Strike for America: The CTU and the Democrats

How Chicago teachers took on neoliberal education reform.

For the better part of the last century, the relationship between the Democratic Party and the labor movement has changed little. It appears set in stone, with no amount of neglect or disrespect or, increasingly, outright hostility from Democrats able to affect much more than private grumbling from labor.

And for nearly that long, labor’s left observers and participants have described it as a relationship gone sour, often in hopes that labor would call the whole thing off. Historian Mike Davis called it a “barren marriage;” a more common characterization is that of an “abusive relationship.”

Perhaps such observers should work on some new metaphors. But overblown analogies are understandable: with the rise of a strong neoliberal wing over the last several decades and an increasing number of Democrats no longer even feigning to be troubled with placating unions — once seen as a central constituency for the party — or a broader agenda of equality and social justice, unionists and their partisans have grown increasingly exasperated at party policies that look more and more like those of Republicans.

This is particularly true in the case of education reform, where Democrats have swallowed the Right’s free market orthodoxy whole. Much of the party appears to have given up on education as a public project.

This is a shift that necessarily entails an attack on teachers and their unions. But like the rest of labor, American teachers unions have been unable to articulate a cogent critique of that shift within the Democratic Party and the policy proposals it has produced. The broader agenda has been occasionally challenged, but the sectors of the party pushing it have remained beyond reproach.

The Chicago Teachers Union has made a decisive break with this approach.

The union has been unafraid to identify the education reform agenda pushed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his party nationally as an attempt to exacerbate inequalities within the education system, strip teachers of power and erode their standards of living, and chip away at public education as an institution, and to call such Democrats enemies. Rather than continuing an insider strategy that has netted so little for the rest of labor over the years, the CTU has entered into open opposition with the neoliberal wing of the party.

At the same time, the union has put forth its own vision of reform, both at the bargaining table and in the streets through their engagement in mass action, their September strike, and their formal policy recommendations. It is a vision that explicitly rejects the Democratic Party’s education agenda and offers a strong program to shore up public schools as a public good — stronger than any reform proposals by the two major national teachers unions.

Hostility to labor has become common in certain circles of a party that once depended on it. The CTU offers some ideas for how to reverse such antagonism.

The relationship between American unions and the Democratic Party has not changed significantly since the CIO endorsed Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936 and formed the first Political Action Committee (PAC) in 1943 in preparation for his reelection. The former nonpartisan strategy of the AFL, of rewarding friends and punishing enemies regardless of their party affiliation, was discarded in favor of a long-term alliance with the Democrats.

That alliance was unable to enact many of labor’s significant legislative priorities in the 1940s and 1950s like expansion of the welfare state, with the task essentially being left to unions themselves to negotiate with industry in private, unavoidably piecemeal efforts. The benefits of the relationship perhaps weren’t tangible to union members and the wider working class, but it allowed labor leaders pursuing an insider political strategy to surround themselves with Democrats of stature and feel like they, too, were Men of Stature.

Labor leaders, even from ostensibly progressive wings, would continually beat back attempts from the left to end such an uncritical insider strategy with the party whenever they sprang up, despite the seemingly diminishing returns from unions’ investment in the relationship after the 1970s.

Unions are still major funders of Democrats and their principal foot soldiers during elections, engaging in massive mobilizations on the party’s behalf. Labor has given over $700 million to Democrats since 1990. In 2012, that number was over $53 million, with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) actually taking out a $5 million loan to support Democratic Senate races. The party, meanwhile, continues its drift rightward, unmoved by the sight of the defenders of the working class half-heartedly beckoning them back with one hand while tossing them endless cash and members’ energy with the other.

There are few clearer indications of this shift — and of unions’ inability to halt it — than in education policy.

High-stakes standardized testing, merit pay for teachers, school closures, privatization and union-busting through charter school expansion, blaming teachers and unions for the dismal state of poor urban schools, an unshakable faith in the free market as the Great Liberator of the wretched, over-regulated student masses — all proposals and ideas embraced and promoted by much of the Democratic Party, including President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Teachers unions’ leadership has offered repeated concessions on reform proposals while timidly demurring on the particularly odious ones; their protests have fallen on deaf ears.

That agenda is one the city of Chicago is familiar with. Chicago has long been one of the principal testing grounds for neoliberal education reform. Mayor Richard M. Daley, a Democrat from a Democratic political family in that most Democratic of big cities, and Duncan, then CEO of CPS, crafted Renaissance 2010, a program begun in 2004 which pushed closures and “turnarounds” of neighborhood schools and replacing them with nonunion, publicly funded charters, and is largely the basis for the Race to the Top program Duncan currently oversees as Secretary of Education.

Rahm Emanuel and the Board of Education — which includes billionaire hotel heiress and Democratic Party power player Penny Pritzker — have continued this push, particularly around school closures. Currently on the table is a proposal to close 100 unionized neighborhood public schools around the city and replace them with 60 nonunion charters — a move that would simultaneously decimate the union’s membership, redirect public money to privately-run charters that lack basic mechanisms for public accountability, slash teachers’ salaries and benefits, and cause massive disruption in the poor black and brown neighborhoods where the majority of closures would take place.

