A union which belongs to its members

Submitted by AWL on 14 April, 2015 - 5:07 Author: Gemma Short

Uetricht begins his account of the transformation of the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) and their 2012 strike by counterposing two incidents representing the opposite faces of teacher trade unionism.

One is represented by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, sitting on a panel to discuss Chicago’s Infrastructure Trust — a public-private partnership initiative which ushered in private involvement in public schools. Speaking alongside Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel she praised the initiative and made no mention of the Mayor’s hostile treatment of teachers and their union, when their union was organising a serious fightback.

The other face of teacher trade unionism are meetings in schools across Chicago to conduct a historic strike ballot in which 90% of all CTU members voted to strike. This happened despite the fact that schools had broken up for the summer. Union members met in closed schools, tracked down members on holiday and spent hours phoning members who couldn’t attend meetings to ensure they voted.

In the UK the National Union of Teachers poses as the latter face of teacher trade unionism, talks about social movement trade unionism. To accuse the NUT of being the face of teacher unionism represented by Randi Weingarten would be wrong. But to say they represent the spirit and power of the CTU is a wild, and inaccurate, fantasy.

While it is true that the NUT has tried to learn from and implement some ideas from social movement trade unionism — hosting meetings with speakers from other community campaigns, doing street activity, and commissioning research into educational issues — these lack substance and muscle when decoupled from industrial organisation at a school level. They are also undermined by the stuttering, hesitant nature, and pure mismanagement, of the industrial dispute over pensions, and later pay and workload.

The Chicago caucus of rank and file educators (CORE) had years of painstraking organising, first around school closures with local community campaigns, before building influence in the union and taking over its structures from the United Progressive Caucus (UPC).

The Chicago Teachers Union built its structures to actually carry out social movement trade unionism from the school and community level — rather than imposed from above in centrally organised drives, with nice leaflets, social media campaigns and top table speakers.

Uetricht, whilst giving a short and fairly simplistic account of the CTU, CORE and the 2012 strike, nevertheless writes an informative narrative of the history of the leadership of the union prior to CORE.

Many paint the 2010 election of CORE as one where social movement trade unionism won out. Where those who were, rightly, talking about school closures in neighbourhoods where people of colour lived and the advance of free market education reform, won against a leadership that said nothing about these issues but had led some militant industrial struggles. This is too simplistic. Uetricht shows how the UPC had their origins in rank-and-file racial justice caucuses in the union. However when they got into leadership they paid themselves large salaries and became disconnected from the rank and file of the union. This not only led to their silence over social issues and attacks on public education, but also increasingly led to a decrease in a willingness to lead industrial action over contract negotiations and attacks on teachers.

CORE not only represented social movement trade unionism, but also the struggles of rank and file members fighting school closures and attacks in the face of leadership inaction. Uetricht calls COREs election the “rejection of a labor model that mandated progressivism from on high”. Those [the UPC] who once fought for a democratic and fighting union ended up leading a union that was neither.

In 2011, a year after CORE was elected to the leadership of the CTU, right-wing free market reform group “Stand for Children” was trying to push through legislation that, amongst other things, would severely curtail the power of the CTU. Their proposal demanded 75% of members to vote for a strike for it to be legal. Newly elected CTU president and CORE activist Karen Lewis, without significant discussion of the bill by members and proper understanding of its implications, gave the union’s endorsement of the bill.

When CTU members heard the details of the bill, instead of uncritically supporting the leadership they had worked hard to elect, they started a dialogue in CORE and then in the union about what to do. A CORE activist took a motion to the union’s House of Delegates to overturn the union’s endorsement of the bill and reopen negotiations on the bill. They won.

Instead of being defensive, or “selling” the deal to their members, Lewis and the CTU leadership accepted the decision and went back to negotiations. Lewis said “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.” Members of the NUT have rarely had enough information about negotiations to even consider their opinion on the implications!

CORE brought the current leadership of the CTU into power, but CORE and the leadership are not one and the same. Many of the CORE leadership are now paid staff and elected officials in the union, so they have stepped aside from the leadership of CORE in order for new people to run it. This means CORE can act independently of the CTU leadership and raise criticisms of it where necessary. The connection with the rank and file, prevents the CORE CTU leadership from atrophying and embracing bureaucracy.

Uetricht makes it very clear that there is no short cut to organising this sort of social movement trade unionism or the impressive 2012 Chicago teachers strike. CORE activists had been organising on the ground for years, even decades. CORE transformed the CTU by educating teachers about neo-liberal school reform. But it did not stop at a leaflet or two, it involved these members in struggles, in educating other teachers, gave them roles in the union, and built structures. During the 2012 strike much of the action was not organised by CORE staffers in the union. The union had a life of its own at the school level and many organised their own actions independent of the union.

The red t-shirts, mass rallies and banners put up house windows were characteristic of the 2012 strike. All of that was down to the members. The union belonged to the members.

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