The CTU’s War Against Austerity

Workplace struggle has become the primary defense against cuts to public services.

The Chicago Tribune isn’t fond of the Chicago Teachers Union.

But even by the Tribune’s standards, the paper’s April 8 editorial was particularly brutal. A couple weeks after dubbing the CTU’s one-day strike “Tantrum Day,” the Tribune editorial board implored CTU president Karen Lewis to use her “clout to convince skeptical members” to swallow a contract deal that eliminates some raises, scales back others, and potentially cuts pension funding. It is Lewis’s responsibility, the editorial board suggested, to discipline her fellow union members on behalf of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

The Tribune has long been unsympathetic toward labor unions of all stripes, and the CTU, locked in its second protracted contract negotiation in four years, has been a preferred target. But this editorial was especially noteworthy because it distilled into a concise document the arguments of austerity partisans, whose policies of spending cuts and fiscal contraction have decimated public services and punished workers in the United States and around the world.

The editorial — which reads like a PR statement straight from the CPS — asserts that public unions are holding Chicago residents hostage and that the CTU is to blame for a district “choked by debt and overspending.” From the Tribune’s perspective, it then follows that workers should do their part to help balance the budget. After all, if the district is broke, it can’t be just fixed without cuts.

This is the same logic of austerity Illinois governor Bruce Rauner and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel have used to justify privatization and defunding public services. However popular this logic has become, the argument is both lazy and dangerous.

To be sure, the state does not have a pile of cash stashed away, and Chicago is undoubtedly broke. Anyone who works in the public sector or at one of the many state universities or city colleges can tell you just how broke it is and how the crisis is decimating public education at all levels. But the leap the Tribune editorial board makes is lazy because it repeats conservative talking points that argue the only way to fix the problem is to reduce costs, often by cutting wages and public services — not to find ways to generate revenue.

The position of the Tribune’s editorial board is lazy, in other words, because it can’t imagine a world in which workers aren’t the ones responsible for the financial mess. And it is dangerous because it takes money and services from those who need it most. Their stunted imagination exonerates politicians like Rauner and Emanuel — the latest in a long line of politicos and policymakers who view disciplining labor unions as a means of balancing the books.

Since roughly the mid-seventies, when New York was forced to implement neoliberal reforms in order to get a bailout from the US Treasury, cities across the country have slashed social programs and suppressed wages in an effort to stimulate the economy. The effect has been twofold: wealth and power have been consolidated among a small group of people, and public services have deteriorated.

It is this logic of austerity — and the problems it has engendered — that public-sector unions like the CTU are now fighting. Confronted with governing leaders that embrace cutbacks instead of social investment, government unions find themselves in a situation where controlling their working conditions directly impacts the quality of services the broader community receives. Workplace struggle becomes the primary defense against cuts to public services and assets.

Under these circumstances, a strike becomes necessary not just to stem the downward pressure on wages and benefits or to slow workforce attrition, but to fight for school funding and against budget reductions that harm working-class communities.

This double duty produces serious tensions at the bargaining table. And there is no question union negotiations are tough business, especially in a profession where striking means not teaching students. Few if any teachers are enthusiastic about walking out of their classroom.

But they also understand their contract negotiation is about more than wages alone. What happens at the bargaining table is about standing up for students by fighting for public investment. For in the age of austerity in particular, the bargaining table is never just about wages — it is where society has one of its most public fights about exploitation and inequality.

It’s not the only place, of course. As demonstrated during Chicago’s April 1 day of action — in which more than five thousand participants from dozens of organizations and unions participated — the arguments taking place over violence, incarceration, and education are a shared fight against the repeated attempts to cut public spending in the nation’s most disenfranchised neighborhoods.

This struggle for public investment and for workers rights in the public sector is reminding us what it’s always been: a shared fight against austerity policies — like those supported and executed by Rauner and Emanuel — that reproduce income inequality and poverty.

Ultimately, beating back the economic dogma of austerity won’t turn on whether or not the Tribune editorial board is won over. But it is precisely because austerity peddlers the world over won’t be swayed by argument alone that public-sector unions play such a crucial role in broad-based movements fighting for public investments that benefit working-class families.