Such blows have rained down upon the union from the Democrats for years, but the CTU, much like teachers union leadership nationally, was unsure of how to respond. But neighborhood-level fights had long been underway, led by parents whose children bore the brunt of disruptive school closures and corporate reform schemes. In 2004, a group of teachers organizing with parents around these struggles formed the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), a dissident group of teachers attempting to push the union left that eventually became the reform leadership slate that wrested control of the union in 2010.

Years before CORE even considered pursuing control of the union, then, its roots were in fights against local and national Democrats’ education agenda.

It was outrage at that agenda and its concomitant anti-teacherism that propelled CORE into leadership in 2010. Membership was angry, but lacked a clear political target for that anger, or a strong program for turning that anger into effective political power.

I asked Jesse Sharkey, the union’s vice president and a founding member of CORE, if union leadership had difficulties in convincing members to become openly critical of the Democrats; if one of the union’s tasks was to push a shift in teachers’ consciousness about the party. He said it “wasn’t as dramatic as all of that.”

“No one in the union had been happy about the Democrats on education, locally or nationally,” Sharkey said. “So rather than being a big shift, we essentially just acknowledged what most of our members already thought.”

The shift towards the destruction of public education through the embrace of the free market was well-known among Chicago teachers, as it is among many union workers in industries devastated by, say, NAFTA, the free trade agreement pushed and passed by Bill Clinton.

But where other unions have hoped that the party’s “Third Way” tendencies might be convinced to sway back towards supporting unions through continued massive expenditure of resources on the party, the CTU has taken a more confrontational stance.

“We know that we don’t have real friends in high places,” said Sharkey. “So we should stop depending on them.”

Contrast this with the national teachers unions’ response to such attacks by Democrats. The National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the two major educators’ unions in the country (the CTU is a member of the AFT), have continued giving generously to Democrats — around $30 million in publicly-disclosed donations and outside spending in the 2012 election cycle — while the party’s consensus continued to include attacking unions and weakening public education.

There have been rumblings of a potential rupture in the teachers union-Democratic coalition for years, as teachers have grown increasingly agitated at the attacks on their profession by Democrats. Numerous such stories cropped up most recently after “Won’t Back Down,” a Hollywood feature film starring Maggie Gyllenhaal widely panned as little more than a teacher-slandering propaganda piece (and a god-awful one, at that), was screened at the Democratic National Convention last year — technically an unofficial event, but one that required approval by the Obama White House. A particularly noxious piece of anti-union and anti-educator agitprop, given the green light to be screened at the party’s grand quadrennial event straight from the top.

Such attacks are escalating, yet neither union appears capable of fighting back. The NEA’s response has actually been to begin funding Republicans, like a State House candidate in Indiana who hadn’t spent much time on charter expansion or merit pay because he has been busy with bills to ban gay marriage and hunt down undocumented immigrants, or the Pennsylvania state representative who bragged that the voter ID law he helped craft would deliver his state to Mitt Romney in the election.

The AFT, the more progressive of the unions, has not started handing out cash to conservatives, but has gradually ceded ground to the reformers’ agenda. Education reporter Dana Goldstein has called the union’s president Randi Weingarten the “marker of the moving center.” Corporate reform groups like Democrats for Education Reform, a lobbying organization backed by Bill Gates and other ultra-wealthy donors that ran ads against the CTU during their strike, approve of her willingness to shift on issues like merit pay and teacher tenure, and have given her tepid praise as the kind of labor leader they can work with.

“You may look heroic when you yell at people,” Weingarten told Goldstein, “but if you actually find ways to really work together and reach across the aisle, that’s what I want.”

Handing funds over to not-quite-as-viciously-anti-teacher Republicans might temporarily light a fire under a few Democratic politicians, but it isn’t a real strategy for effective unionism — much less a way to build a broader social movement, when those recipients of teachers union funding are pursuing deeply reactionary causes like banning gay marriage.

And the kind of labor-management cooperation scheme Weingarten is hinting at might work for her, or might have worked for any number of leaders throughout labor history seduced by the promise of more effective and less confrontational unionism through partnership with management, if it were not always a ploy to convince leaders to identify more with the bosses they’re negotiating against rather than the workers they’re negotiating on behalf of. American labor history shows that such arrangements inevitably presage new attacks and demands for concessions from bosses — made much easier to accomplish by a union leadership enthralled with the attacks’ perpetrators.

One national teachers union has gone looking for support from opponents of modernity; the other seems to think it can be found in cozying up to those who’d like to see them destroyed. The center, meanwhile, shifts further and further towards the wholesale destruction of public education.

