Finally, a teachers’ union had the courage to take a stand against the corporate education agenda to privatize and dismantle urban public school systems emanating from President Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and being implemented today by virtually every big city mayor across the country; in this case Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, one of the nation’s most powerful politicians. In its counterattack, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) organized and mobilized its teacher base, and actively involved parents, students, and non-profit community-based organizations. It made the improvement of education a central goal, thereby thwarting Emanuel’s attempt to isolate the CTU as just another “self-interested” union. The CTU inspired militant actions across the country, most recently the teacher boycott of high-stakes standardized testing in Seattle, Washington.
At the same time, it must be frankly recognized that the CTU’s contract campaign, which culminated in the seven day strike, fell short of achieving its ambitious goals at the contract table. In particular, it was unable to: significantly slow the mayor’s crusade to close scores of schools; halt district funding for mostly non-union, privately run charter schools; stop the lengthening of the school day and year without adequate employee compensation; or prevent the establishment of a teacher evaluation system based to an important degree on unreliable student scores on standardized tests.
Teachers, students, and community members surround Chicago City Hall in a demonstration to stop school closings on May 20, 2013. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
These less-than-optimal results deserve serious analysis, especially in light of the local’s herculean efforts to transform CTU from a classic, conservative business union to a progressive, even radical, organizing union. Could the strike have achieved more if other strategic choices had been made? Were some demands simply unwinnable? While this article will not attempt decisively to answer these questions, it will suggest a strategic orientation for future teachers’ union struggles that builds upon lessons learned from the Chicago strike—one that ultimately argues for thoroughgoing class-wide organizing to amass the power necessary to stand up to what is in effect a nationally coordinated campaign on the part of the corporations and the state to undermine public education. Here the point of departure must be an analysis of the strengths and limitations of the Chicago teachers’ struggle.
CTU, CORE, and the Rank-and-File Strategy
The Chicago teachers’ strike would not have been possible were it not for the victory of the rank-and-file group, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), in the 2010 CTU elections. Forged in the struggle against school closings primarily in low-income communities of color, CORE ran against a corrupt and divided old guard on a platform calling for building an organizing union, based on alliances with parents and the community, and promoting an authentic vision of educational reform that included lower class size, an enriched curriculum, wraparound social services at schools in low-income communities, and increased funding.
CORE directly counterposed its vision to the corporate-driven “deform” touted by Mayor Emanuel, who advocated using student scores on standardized tests as a weapon to evaluate and compensate teachers (merit pay), closing public schools (with the rationale that they have failed to prepare their students to succeed on the standardized tests), opening more privately run, mostly non-union charter schools, and restricting or eliminating seniority in cases of layoffs. CORE opposed privatizing and charterizing, calling instead for investing resources into existing neighborhood schools. The strike—with its mass participation by teachers, parents, and community around a visionary program for school change—was a dramatic rejection of that program. It was in a very real sense a political strike, borne of a rank-and-file caucus and movement with its own alternative program.
Striking CTU members rally at John Marshall Metro High School. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
CORE’s political evolution represents a radical departure from and an improvement on the strategies that have guided rank-and-file and left union militants since the 1970s. Most union oppositionists in the past forty years have eschewed organizing the rank and file so as to transform bureaucratic unions into instruments of struggle. On the contrary, they have accepted the structure of employer-union relations as a given—with all the legal, political, and economic constraints involved—and sought simply to win union office, whether as individuals or as a slate, to govern the union better. Not surprisingly, little was generally accomplished even when such oppositionists were victorious, for the relationship of forces between the employers and the workers remained unchanged.
A minority of union activists were guided by a rank-and-file perspective, or, some would say, strategy, based on the following basic precepts:
The labor bureaucracy of full-time officials, from local officers on up, constitutes a separate and distinct layer between the working class and the employers, with its own distinctive socioeconomic interests to preserve the union (its apparatus, treasury, etc.) and to ultimately avoid taking risks, above all leading mass struggles against the employers that might jeopardize the institution.
While seeking to avoid confrontations with the employer so as to preserve the union as an institution, the bureaucracy privileges the strategies of top-down collective bargaining, the electoral road via the Democratic Party, and corporatist tripartite government-employer-union regulation of the economy as a substitute for organizing the rank and file.
Consequently, the rank and file can never depend on the union officials to initiate and carry through struggles and must therefore organize itself independently of those officials—through caucuses, shop floor newsletters, job actions, etc.—to impel the officials to fight the employer. Only when sufficient rank-and-file power has been achieved is the organized rank and file in a position to take office and transform the union, breaking it from reformist methods, eschewing the courts and government mediation, and relying instead on direct militant action and class-based alliances.
