Chicago Teachers Union VP: 10 Years Ago, We Went on Strike and Won

Before the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike against Rahm Emanuel 10 years ago, corporate reformers were on the march and teachers were on the ropes. The CTU won that strike, beat back neoliberal Democrats, and turned the tide in favor of public education.

Chicago teachers on strike on September 10, 2012. (Alejandro Quinones / Flickr)

Before the late Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) president Karen Lewis was a folk hero for teachers and workers everywhere for her stellar leadership of the CTU during and after the historic 2012 strike, she was at the helm of a union weakened by decades of moribund business unionism and neoliberal school reform.

In 2011, just one year prior to the strike, the CTU experienced one of the most intense, coordinated, and well-funded attacks on workers’ bargaining rights in Illinois history. The bill known as SB7 initially attempted to strip the union of the right to strike altogether. Legislators and astroturf groups eventually settled on requiring 75 percent of all Chicago teachers to vote in favor of a strike to authorize one (rather than, say, a simple majority or even 75 percent of voting teachers), the highest bar to clear for any workers in the state. One of our key allies, former president of Service Employees International Union Health Care Illinois Indiana Keith Kelleher, told us that he thought “the CTU was fucked” after the SB7’s passage.

Additionally, two decades of corporate-led school reform, initiated in 1983 by Ronald Reagan’s administration, spurred a wave of privatization and undermined contractual rights for teachers across the country. That year, secretary of education Terrel Bell published the Nation at Risk report. In 1987, Reagan’s next education secretary, William Bennett, took specific aim at Chicago, calling our schools the worst in the country — a less aggressive version of Donald Trump’s racist, dystopian rhetoric about the city during the George Floyd protests.

A Nation at Risk established a template for elites on how to wage a propaganda campaign to undermine American confidence in public schools. Despite the Democratic Party’s domination in Chicago, local politicians answered the Reagan administration’s call and advanced the most aggressive wave of school privatization in the city’s history.

In the 1980s and ’90s, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) initiated a series of reforms that required all school staff to reapply for their jobs. The subsequent wave of charter school expansion and school closings had the greatest harm and impact on black students and teachers. As a result, the percentage of black teachers to went from 41 percent of the district to 21 percent today.

The genesis of the most audacious plan to privatize Chicago schools was launched by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, a constellation of seventy-five senior executives from the region’s most powerful corporations. In 2003, the committee published its blueprint for schools in a report called Left Behind; the CEOs explicitly targeted the CTU as the city’s greatest obstacle to school reform. This report would get broadcast as official city policy the following year by Mayor Richard M. Daley and his handpicked CEO of schools, Paul Vallas, and his successor, Arne Duncan, in their Renaissance 2010 initiative.

The school I taught at, Englewood High, was closed the following year, 2005, when then CEO Arne Duncan publicly argued that the school was characterized by a “culture of failure.” The closures were the culmination of the Commercial Club’s plan calling for the creation of one hundred new schools and the closing of poorly performing neighborhood schools. Almost twenty years later, 114 charters serve nearly 15 percent of the students in CPS.

As scholar Pauline Lipman has documented, gentrification and charter school proliferation often went hand in hand to, in the words of one black parent, “fade out our schools and open charter schools and push the people out of our communities.”

If A Nation at Risk and Renaissance 2010 represented an assault on public education as we knew it, the 2012 strike was its antidote. After twenty-five years of concessionary contracts, teachers were either going to confront the privatization juggernaut or surrender to it.

Beating Rahm

Karen Lewis, Jesse Sharkey, and a slate of activists who had organized with community organizations to oppose school closures and turnarounds won a surprise victory for the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) in the 2010 internal union leadership election. The SB7 legislation to try to kneecap CTU was in no small part a response to CORE’s victory, since the union’s opponents knew we were willing to go on strike in defense of our vision for public education.

Then came Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Shortly after he was elected, he illegally eliminated a contractually negotiated teacher raise and was quoted as saying “teachers got a raise, our children got the shaft.” In his inauguration speech, he quoted former education secretary Bennett (a Republican) and said Chicago schools were “the worst in the nation,” only brought back from the brink by Mayor Daley’s privatization efforts.

Rahm was a perfect nemesis. He was crude, entitled, and arrogant. Lewis told the press that in one conversation, Rahm cursed her out, saying, “Fuck you, Lewis”; Lewis accused the administration of defending “educational apartheid.” When the mayor audaciously tried to eviscerate our contract and lengthen our school day by 20 percent without any additional resources for teachers, we fought back.

For over a year, the CTU mapped our school buildings, wore red on Fridays, conducted informational pickets with parents, and joined with community and labor allies to become strike ready. The results are history: A “sea of red” of 30,000 educators in the streets resoundingly rejected the mayor’s attacks on schools and advanced an alternative vision, the “Schools Our Children Deserve,” that became a template for teacher unions to dream big internationally. Those same 30,000 people clogged the streets of downtown Chicago for a week denouncing the mayor, his attacks on public education, and standing unabashedly for organized labor.

The effect was electric and unmistakable. Every TV channel and radio station had no choice but to broadcast the compelling message and overwhelming show of force by educators rejecting everything those same media outlets had claimed was legitimate educational policy for decades. For the first time, local and national media had to show the categorical rejection of such failed policies by the people of Chicago.

Despite definitively outmaneuvering the mayor in the 2012 contract campaign, in the winter of 2013, Mayor Emanuel closed the greatest number of schools in our country’s history, fifty-four, concentrated overwhelmingly in black neighborhoods. While our current mayor, Lori Lightfoot, has only closed three schools, it would be a mistake to see her as fundamentally different from her predecessors.

If there is a difference between Lightfoot and Emanuel, it has to do with the rate of change each sought or seeks, not the direction of their program. Lightfoot would’ve liked to close more schools, but the intense resistance by the CTU and community groups created new conditions, like contractual and legislative moratoriums on closings (maintained by an eleven-day strike in 2019), that make her attacks on public schools not just politically impossible but legally unavailable.

We Are Winning

In many respects, the 2012 strike was a defensive one. We fought off a full-scale privatization of Chicago schools and an effort to greatly diminish victories won by over seventy years of bargaining history. In the intervening years, we’ve had an additional eight to nine strikes, depending on how you count them — largely a result of the first charter school strikes waged in the country and the merger between the Chicago charter local, American Federation of Teachers Local 4343, and the CTU.

The last big strike that the CTU waged was in 2019, and in many respects it remains our most transformational. We waged a fight for social-justice initiatives in the district and won.

We won a nurse and social worker in every school for the first time in the history of the union. We established first-time contract provisions for services and staffing for homeless students, the first hard caps on class sizes in twenty-five years, the first moratorium on new charter schools, sanctuary and bilingual education advances for undocumented and non-English-speaking students, and we finally established the district’s first elected (rather than undemocratically, mayorally appointed) school board. Soon after, the dark cloud of COVID-19 sapped our energy and tested our solidarity, but we have been through similar threats in the past and persevered — and will again.

For example, in February 2023, Chicago’s mayor and all fifty city council members will be up for reelection. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is unpopular. Her policies, like those of her predecessors, have accelerated inequality and the displacement of the city’s black and Latino communities and the institutions that serve them. In response, an energized labor-community-left coalition that the CTU helped create, the United Working Families, has developed a legitimate program to win key political fights and built a pole of resistance to challenge the business class for power over the city.

None of this could have happened without our strike a decade ago. The 2012 walkoff was an inspiration to us all, helped lead to a national Red for Ed strike wave, and affected a sea change within the labor movement and in public education all across the country and the globe. And we’re just getting started.