The Teachers’ Strike Wave Returns Home to Chicago

Chicago’s 2012 walkout inspired a national educators’ upsurge across the country. This week, the movement is set to strike again where it all began.

Striking Chicago public school teachers and their supporters rally following a march down Michigan Avenue on September 13, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Olson / Getty Images

In 2012, Chicago teachers lit the fuse of what has now become a national teachers’ revolt. And this Thursday, the strike wave is returning to ground zero.

In the midst of the largest educators’ strike upsurge in US history, it’s easy to forget how different things were only a few years ago. During the Great Recession, a decades-long offensive against the public sector and organized labor was ratcheted into high gear. Faced with a ferocious bi-partisan agenda of austerity and privatization, teachers were demoralized, unions giving up concession after concession, and K-12 strikes virtually non-existent.

It was in this bleak situation that a rank-and-file caucus named CORE won leadership over the moribund Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) in 2010. Leaning on the energy generated by Wisconsin and Occupy in 2011, CORE activists transformed their union into a militant organization oriented to bottom-up workplace empowerment and labor-community alliances. The goal, CTU now declared, was to win the “Schools Chicago Students Deserve.”

Faced with Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel’s drive to downsize the district and discipline school workers, teachers shut down schools in the second week of September 2012. Chicago’s first education strike in a quarter century fended off the worst of Emanuel’s attacks, challenged the inevitability of the corporate education agenda, and empowered educators across the city and nation.

CTU made clear how rank-and-filers could take back their union and transform it into a democratic vehicle for class struggle. Arlene Inouye in Los Angeles was one of the thousands of teachers for whom Chicago lit a fire:

Chicago was the spark of the movement that has swept this country in recent years. We were so inspired and uplifted by CTU — they were really the first major teachers unions to bring back the strike, to expose the privatizers, to develop authentic parent-community coalitions to win the schools our students deserve, and to call out the racism of school closings in communities of color.

Inspired by Chicago, Inouye and her co-thinkers, such as Alex Caputo-Pearl and Cecily Myart-Cruz founded Union Power, a Los Angeles teachers’ caucus modeled on CORE. After unseating the old leadership of the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) in 2014, Union Power began to revitalize their union through systematic deep organizing in the schools and the broader working class.

Like their Chicago counterparts, UTLA’s new leaders combined a fight for bread-and-butter issues with a push for demands such as winning smaller class sizes, increased nursing and counseling, combating racial profiling, and halting privatization. A four-year organizing drive culminated in January 2019, when UTLA’s momentous strike paralyzed the country’s second-largest school district and won major victories for teachers, parents, and students. Eager to reciprocate the inspiration received from the CTU, UTLA last week issued a solidarity statement in support of Chicago educators.

Chicago’s influence has not been limited to so-called “blue states.” West Virginia’s explosive teachers walkout was initiated by radical rank-and-file teachers who collectively studied, and sought to replicate, the lessons of Chicago. Faced with ineffective teachers’ unions and looming health care increases in West Virginia, Charleston teacher Jay O’Neal began reading everything he could about CTU and the 2012 strike, including Micah Uetricht’s Strike for America and Labor Notes’ How to Jump-Start Your Union.

In the summer of 2017, O’Neal initiated a democratic socialist educators’ study group of No Shortcuts by Jane McAlevey, a manual and manifesto for working-class strategy in which the story of CTU and the 2012 strike plays a central role. The main political upshot of the book for Emily Comer — who in the fall of 2017 co-founded with O’Neal the viral Facebook group West Virginia Public Employees United — was its “clear analysis of the difference between real organizing and advocacy.”

Unlike CTU, she realized, West Virginia’s unions weren’t “building real power.” O’Neal agrees with this assessment, adding that “No Shortcuts was also really powerful because reading it made us realize: ‘Hey, socialists are usually at the front of a lot of big labor battles and strikes!’”

After months of build-up actions eventually pushed West Virginia’s unions to authorize a strike vote, educators across the state walked out in late February 2018, wresting significant gains across the board for students, educators, and public sector workers. Like in Chicago, West Virginia’s movement succeeded by wielding the strike weapon, emboldening rank-and-file workers, and winning over the public through broad demands and pro-active outreach to parents and students.

Chicago’s impact on the national teachers’ revolt was even more direct in Arizona. One of the core leaders of Arizona Educators United (AEU) — the rank-and-file group that initiated the state’s Red for Ed movement — was Rebecca Garelli, a Chicago native who had participated as a teacher in the 2012 strike. Garelli explains that her politicization took place primarily through the CTU:

That union militancy, for me, it all comes from Chicago. It was real democratic unionism. People who weren’t political, it made them political — and it sparked such camaraderie and solidarity in our building. Then when we were actually on strike [in 2012], marching in downtown Chicago, it was epic. We were under the high-rises and we’d see workers everywhere supporting us, waving, holding signs. And the union every day told us, “You have a job to do today.” We always had a task, it created this sense of unity and it politicized a lot of people in the process.

After West Virginia’s 2018 strike caught the imagination of teachers in Arizona, Garelli leaned on her Chicago experience to help AEU build up a site-liaison network of 2,000 rank-and-file teacher leaders across the state. Next she envisioned and coordinated an ambitious plan of escalating actions to involve educators and win over wavering parents: “I knew from Chicago that we had a lot of work to do before we were ready for something like a strike, particularly a statewide action.”

The work paid off: in late April 2018, tens of thousands of Arizonan educators walked out to demand better pay and more funding for their students. By shutting down schools across the state, they forced a Koch-bought Republican governor and legislature to cave to some of their central demands.

In the same way that Chicago’s strike galvanized educators across the nation, the teacher upsurge since West Virginia has helped reinvigorate the Chicago Teachers Union, which was subjected to a series of setbacks after 2012. CTU activist and teacher Debby Pope highlights this dynamic: “Chicago inspired educators across the country and helped give them confidence that they could really make change happen. As the Red for Ed movement has spread, it in turn has given back to us in Chicago and sustained us as a short term struggle morphed into a national movement for educational justice.”

The stakes of this week’s strike are high. By demanding smaller class sizes, affordable housing, and a nurse and counselor in every school, the CTU — in alliance with the support staff and park workers of SEIU Local 73 — is going on the offensive to reverse the damage done by years of budget cuts and corporate education reform.

And the strike’s impact will reverberate well beyond Chicago city limits. By walking out for their students this Thursday, Chicago educators can again help inspire workers across the country to fight back.

In many ways, the political situation today is more promising — and more explosive — than it was in 2012. The recent strike upsurge has not only raised the expectations of school workers and parents, it has forced Democratic Party politicians to distance themselves from the privatizers and pledge pay raises as well as increased school funding. Rank-and-file teacher caucuses have swept into union leadership across the country, and various cities and states are poised to follow suit.

The shutdown at General Motors, whose workers are entering into their fourth week of striking, has raised the specter of the strike upsurge spreading to the private sector. And with the rebirth of a democratic socialist movement, and the possibility of electing Bernie Sanders to president, militant educators have more real political allies in the community, and the halls of power, than ever before.

It will take a lot more strikes, and lot more political power, to win the quality schools — and the equitable society — that we all deserve. But as educators from Illinois to California to West Virginia have made clear, you should never underestimate the ability of workers to turn the world upside down. This week in Chicago, they are ready to do it again.