In practice, however, even this layer of activists has, for the most part, failed to fully implement this strategy, choosing instead to look for substitutes—uncritically backing “good” second-level officials or merely trying to elect better leaders. Even where the strategy has been attempted, it usually emphasized union democracy and militancy alone, neglecting the need to widen the struggle. Typically, the fight around the contract and union elections became the twin pillars of the strategy on the ground, without linking demands to the needs of the broader working class. This parochialism was also expressed in the lack of communication and coordination between rank-and-file groupings in different (or even the same) industries.
Under today’s conditions of continuing economic crisis, in which the entire working class faces a multi-faceted assault on its living standards, this approach is clearly inadequate. Whether it takes the form of attacks on public workers’ pensions and bargaining rights, on private sector workers’ health care benefits, or education and other social programs that primarily serve working-class people, this assault must be met by broader, more political, forms of militancy to address successively the attacks that we face.
The CTU leadership is among the first union leaderships in many years to understand that the broad nature of the assault against teachers and the communities they serve requires broader forms of struggle, in terms of demands, tactics, and support—in other words, to wage broad class struggle as opposed to narrow, sectoral struggle, to take on the employers. This was why the union focused on quality education, especially for students most in need; why it took strike action to dramatize those demands; and why it sought building alliances with parents and the community to create the power to realize those demands.
The move towards class-struggle unionism is the first, and most important, lesson of the Chicago teachers’ strike. In taking this direction, the CTU strike began to change the national conversation about school reform, much as Occupy changed the national conversation about class inequality and corporate domination of politics and the economy.
Challenges of Local Union Struggles
A second lesson of the Chicago teachers’ strike is the reverse side of the same coin. Today, local union struggles—even if organized, militant, and publicly supported—will remain defensive in nature and make at best limited gains, unless they are able decisively to break from the traditional parameters of local collective bargaining. Despite nearly unanimous member participation and broad parent/community support, the results at the bargaining table in Chicago were less than dramatic, and even disappointing to many union activists, even though the contract was eventually ratified by almost 80 percent of those voting. Despite some significant concessions made to the union, the mayor’s priorities remained intact—especially a longer school day and year, teacher evaluations based on student test scores, the projected closure of many schools, and the continued funding of charter schools.
Why this was so deserves serious examination. Such a critical discussion must avoid two seemingly opposite, but actually parallel, pitfalls: first, the tendency to cheer on the CTU leadership without addressing, much less evaluating, the actual challenges it faced and continues to face; and second, the tendency to attack the leadership for the limitations of the contract without taking into account the many complexities and constraints involved. As someone who followed the struggle from the “outside” (while communicating with several participants), and as someone who enthusiastically supports CORE and the CTU leadership, I raise these strategic concerns coming out of the CTU strike not so much as criticisms but as issues that need to be discussed and debated within an emerging national rank-and-file teachers’ union movement. Neither uncritical cheerleading or decontextualized attacks allow us to do this.
Perhaps the best place to start is to look at the reasons for the gap between the anti-corporate, student-centered vision advanced by the CTU backed up by mass action in the streets, and the limited results at the bargaining table—results that CTU President Karen Lewis herself publicly acknowledged were insufficient. The explanation for this striking divergence can best be found in the CTU strike strategy. It appears that the union’s leadership believed it had two choices. Either it could conduct a relatively short strike over a limited, traditional set of bargaining demands, or it could conduct a more protracted, potentially riskier strike over key, but harder-to-win, non-contractual demands such as lowering class size, stopping school closings, and challenging the district’s financial support of charter schools. The first would achieve less at the table, but entail less risk. The second could potentially achieve considerably more at the table, but at a much greater cost to the membership—in terms of lost pay and possible fines, as well as arrests if the district was able to get a court injunction and the union defied it—and much greater risk of defeat. This deserves more explanation.
The CTU, through its organizing, community outreach, and campaign rhetoric, had boldly taken on the corporate agenda, demanding that the district lower class size, eliminate high stakes standardized testing, stop the growth of charter schools, stop school closings, and establish wraparound services at schools. However, all these demands are legally extra-contractual, meaning that the district was not required to negotiate with the CTU on any of them. By state law, class size is only a permissive subject of bargaining, while the Chicago Board of Education has legal purview over the other issues as a matter of “management rights.”
Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee
To its credit, the CTU made concerted efforts to push some of these extra-contractual demands, which helped flip the mayor’s attempt to paint the union as only interested in salaries and benefits. Before the start of the school year and before the strike began, the local was able to negotiate the hiring of 600 enrichment teachers (i.e., art, music, and world language) as part of an agreement to lengthen the school day with only a modest increase in the working day for classroom teachers. The local also raised the issue of class size publicly, including organizing an action with a coalition of community-based organizations dramatizing overcrowded classrooms and demanding more funding for lower class sizes.
But for the CTU to have incorporated and prioritized such non-contractual demands in the run up to the strike would have exposed the union to a likely court injunction, risking fines and arrests if the local chose to defy it. Even without a campaign around class size and school closings, an injunction was likely had the strike gone beyond seven days, as Emanuel went to court charging that the local was illegally striking over topics beyond the limits of collective bargaining. No doubt, the CTU leadership was advised by its attorneys that prioritizing such “illegal” demands as small class size and stopping school closures at the bargaining table would have invited an injunction, which would have in turn required the local to have prepared the membership to violate the injunction, risking fines and jail.
Under these circumstances, the leadership evidently, at some point, made a decision not to wage an all-out campaign to force the district to negotiate on these extra-contractual issues. Its principal concern was to ensure that the membership was confident enough to be ready to strike and that an injunction could undermine that confidence. Once the strike began, it also appears that the leadership did not believe that the membership was prepared to wage such a broad and potentially dangerous fight and opted for the first option of a shorter strike around more limited demands. Four days into the strike, as its strength was crescendoing throughout Chicago, CTU President Karen Lewis publicly announced that a framework for a settlement had been reached (which in turn reduced turnout at weekend CTU mobilizations, as the ranks correctly determined that the leadership had concluded that there was little more to be won at the bargaining table). At the CTU House of Delegates meeting on Sunday, September 16, when the leadership presented the tentative agreement, the delegates, feeling rushed, opted to take two more days to discuss it with the membership before making a decision to end the strike.
The decision for a shorter strike, in turn, reinforced the tendency toward a traditional, top-down contract negotiation process that further separated the bargaining team from the organizing and mobilizing on the ground. While a broad rank-and-file negotiations watchdog group was kept apprised of developments at the bargaining table, one wonders to what extent the big bargaining team was included in the soup-to-nuts process of contract negotiations, versus just being consulted once decisions were made. The result was the usual rushed give-and-take in sequestered negotiations to reach an acceptable deal to end the strike quickly.
So it was not surprising that the contract itself was a mixed bag. On the one hand, the CTU made some important gains before and during the strike. Before the strike began, the district dropped its demand for merit pay based on student test scores, as well as its opposition to the hiring of 600 new teachers. The strike itself won a lower percentage of a teachers’ evaluations to be based on test scores; the contract was reduced from four to three years with an option to open in the fourth year; salaries were increased an additional 1 percent; and Step (based on years of service) and Lane (based on continuing education) bonuses were retained and improved for veteran teachers.
The union, on the other hand, made concessions on some key issues. Most importantly, it agreed to reduce pay guarantees to laid-off teachers from two years to one year, a bitter pill to swallow with fifty-four more school closings in the works, potentially affecting over a thousand teachers and paraprofessionals. At the same time, a new Teacher Quality Pool of veteran laid-off teachers was created from which 50 percent of all new hires must come (the district was not obligated to hire any laid-off teachers before this settlement). However, the new formula for rehiring laid-off teachers gives the highest priority to those with “excellent” or “satisfactory” ratings, which, with the new evaluation system, will increasingly be based on student test scores.
In the final analysis, the decision to build member confidence with a short and massively popular strike resulted in important, if limited, gains for the CTU. Even if the union was ultimately unable to reverse the mayor’s corporate public education agenda in Chicago, it made some advances on this front as the strike inspired significant union organizing among charter school teachers in the Chicago area. At the same time, it was unable to make further gains because it lacked the capacity to risk the dangers involved in prioritizing important, but difficult to win, extra-contractual demands.
Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee
Strategic Lessons and Tasks
The results of the Chicago teachers’ strike, both its gains and limitations, raise important strategic considerations for education activists; in particular, what will be required to take on the corporate agenda for public education.
1) On the local level, the starting point for success is school-based rank-and-file activism and militancy, alliances with parents and community, and a progressive program of authentic school improvement.
