On Tuesday, September 18, after consulting with the union membership, the 800-person House of Delegates of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) voted overwhelmingly to accept a tentative settlement, thus suspending the teachers’ strike in Chicago. The membership will now vote on the proposed new contract while at the same time going back to work.

The 29,000-member CTU went on strike on September 10, defying Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel and corporate America, which stands squarely behind him. They gave a magnificent display of what real unions are all about. Faced with unrelenting attacks against themselves as educators and against public education as a whole, they didn’t negotiate terms of surrender; they stood up and fought back.

Every day CTU members were on the streets in their thousands: on picket lines outside their schools and in mass protests downtown. Because they systematically developed alliances with the communities they serve in the fight to stop school closings and budget cuts, they had the support of the overwhelming majority of the parents of the city’s 400,000 public school students.

And last Sunday, the union’s House of Delegates gave a brilliant lesson in how union democracy works when they refused to call off the strike based on a contract offer that they had many legitimate questions about. Instead, they insisted on going to consult the membership on the picket lines before reconvening on Tuesday. Because it’s far harder to go back on strike after you have pulled the picket lines, it was correct to keep the pickets in place during this two-day period of consultation with the membership.

But apparently this was too much for Mayor Emanuel, who sent his lawyers to court on Monday to get an injunction based on the assertion that the strike was “illegal on two grounds.” Upping the ante considerably, he claimed that the strike was called over issues that teachers are not legally permitted to strike about and that it endangered the health and safety of children. At a protest outside Emanuel’s office on Monday, LeShawn Williams, a registered nurse at Jackson Park Hospital, pointedly declared, “Mr. Mayor, if you cared about the health and the safety of our children, why did you allow these schools to be closed down and our kids to be sent to gang-infested neighborhoods? Why did you allow the classrooms without air-conditioning? Why is the roof leaking? Why are there no full-time nurses and social workers in the schools? Why do classrooms have over 40 students?” It is not the teachers who should be facing an injunction but rather the anti-children, anti-education policies of Emanuel, who has threatened that class sizes may go to 55 students!

What was this strike really about?

There has been a lot of commentary about the deeper issues behind the strike. One thing that is amply clear is that not only teachers, but most working-class people, now reject the arguments relentlessly pushed by the corporate “education reform” crowd that education alone is the key to fighting poverty and that, therefore, if poverty continues and grows, it must be the fault of bad teachers and their unions. They are also rejecting the connected argument that because of the very real problems in the public schools – change – any change – must be good.

These arguments are just a cover for the corporate agenda of privatizing education and union-busting. The “reformers” deliberately ignore the social crisis that impacts conditions in the schools and affects the capacity of teachers to have an impact. They seek to replace public schools with charter schools and use high-stakes tests as the basis for every policy decision, including whether to close schools, how to give teacher tenure, evaluations, etc.

Of course, we all want good teachers in every classroom. To put blame for the crisis of the public education on the shoulders of teachers, however, ignores the root cause of the crisis: a capitalist system that creates poverty and massive inequality. Eliminating poverty and inequality will require eliminating the social system which breeds these diseases.

Chicago was ground zero for education reform. It was the first city to introduce mayoral control of the schools 15 years ago. Eighty-seven percent of the city’s public school students come from low-income families; 80% are black or Hispanic. Now there are 50,000 students in charter schools in Chicago. Perhaps for them and their parents there is a feeling that education reform is working. Everyone else left behind in underfunded public schools has faced wave after wave of closings and has had to deal with the effects of growing violence in the city caused by the economic crisis. The support for this strike is showing that those whom education reform was supposed to benefit don’t buy it anymore.

Democratic Party Exposed

Taking on the Democratic Party establishment in the form of Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel weeks before the presidential election was a bold move, especially given the craven relationship that national union leaders have with the Democratic Party. This is especially true of the CTU’s parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers.

President Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan like to claim to be pro-education and pro-teacher. But the struggle in Chicago has made it amply clear that when it comes to public education and fighting the teacher unions, the only difference between Democrats like Emanuel and Republicans like the infamous Scott Walker of Wisconsin is that the Republicans want to bust unions outright. The Democrats, instead, want to leave them as hollow shells that can still send them money at election time. Both parties have signed up to the union-busting/privatization agenda. As one Chicago teacher’s placard stated: “Voted for Obama, Ended Up with Rahm-ney.”

This strike posed real problems for Obama’s reelection campaign. The teachers’ unions play a key role in the get-out-the-vote effort for the Democrats, and if the strike had a bitter end, it could have caused real problems in a number of “battleground” states. On the other hand, the Democrats dared not alienate their corporate backers, many of whom have directly financed the charter schools and other aspects of the “education reform” agenda. Emanuel is now personally head of “super PAC” fundraising for Obama, targeting precisely these elite individuals.

It is absolutely true that it was Emanuel’s arrogance that laid the basis for the strike, but it is also true that the CTU actually chose a very propitious moment to go on the offensive, given that the Democrats had a real incentive to get this over with during an election season.

