The experience of radical and socialist Chicago teachers is a textbook case of the rank-and-file strategy in practice: finding the organic leaders who are already there, organizing for power in the union, making alliances with the community, organizing and teaching members to fight the boss, fighting that boss, winning strikes — and raising the consciousness of thousands of educators.
In 2008, a small group of Chicago teachers began meeting. Some had been trying to stop the closing of their neighborhood schools. Their local union was a lumbering bureaucracy that was absent from the pressing concerns of students and educators. They started recruiting other teachers and read about the history of their local, rank-and-file caucuses in other unions, and Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.
This group called themselves CORE, Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators. They began modeling the work the union should have been doing — going to every hearing on school closings, critiquing the school system’s budget, meeting other outraged educators and parents. “The old CTU leadership never thought about the parents, ever. It was just bread and butter, take care of the members,” said special ed teacher Kristine Mayle.
In 2010, CORE beat the odds by getting elected to lead the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Immediately the new leaders set up an organizing department and began a plan to rebuild the union at the school level. They emphasized identifying and training leaders in every school to talk one on one with fellow members and begin rekindling the idea that the union could actually do something about bad working and learning conditions.
CORE leaders believed it would take a strike to change the balance of power with “Mayor 1%” Rahm Emanuel. All their organizing — their Contract Action Committees in each school, alliances with parents and community organizations, phone banking new members, setting up a month-long summer organizing institute, their strike vote and their practice strike vote, built toward that possibility. They began with small but measurable asks such as “wear red Fridays,” where school staff could see for themselves how many of their co-workers were backing the union’s campaign. Ninety percent of teachers — and 98 percent of those voting — said yes to authorizing a strike. Their slogan was “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve.” They called out administrators of the mostly Black and Latino system for creating “educational apartheid.”
CTU’s nine-day strike in 2012 brought 35,000 school workers and supporters into the streets of downtown Chicago and turned around the then-current national narrative — that teachers were to blame for everything wrong with the schools. Here teachers were fighting for students’ lives: smaller class sizes, nurses and social workers, music, art and physical education, as well as raises for workers.
Although the contract didn’t win everything and included a few setbacks, there was no question among educators and every resident of Chicago who had won the strike, and it wasn’t Rahm Emanuel. CTU President Karen Lewis became a national figure, and two years later was a viable candidate to beat Emanuel in the next mayoral election until she had to withdraw due to illness.
CTU went on to a one-day strike in 2016 demanding school funding, and an open-ended strike again in 2019, this time putting housing and the school-to-prison pipeline at the center of the union’s demands and forcing the mayor to come up with money she claimed was not there. They won steps towards a nurse and a social worker in every school, a ban on new charter schools, 40 percent wage increases for paraprofessionals, improved enforcement of class sizes, more case managers and homeless coordinators, and a sanctuary schools policy for immigrant students.
Each battle that CTU waged produced more rank-and-file leaders and heightened member initiative, including the battle to protect educators and families with a safe school reopening plan. The transformation of CTU altered the political terrain in Chicago, helping to create the conditions that allowed six DSA members to be elected as alders in 2019.