Review: Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity

Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity by Micah Uetricht
Published by Jacobin/Verso 2014
Review by Simon Hardy

Read this book, I can’t recommend it enough. In fact, every trade unionist and socialist worth their salt should read this book. It tells the story of how a rank and file caucus in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) won the leadership of the union, then led it in an all out strike in 2012 against budget cuts and attacks on terms and conditions that lasted 10 days before achieving significant victories. What makes this feat pretty amazing is that they went from a meeting of 5 people to leading an all out strike in less than 5 years, and the union itself hadn’t had a strike since 1987.

When the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) was set up it was largely due to the defeats of previous attempts by the left to win the leadership and transform the union. Notably, after a disastrous “left” leadership in 2001-04 when Debbie Lynch signed a terrible deal with the Chicago Board of Education and then tried to sell it to union members as a “left” victory. The return of the old conservative leadership who were unwilling to do anything about school privatisations, closures and endemic racism across the city against young black students led to the formation of CORE, a rank and file initiative that hoped to learn the lessons of previous defeats. They started off as a small reading group discussing The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, within a few months they had pulled together a network of activists across the city who wanted to do something about the destruction of public education in the city.

When they won the leadership elections in 2010, CORE members set about transforming the union from top to bottom, turning it from a typical top down ‘negotiation and services union’ into a fighting union that coordinated actions from the bottom up. How did they do this?

  • When they won the leadership they put every elected official of the union and organiser on the average teachers salary in the city.
  • They reallocated resources from office based departments to activism, getting full timers out alongside members in schools to build joint meetings with parents and teachers about the attacks coming from the Democratic Party mayor (Obama’s right hand man Rahm Emanuel).
  • They held readers group for their organisers, discussing key texts from the history of militant trade unionism like Farrell Dobbs’ Teamsters Rebellion.
  • They politicised the strike (as much as they could within the limits of the anti-union ordinance of the city) and made sure that the members were engaged and driving the action forward.
  • As soon as they were elected they prepared for their strike which happened two years later – they knew if they stuck to their convictions it would lead them into a headlong confrontation with the Mayors office and the board of education and they made plans for it from the start.
  • When they were offered a renegotiated contract after a week of strike action they didn’t agree it, they made sure every CTU member had a copy and read it and discussed it at their daily delegate meeting which ran the strike before anything was agreed.

The important lesson here is that they didn’t just win the leadership, they used that position to transform union democracy from top to bottom. They didn’t want to end up like Lynch, well meaning but trapped in the bureaucracy with no way out who ends up betraying her principles. How many times has this happened in our trade unions? Whilst the outcome was not a total victory, some concessions were won by the bosses, the ultimate feeling of the strikers was that the strike achieved its goals, because the members were mobilised, empowered and they forged bonds with local parents and community groups which turned around years of anti-teacher rhetoric from the media and the Democratic Party. it is very hard to win an outright victory in an age of austerity, but what the CTU showed is that you can hold back the tide and even win some victories, for instance they defeated an attempt to remove the cap on class sizes and they won higher classroom budgets.

The book is well written by Uetricht, it has a clear and accessible style and he carefully balances the political side of it with sometimes funny anecdotes (my favourite being about the first pamphlet that CORE issued with a disastrous typo on the front page) and really shows the tremendous solidarity that the people of Chicago had in support of the teachers strike. It is actually quite an emotional read, considering how working and poor people rallied to the teachers dispute years of teacher bashing and right wing propaganda in the press. It shows you what can be done with a rank and file movement that has a clear strategy and fights to win, knowing how to combine leading a union with grassroots activism by the members.

Clearly not every strike strategy can be replicated in every other place – but the CTU strike is rich with lessons which at the very least can inspire trade unionists that these kind of actions are possible. That the CORE led union managed to get a 90% turn out with a 92% yes vote for strike action demonstrates that they must have done something right to engage members and win the argument for action. The CTU strike of 2012 is an inspiration that we should all look to.


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