Lessons from Chicago Teachers —- Coalition Prepares for Fightback


By Steve Edwards, President, AFSCME Local 2858

CORE represents the response of rank and file teachers to the City of Chicago’s attacks on their union and on public education.

These attacks reached a new low with the 2004 plan “Renaissance 2010”. The plan aimed to close 60 to 70 existing public schools and replace them with publicly funded but privately and undemocratically run charter schools.

Subject to no community or even academically comprehensible control, and with state law prohibiting the Chicago Teachers Union from organizing their employees, they are allowed to pick and choose which students they will accept and they are staffed by young and untrained teachers through programs like “Teach for America.” Most of these teachers burn out after two or three years on the job.

The teachers union, at that time led by the so-called “United Progressive Caucus” which had run the CTU for all but three of the previous forty years, was far too busy fighting off reformers within the union to fight back against these attacks.

Instead, angry parents and teachers came together with a number of existing educational reform and neighborhood groups to form Chicago GEM (Grassroots Education Movement). Amongst other dangers, they warned the Chicago Board of Education that some students would be terrorized or even killed as a result of school closures when they had to cross unfamiliar neighborhoods and gang territories to get to their new schools. Despite the fact that these warnings proved tragically accurate, the board, appointed by Chicago’s hereditary Mayor, Daley, continued on its predetermined path.

Out of this fight, young teacher activists and more seasoned union reformers created CORE – the Caucus of Rank and File Educators. CORE began to act like the leadership that the teachers union needed, analyzing what was wrong with “Ren 10,” organizing neighborhood and downtown rallies against school closures and successfully preventing six out of twelve planned school closings in 2009. They forced the old-guard leadership to call demonstrations which they themselves then built, under their own name and that of the CTU itself.

From the beginning, CORE was much more than an electoral slate, leading struggles, involving other rank-and-file members, creating a special category of membership for community supporters and taking votes internally to determine who its candidates would be in union elections.

In the May 2010 elections CORE forced the UPC slate into a runoff, with Karen Lewis, their candidate for president, coming within 500 votes of incumbent Marilyn Stewart. With thousands of members convinced that the future of the union was at stake, the four other opposition slates came together to support CORE in the runoff. CORE’s flyer for that runoff included this program:

CORE’s Plan for the Chicago Teachers Union:

  1. Get members on board with a common strategy
  2. Mobilize the union against the budget cuts
  3. Fix the public image of teachers and teachers unions
  4. Reach out to community groups, parents and students
  5. Improve contract enforcement
  6. Get information out to members in a timely manner
  7. Develop a legal strategy
  8. Develop a political strategy
  9. Fight for our contract. For a union with a clear vision of what we need to be strong again…


Friday, June 11, 2010 Emphasizing their commitment to the principle that no decision should be made without the membership, this plan intentionally left many details to be filled in. Neither the red-baiting nor the fact that paid union staff unconstitutionally campaigned against them was able to prevent them from winning a 3-2 victory in the runoff.

CORE is now firmly in the leadership of the third-largest local in the American Federation of Teachers. Within 96 hours of the victory their employer, the Democratic machine-controlled City government of Chicago, had thrown down its challenge to them, threatening 2,700 layoffs of CTU members. This would bring class sizes up to 35 if the new leadership did not agree to reopen the union contract and give up members’ scheduled 4% raises.

The new leaders have refused to accept that giving up raises has anything to do with preventing these cuts. They are demanding both that the Board of Education open the books and that the Daley administration release hundreds of millions in TIF (Tax Increment Financing) money which has been taken out of general city funds to give to politically connected businesses and property developers. Parent groups and the union are now uniting to demand that this money be used for education.

Under enormous pressure from city and state government and the corporate media, and with many hostile union staffers still in place from the old regime, the new leadership is furiously multitasking. This includes going forward with plans to march in the nation’s biggest African-American parade, the Bud Billiken Parade, on August 14 – the first such appearance of the CTU in that parade since 2003.

In this situation it is essential that the CTU leadership reach out to other unions for support, beginning with the public sector: AFSCME, the Teamsters and the Service Employees, amongst others. The entire labor movement and workers everywhere must support the teachers in their struggle to defend public education. But teachers must not let the rest of the labor leadership off the hook. They must insist on all of the solidarity and support that the rest of the movement can muster.

There are important lessons in the CORE victory for working people and activists trying to transform their unions into fighting organizations and battle budget cuts. One lesson is that struggle wins victories; another is that those victories can inspire bigger battles. Crucially, broad organized caucuses need to be formed in unions that refuse to fight. These caucuses need to act like a sitting leadership by promoting pickets and protests, building links in communities and putting forward a program to bring the union and the working class as a whole forward. A good leadership cannot guarantee victory; we need structures built from below to continue the fight even after defeats.

Teachers and other unions must also reject all budget cuts and mobilize together to fight for better services. We didn’t make this crisis, and we won’t be forced to pay for it. Taxing the rich, ending the wars, and public ownership are the solutions to the jobs massacre, not concessions or picking and choosing the services we can “do without.” If the capitalist system can’t afford good services, then we can’t afford the capitalist system.