Beyond its changed relationship with Democrats, the CTU has built a vision for what school reform that shores up education as a public good could actually look like.  In February 2012, the union released “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve: Research-based Proposals to Strengthen Elementary and Secondary Education in the Chicago Public Schools,” a 46-page white paper that rebukes the Democratic education reform agenda as it has been carried out in CPS. It details the miserable state of city schools, but argues it is the city’s starving schools of resources, at the same time they have diverted massive funds to charters, that is responsible for these conditions.

It demands smaller class sizes, stronger and better-staffed “wraparound services” like nurses and social workers, an enriching curriculum rather than one centered on standardized testing’s dictates, and provision of basic facilities like libraries in all schools, while proposing to fund these things through progressive tax policies including an end to regressive school funding based on property taxes and a financial transactions tax.

The paper (which opens with the sentence “Every student in CPS deserves to have the same quality education as the children of the wealthy”) is the union’s public response to both the corporate reform agenda and, implicitly, teachers unions grudgingly capitulating to it. It is a proposal which cedes no ground to the neoliberals — contrasting sharply with other teachers union locals who have allowed significant concessions in contract negotiations over issues like merit pay, with minor caveats. It rejects the logic of austerity that excuses underfunding of public schools based on budget shortfalls, arguing that tax increases for the rich should make up the deficit.

The September strike was the vehicle through which the union could fight for that vision, both in the public eye and at the bargaining table. Under state law, the union could only strike over wages, benefits, and parts of teacher evaluations. While these were the issues on the table, publicly, the union made its case as the defenders of public education.

They spoke publicly of schools lacking libraries and arts teachers and air conditioning, of classroom overcrowding and a chronic lack of resources, of a general condition of “educational apartheid.” A widely circulated flier featured the faces of Mitt Romney and Rahm Emanuel, saying the two differed little on education. The strike was timed to cause a crisis for President Obama, less than two months before elections — despite pressure from local Democrats and national AFT leadership to back off.

The contract negotiated at the end of the strike included textbooks for all students on the first day of school, 600 new teachers in the arts and physical education, and mandatory recall of laid-off veteran teachers (rather than replacing them with young, inexperienced, cheaper teachers) when positions become available. Teacher evaluation based on standardized testing was negotiated to its legal minimum, 30 percent — contrasting with the Obama administration’s push under Race to the Top to increase the proportion of teacher evaluations based on standardized tests.

Both during the strike and in its lead-up, the CTU crafted and partially implemented the kind of coherent vision for education that had long been under attack by neoliberal Democrats in Chicago and nationally — and had not been articulated by teachers unions anywhere.

It was a vision that could not have come to fruition without the union’s practical ability to take mass action against those Democrats.

Little to none of the CTU’s political program could be pegged as “radical,” in the ideological sense of the word. They still do much of the traditional work of electoral politics — lobbying, endorsing candidates, almost entirely with Democrats. The fact that the union’s engagement with the Democrats is at all noteworthy perhaps speaks less to the CTU’s uniqueness and more to how pitiful the larger labor movement’s interactions with the party have become.

Possibilities for labor to part with the Democrats feel almost impossible today, or at least in the near future. The relationship between the two is too well-cemented, the tradition of dead generations of labor weighing so heavily on the living. The political formations to the left of the Democrats are in too great of disarray. And the stakes at the national and local legislative levels are far too high for unions to bow out of.

“Unions can’t afford to just say that we’re not going to play electoral politics because all of these choices are bad choices,” Sharkey said. “There’s a whole culture on the Left of people abstaining from the political realm. But we can’t simply take our ball and go home. That’s not realistic.”

Radicals often fetishize a clean break with the party, as if the ideological purity of such a stance could somehow make up for the loss of power it would entail. That kind of break is impossible. Knowing their leadership refused to engage with Democrats out of a principled stance against the party’s true class interests would do little to console union members watching their pensions gutted or their workplaces shuttered — those members want to see lobbying, horse-trading, backroom dealmaking, traditional bourgeois politicking, and would likely revolt against any leadership that refused to do so.

What is possible, and what is necessary, if labor and the broader left ever stand a chance of reversing the rightward shift of the Democrats and mounting an effective pushback against neoliberalism more broadly, is a shift in what that political engagement looks like, towards an increasingly confrontational stance with the sections of the Democratic Party now on the attack against unions and the public sphere.

That stance must be centered around labor’s ability and willingness to engage in mass action like strikes, rather the perpetual hope that the Democrats will someday return to labor’s corner through a continual moving of the goalposts rightward as national teachers unions and the broader labor movement have done.

The Chicago Teachers Union accomplished this in their 2012 strike. They identified who their allies and who their enemies were within the party; they forced the hand of those enemies in the streets with 30,000 striking educators, and they approached their allies from a new posture of power, with the threat of mass mobilization against those allies an unspoken but ever-present possibility.

It is the possibility of a labor movement that views its interactions with the Democratic Party with clear eyes and from a position of mass action-based power that stands a chance to beat back the party’s openly neoliberal wing, on education reform and elsewhere. Such a position can open up the space for unions to not simply respond to attacks, but to push its own positive agenda, on its own terms.