In an era when working class victories are rare, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) in 2012 conducted a seven-day strike that won a contract that wasn’t just good for public school employees; it was good for public education.
Such a victory likely wouldn’t have been possible before 2010, but in that year a slate of candidates from an insurgent rank and file caucus, CORE, won an election that changed the union’s leadership.
The new leadership, led by President Karen Lewis, transformed CTU into a social-organizing union.
According to a new report entitled “Sea of Red,” this transformation was the decisive factor in CTU’s improbable strike victory.
The report’s authors, Sean Noonan of Harpers College, Stephanie Farmer of Roosevelt University, and Fran Huckaby of Texas Christian University, are political science professors.
Their report is based on interviews with 37 CTU members, some of whom are CTU activists and some of whom are CTU members but not activists.
Those interviewed said that they noticed a change in the way the union conducted business after the CORE leadership slate was elected.
Under the old leadership, CTU was a traditional service union, the most common form of union in the US.
A service union, according to the authors, is one in which leaders provide services such as filing and pursuing grievances or negotiating a contract for members much in the same way that a business might provide services to customers.
There’s not much of an attempt to involve members in setting union goals and priorities. That job is left up to the union’s leadership and staff.
If there is any internal organizing–that is, providing the membership with extensive information about issues that affect their job and mobilizing them to fight for better conditions–it is usually done around narrow contract issues.
A social-organizing union, on the other hand, sees a union as a social movement in which the leadership, staff, and members interact with one another to set goals and priorities.
Contract negotiations and grievance processing are important, but a social-organizing union expands the scope of this work.
It recognizes that solidarity is the key to winning and makes building solidarity the foundation of the union’s work
A social-organizing union seeks to expand the union’s focus beyond the narrow confines of the contract and tries to build solidarity with individuals and organizations that share common goals.
One way that the new CTU leadership differed from the old leadership is that the new leadership recognized that the privatization of public education advocated by Chicago’s political and corporate leaders was a threat to public education.
The old leadership passively accepted school closures and their replacement by charter schools.
The new leadership mobilized union members to oppose school closings, which won the union support among parents and helped union members build the skills needed to effectively mobilize other union members when the contract came up for renewal.
The old leadership let the union’s internal organizing structures atrophy.
The new leadership revived the internal organizing structures.
Every school had an elected delegate representing that school at regular union meetings. Schools also had an action team, a core group of activists, who served as a link between rank and file members and the leadership.
According to the report’s authors, these action team members were responsible for creating the massive turnouts–the sea of red union t-shirts–at the union demonstrations before and during the strike.
The old leadership did little to keep the membership informed about issues affecting their job. It produced a monthly newsletter, which had a lot of pictures and personal interest stories but little substance.
The new leadership beefed up the union’s research staff and provided information in the newsletter that helped members understand the issues better and gave them information that they could use when talking to others about the issues.
The new leadership also kept up a constant flow of relevant, useful, and timely information through e-mails and social media.
This flow of information helped union members counter the misinformation that Mayor Emanuel tried to spread about the union.
The social-organizing model had an empowering effect after the strike.
It encouraged teachers and other school employees to get more involved in the management of their schools and to continue to build ties among parents and students, so that the fight for quality public schools in Chicago could continue.
The Sea of Red’s conclusion is worth noting:
In an era when the national, state, and local levels of government have all embraced what are essentially anti-social policies of privatization, market mimicry and anti-union austerity for public education, the successes of the CTU are truly stunning. For unionized public educators, social-organizing unionism is not an option; it is a necessity–-a necessity that can play a key role in redirecting the economy, political system and culture to genuinely serve the common good.