This marriage of militancy and demands for school improvement deserves special attention. Traditional teachers’ union contract fights, including strikes, have mostly been about salaries and benefits. While this narrow approach may have yielded modest results in the past, it is clearly inadequate today given the magnitude and intensity of the corporate-led attacks on public education. Teachers’ unions must now be the best advocates for quality education for all and seek to build alliances with parents, communities, labor, and others on that basis. In fact, only through amassing much greater power than in the past by making the fight for better education central—and thereby eliciting the active support of parents, community, and students in the struggle—will it be possible to win gains in salaries, benefits, and working conditions.
Nevertheless, demanding improvements in the quality of education cannot substitute for organizing militant mass struggles, though this is often, implicitly if not explicitly, the course taken by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA), and their state affiliates. This is because militancy—in the form of strikes, other job actions, mass sit-ins, and mass demonstrations—directly confronts the powers-that-be in ways that election campaigns, media campaigns, and community meetings by themselves cannot, as necessary as they are as part of a comprehensive strategy. The CTU strike showed us that by combining militancy and demands for progressive school reform, the basis was created for a broader, more powerful struggle against corporate “deform.”
2) A broad school improvement program should be fought for, to the extent possible, as part of a militant full contract campaign, in alliance with other forces.
Contract campaigns are moments in a union’s life when the members are most likely to be engaged and activated, and therefore potentially generate the most power. This is because contract campaigns offer the rank and file an opportunity to fight and even strike, legally in many states, over a variety of issues they are concerned about. Usually, no one issue is enough to generate that kind of activity, especially if to do so involves potentially breaking the law.
The CTU experience here is instructive. While the CTU leadership broke ground by leading with school improvement as a central focus, its decision—however justifiable—to limit its strike to traditional bargaining demands and to exclude class size, school closings, and charter schools as priority strike issues, ultimately left it to fight on these issues in isolation and without the power and leverage of a strike. The CTU’s current struggle to stop school closings is only the most obvious case in point. Working with parents, it is making herculean efforts to organize and mobilize its members through demonstrations and sit-ins, but it no longer has the strike weapon at its disposal and is weaker because of it.
3) The union must prepare its members to break the law, if necessary, to fight for its demands.
The CTU struggle, along with similar experiences in Los Angeles, has much to tell us about the need to prepare teachers and other workers to break the law, if necessary, to fight for their demands. Throughout history, employers have utilized the law and the courts to weaken and destroy workers’ resistance. As the economic crisis deepens and teachers organize to defend and advance public education, school districts are prepared to use the court-issued injunctions to curb worker militancy. Emanuel was preparing for just such an injunction during the second week of the strike. In March 2009, when United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) prepared for a one-day work stoppage to protest massive teacher layoffs, the district was able to get a conservative judge to issue an injunction, causing the union leadership to call off the strike because the membership was not prepared to defy it.
If it takes confrontational mass actions to create the necessary counterpower effectively to challenge the corporate education agenda, then union leaderships must make plans to prepare the rank and file to defy such injunctions and accept the considerable risks involved (i.e., fines and arrests). The CTU’s short strike strategy largely avoided that possibility this time around, but future struggles are likely to require it.
4) Expand rank-and-file participation in the negotiations process.
For most unions, including teachers’ unions, the bargaining process is typically top-down. A broad leadership body develops a bargaining package, leaving the top leadership to prioritize issues, manage negotiations, and come back with a tentative agreement. Negotiations are usually conducted in isolation, as the union’s negotiating team, especially during a strike (if it ever comes to that) when the stakes are so high, works night and day with management to hammer out an agreement. Often, just one or two union reps, meeting with management, hammer out the key elements of the tentative agreement. This process is generally more harmful to the union than management precisely because it isolates the union negotiators from the rank and file and the power it has created on the ground. Instead, the pressure on them is all coming from management to settle as soon as possible for as little as possible.
Convening a broader oversight group, as the CTU did, was a move in the right direction, but insufficient to counteract the conservatizing pressures at the bargaining table. Regular bargaining strategy sessions with the House of Delegates, which had the responsibility for ending the strike, might have been held not just to inform, but to work out bottom line understandings with the negotiating team to give it more direction as well as leverage against management.
In any case, the task of connecting organizing and mobilizing with a more participatory negotiations strategy continues to challenge even progressive teachers’ unions. The need for fuller participation by the ranks becomes even more pressing in higher stakes struggles with the rank and file facing greater risks.
5) Ways must be found to integrate parent and student demands and decision-making into school improvement campaigns.
