"A union that belongs to its members"

Submitted by Gemma_S on 27 April, 2018 - 10:58 Author: Gemma Short, Workers' Liberty industrial organiser
A child holding a placard that reads "CTU is fighting for me"

Written for a Workers' Liberty bulletin for the UCU rank-and-file revolt national meeting on 29 April 2018

An often cited example of a rank-and-file network transforming its union for the better is that of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) in the Chicago Teachers’ Union.

The change in the union came to wider attention during their 2012 contract strike. Where the strength that CORE as itself, and then through the structures of the union, had built up was put to the test — and performed spectacularly.

There are many lessons to be learnt from that strike: how the ballot was built for and won; picket line organisation; community involvement; clear, bold and political demands; live streamed negotiations; and strikes kept on while all members read, debated, and voted on the final deal. I recommend reading Micah Uetricht’s Strike for America and How to jump-start your union published by Labor Notes for more detail.

But the lessons from how CORE organised and won are just as important, and made the 2012 strike, and victory, possible.

CORE was not the first “progressive” or “reform” caucus to win control of the CTU. The United Progressive Caucus (the local chapter of the caucus which runs the American Federation of Teachers) which ran the union until CORE replaced them in 2010 had their origins in rank-and-file racial justice caucuses in the union. And in 2001 a reform caucus called Pro-Active Chicago Teachers (PACT) won elections and ousted the UPC. But it failed to transform the union, and after selling a bad contract to members in 2004, UPC won control again.

Many of the activsts who went on to be CORE’s main organisers went through the experience of PACT and it provided them with important lessons. PACT was not an organisation with much independent life separate to it’s main election candidates, and when in power many of PACTs organisers became paid full-time officers (elected or not) meaning the caucus languished.

CORE set out to do things differently. CORE was not primarily an election machine. Its primary purpose was transforming the union, elections were an integral part of that but not a part that could work without the rest. CORE organised around a big issue which members cared about — school closures. By organising around this issue when the union didn’t, and bringing the campaign they built around school closures into the union rather than just keeping it separate, CORE began to function as a dual leadership within the union.

CORE continued to try and push the leadership into action, and used the union’s House of Delegates meetings and other structures to find new activists and organise.CORE didn’t stand aside from fighting in the union. If it had done that it wouldn’t have grown, it wouldn’t have pushed the union into action over school closures, it wouldn’t have won elections in 2010, and ultimately the majority of the union’s 27,000 members would have been left inside a union they were dissatisfied with. It is tempting to try and go around the union bureaucracy, the lesson from CORE is that you have to smash your way through it.

In 2010 when CORE members who were elected to union full-time positions they stepped aside from the leadership of CORE, so the caucus kept it’s independence. This proved crucial to stopping CORE becoming another PACT.

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.”

• A detailed history of CORE’s formation can be found at: bit.ly/2Kgr3n5

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