Changing the World in One Contract

(peoplesworld / flickr)

In urging suspension of the strike, CTU President Karen Lewis noted that Chicago teachers couldn’t change the world in one contract.  She was wrong. While there were important items the union didn’t win, the Chicago strike has electrified teachers around the world. It has by many accounts inspired a reinvigorated labor presence in the Windy City.

The reform leadership of the CTU has shown teachers that for their professional knowledge to be respected, they must fight for it to be so. Try as the media did to cast the strike as being a traditional labor dispute about salary, they couldn’t make a convincing case to Chicago parents. Because of the union’s morally-essential  (and strategically-sound) embedding of economic demands in a framework for truly improving the schools, parents  understood that teachers were on the side of their children.

Chicago schools have a unique history, and what occurred there won’t be so readily duplicated in other US cities.  Teacher unionism was born in Chicago a century ago, under the leadership of a socialist elementary school teacher, Margaret Haley.  Chicago schools also saw serious contestation by parents for voice in running their schools through local school councils.  The teachers union too has been different from most big city locals in having reformers win office.  In contrast, the same monolithic machine has run the New York City union since teachers won collective bargaining.

Still, this strike has changed the political equation, not only here in the US but internationally. With the exception of Finland and North Korea, schools are being privatized and curriculum reduced to preparation for standardized tests, globally.  This is an international project to make schooling serve the interests of transnational corporations. Chicago teachers have shown that a union leadership with a vision and courage, one that empowers its members, can turn back some of the most pernicious elements of this global project.

One telling aspect of the strike is that the media and the politicians totally missed what was brewing.  The story actually began when the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) organized school by school and swept the old guard out of office. Their program was precisely the one on which this strike was waged.  Yet their victory went unnoticed in the national media and by conservatives and liberals alike — including progressive publications like The Nation.

What has occurred in the past decade is that Democrats and Republicans alike are captives of their own ideology and their exquisitely orchestrated propaganda.  They are in thrall to what a Merrill Lynch report (April 1999) describes as the “new mindset,”  of  schools being “retail outlets” and the school board a “customer service department.”  Their belief is that schools, students, and teachers will improve when they are subject to the “discipline of the market.”  Since their mind is set, nothing that teachers, parents, or students say alters their beliefs. It takes teachers and parents shutting down a school system to get through to them.

As it turns out, the market’s “discipline” is no more effective in improving schools than it is in making banks responsible.  What Chicago teachers have shown the world is that teachers unions have the potential to lead a movement that will take back our schools.  On this Karen Lewis was wrong: Chicago teachers did change the world in their struggle for this contract.