The CTU strike was considerably strengthened by the support given it by the non-profit community-based organizations that had worked with CORE and then CTU in opposing school closings in Chicago over the past few years. Even though these organizations represented a small fraction of the district’s parents, their public support was key in countering the mayor’s attempts to characterize the CTU as a selfish union, uninterested in the welfare of students.
At the same time, the parent and community support for the strike raises questions about how best to build authentic labor/community alliances that can maximize working-class power for future struggles. Union contract fights are not the best terrain for building egalitarian relationships with the union’s existing and potential allies. In the context of a union-centered contract campaign, external allies, no matter how crucial their contribution to the struggle and the outcome of the struggle, are likely to be deprived of any influence over decisions about how to carry out the strike and what to settle for in negotiations. Traditionally, such campaigns are sectoral. Their primary aim is to get the best deal possible for a particular group of workers, who, especially if it comes to a strike, bear most of the economic burdens. Consequently, those workers, through their union, make all the decisions, especially the contract issues, tactics, and terms of settlement. Usually, as in the case of the CTU, the size and resources of the union dwarf those of their allies. Even in CTU’s contract struggle, in which the union formed respectful relationships with its parent, community, student, and labor allies, those allies did not participate in decision making even though they had a direct stake in the ultimate outcome.
Contract fights with massive parent, community, and student support have the potential of building the necessary mass power for taking on, at least in part, the corporate agenda for public education. The key then is how to build contract campaigns in which teachers, parents, students, and other school workers share decision-making power. If teachers are won to the perspective that they cannot win their struggles without parents and others as key allies, that opens up new possibilities for organizing an egalitarian grassroots coalition.
Here, teachers’ unions need to break new ground, going beyond leadership-driven alliances with community-based organizations by promoting creative school-based opportunities for parent, student, and community participation. At school sites, the union could use its resources to recruit and train teachers, working alongside community-based organizations where they exist, to involve parents and others in school improvement efforts at the level of the school and the district. At some point, those parents could advance their own demands that could be “negotiated” by parents at the same time as the union negotiates its demands with each supporting the other as part of a unified campaign for quality schools and communities.
The Battle Beyond Chicago
Viewed from the vantage point of the Chicago struggle, we have examined various ways in which local teachers’ unions will need to fight against corporate-backed reforms. But the fact remains that a strategy confined to local struggles cannot beat back the attacks coming from state and national governments and their billionaire sponsors. Examples of these larger challenges confronting Chicago teachers include the following:
In 2010, the Illinois legislature passed a law requiring districts to use student test scores for at least 25 percent of a teacher’s performance evaluation. This meant that at best the CTU could only negotiate the minimum percentage, which it did, rather than eliminate the use of test scores altogether for evaluation purposes.
The dire financial situation facing Chicago public schools (the district faces a $700 million deficit for the next school year) puts severe limits on CTU’s ability to win a pay increase commensurate with the increased work hours embodied in school board’s decision to lengthen the school year earlier in the year. The financial crisis also may have discouraged the CTU from campaigning for class-size reduction since its cost would have come out of employee compensation. Dire budgets may also force the district to forego picking up employee pension contributions, which it has done in the past. This could further erode the already meager salary increases won in the strike.
Above all, the CTU was bucking the Obama national education agenda, which, under No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top, dangles scarce federal dollars for states and districts that agree to expand the number of charter schools and evaluate teachers based on student test scores. This agenda, begun in Chicago under now Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan and buttressed by corporate foundations and pro-charter movies, enjoys bipartisan support in Washington, D.C. and in most statehouses. No local union, including the CTU, can stand up to such a coordinated, powerful national attack alone.
To beat back these attacks requires not only a class-wide local union strategy, embracing the local working class, but an organized, class-wide national strategy that combines local, state, and national organizing to (1) resist teacher-bashing state legislation; (2) win funding for public education and other social services through progressive taxation; and (3) assist building alliances between educators, students, parents, community-based organizations, and other public-sector workers.
To accomplish these and other goals, teachers’ union activists should have no illusions about the bureaucratic, conservative nature of the top leadership of the two national teachers’ unions, the AFT and NEA, and that of most of their state affiliates. As states become increasingly financially strapped, due to continuing economic crisis and the success of the right wing’s anti-government and anti-tax agenda, teachers’ unions have been increasingly on the defensive. However, rather than organize a fight back against the corporate agenda and for authentic reform, local unions, aided and abetted by their national affiliates, have generally accepted concessions without a fight. AFT officials, in particular, have “helped” locals around the country negotiate contract agreements that permit teacher evaluations as well as “merit pay” based on student test scores. Chicago was the exception to the rule.
At the state level, both AFT and NEA affiliates have either been complicit in acceding to state legislation promoting aspects of the corporate agenda (most dramatically the immediate acceptance of pension and other cuts by the Wisconsin affiliates in the wake of the attack on collective bargaining) rather than rallying their locals to organize and mobilize for a fight. In California, the California Teachers Association (CTA), along with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), publicly attacked the more progressive, but much smaller, California Federation of Teachers (CFT) for sponsoring a “millionaires’ tax” ballot initiative, instead supporting Governor Brown’s then much more regressive tax plan.
In this regard, the state and national leaderships of the AFT and NEA, with few exceptions, are not different from the rest of the labor bureaucracy of full-time officials—from local officers on up—who are more interested in preserving the union than risking it by organizing the rank and file and leading mass struggles against the employers, who, as the crisis deepens, are hell-bent on weakening or crushing the unions. Rather than organizing, the bureaucracy continues to privilege electoral activity through the Democratic Party, legal maneuvers, and top-down negotiations to “cut a deal.”
Even teachers’ union reform leaders cannot always be counted on to do the right thing when isolated from their base. CTU President Karen Lewis unilaterally signed off, along with the Illinois state NEA and AFT affiliates, on Senate Bill 7—an anti-labor bill that makes firing teachers easier, requires evaluations rather than seniority in case of layoffs, and further restricts the right to strike for Chicago teachers.
This means that rank-and-file educators must continue to rely on their own organizations and their allies to push forward a progressive, class-struggle organizing agenda and to push union leaders to do the same without relying on them. For state and national organizing, progressive local caucuses, such as CORE in Chicago, Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC) in Los Angeles, Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) in New York City, as well as other grassroots organizations and individual union activists and leaders committed to bottom-up education reform, need to link up to create strategies for countering the corporate education agenda and moving that agenda within AFT and NEA. Such an agenda must include the goal of spreading campaigns, including strikes, against test-based austerity and privatization and for sharply increased funding paid for by progressive taxation to provide students with lower class sizes, health services, and a full, enriching curriculum.
The struggles led by the CTU, for the first time, afford progressive and militant union activists around the country an opportunity to appreciate and critically evaluate what a social justice-oriented teachers’ union leadership has accomplished and has still to accomplish. The lessons of Chicago—the gains and the challenges—should spur radical education activists to think deeply about the many and diverse issues that we face. How can the myriad divisions within the U.S. working class based on race, gender, education, occupation, income, and so forth be overcome to build a unified fightback to defend and advance public education and other social goals? How can public education struggles be effectively linked to struggles for decent housing, health care, and full employment? What role can pedagogy and curriculum play in advancing the fight for public education? How can public education struggles unite K–12 schools with college campuses? How can public-sector workers and working-class communities win increased funding for education and other services? How can teachers’ unions and their allies build an effective national movement and authentic alternative education program to counter the standardized testing regime and school privatization efforts?
These are all formidable but necessary theoretical and practical tasks. However, to address them successfully, we need to fully realize what we are up against. The neoliberal assault on public education is about more than privatization, humiliating teachers, and destroying teachers’ unions. These neoliberal goals are themselves part of a broader, deeper, and unrelenting national bipartisan crusade by the Democratic and Republican parties, reflecting the interests and power of finance and multinational corporations, to reshape schools to meet their austerity economic objectives that accept mass unemployment and lower wages. This means that a well-educated work force is increasingly superfluous; hence, less funding for schools and other social services; closing of schools that primarily serve working-class students of color; increasingly routinized, test-based curriculum; and anti-public union legislation attacking pensions and seniority.
The systematic and national character of this agenda (led by Obama, Duncan, and Emanuel) requires a broader, national class-wide movement both to defend and improve public education and the public sector generally—one that is directly counter posed to the electoral strategy, preferred by the labor bureaucracy, of working within the Democratic Party as a substitute for organizing. To create such a movement, radicals and socialists need to further root themselves in schools, communities, and teachers’ unions and work together with a vision of a democratically run public school system and a democratic society whose ultimate goal is the fullest and freest development of the human potential that all people possess.
The Chicago teachers’ strike allows us to consider these and other questions in a living context. Let’s take advantage of it!
David Kaplan is a pseudonym for a veteran high school teacher and long time teachers’ union activist, writer, and organizer. He is also a member of Solidarity. This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Monthly Review.