Why the Strike Was a Success

In the broadest sense the strike was clearly a success. First of all, by daring to go on strike to stop the slow bleeding of their union by school closings and charter school privatization as well as demanding lower class sizes, more social workers and “wraparound” services, and even air conditioners in every classroom, the CTU has opened a new phase in the nationwide fight against corporate education reform. The strike helped to shift the public debate against corporate education reform, a process already underway. Also, by defending the public sector, the Chicago teachers picked up where the rebellion in Wisconsin against Scott Walker in 2011 left off.

Second, in the build-up to the strike and during the strike itself the CTU rebuilt the fighting strength of their union and created a new layer of activists in their ranks. These activists will not go back timidly to their classrooms but will fight relentlessly to enforce whatever gains were won in the new contract.

There has been a lot of talk about the role of Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, whose denunciations of Rahm Emanuel as a bully have made her a hero to teachers around the country. But the real reason why the CTU has gotten to the point where they are able to effectively stand up for themselves and their students is that a serious opposition group was built within the union several years ago. In June 2010, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) overwhelmingly won the union election and threw out the do-nothing, sell-out leadership that was prepared to continue the union’s slow march to the grave. As a result of school closings and charter school openings, the union has suffered a substantial loss of membership over the course of a decade.

The new leadership has continued CORE’s work of building a real coalition between teachers and parents in working-class communities around Chicago. It systematically mobilized the membership for the decisive contract fight. In the process, democracy in the union has been revitalized. All of these are necessary conditions for preparing the fight now underway. The CTU’s approach also unfortunately stands in stark contrast to that of the AFT’s national president, Randi Weingarten, and the bulk of the leadership of the labor movement in the U.S., who seem happy to preside over endless retreat.

Assessing the Settlement

While many of the conditions for a victorious outcome were in place, the reality is that the CTU is up against not just one arrogant, delusional mayor, but the agenda of the whole ruling class in the U.S. The leaders of the CTU have correctly stated that there is no way that one strike in one city, no matter how effective or determined, can reverse all the damage being done by the corporate education reformers. This was one battle in a larger war.

Nevertheless, many CTU activists are correctly asking whether the outcome will really slow down the most dangerous aspects of the corporate agenda in Chicago and buy the union and its allies the time to build for the next stage of this fight.

In trying to assess the settlement that was adopted by the House of Delegates yesterday, we in Socialist Alternative are fully aware that there are a number of complex questions that we can’t fully answer yet. We have members in other AFT affiliates but not in the CTU; so we are inevitably trying to read between the lines on some points.

What is clear is that the union has scored some real victories in stopping aspects of Emanuel’s agenda. Emanuel made a concession in his plan for a longer school day, which originally would have meant teachers working 20% extra time with no raise in pay. Now, laid-off teachers will be re-hired to fill in the extra time. The union’s negotiating team also succeeded in getting merit pay taken off the table and in defending pay scales based on duration of service and educational level. They also stopped threatened attacks to the workers’ health insurance plan.

But it is also clear that job security and the new evaluation system mandated by state law are still huge issues. There are reports that Emanuel is planning to close up to 120 more schools on the South and West sides of the city (Chicago Tribune, 9/11/12). Let us be clear: if Emanuel succeeds in closing nearly a fifth of the city’s schools and replacing them with more non-union charter schools, it will be a decisive defeat for the union. The new evaluation system, driven by Obama’s Race to the Top Program, is also a key issue. It will be heavily based on test scores (minimum 30% according to state law; Emanuel wanted to raise it to 40% but was forced to back away from this in the new contract). The goal is wholesale firings of those deemed “underperforming,” and for them to be replaced by low-paid new teachers. If Emanuel succeeds in this, it will drastically undermine the union’s strength.

According to the summary provided by the union leadership, the new contract would create a hiring pool that requires that half of all new Chicago Public Schools hiring must be of laid-off CTU members. CTU members in closed schools will now “follow their students” to new locations, but it is not clear how this will stop the overall shrinking of the school system and the union membership.

The proposed contract keeps the proportion of the evaluation based on test scores to the minimum required by state law. It also includes a guarantee of no firing for the first year that someone is deemed “underperforming.” It also includes an appeal process for ratings, which did not exist before, but the experience of New York teachers should be a warning here. In New York under Mayor Bloomberg (another hero of “education deform”), where an appeal process has long existed, the number of successful appeals has dropped from 20% to around 2% in the last ten years.

These are serious concerns. While class sizes have not been reduced, it appears that class sizes are to be maintained at the present level. On an issue that will be important to many parents, it appears there has been only a vague commitment to hiring more social workers and providing other “wraparound” services if “new revenue” is found.

Preparing for the Battles to Come

Since the detailed contract has not yet been made public, it is unclear what other substantial issues might be included in the contract.

But even a partial victory that allows the CTU to keep fighting will be an enormous achievement with national repercussions. Clearly this is just one battle in the larger war to defend public education in Chicago, nationally, and internationally. It has been an important battle that has shown that the strike tactic, when based on a mobilized membership and community support, is still the best weapon labor has to defend the interests of workers and the public.

It is essential that the CTU immediately prepare a massive campaign, building on the support for the strike, to demand a moratorium on school closings, substantially lower class sizes, and an end to mayoral control of the schools. This means re-dedicating the union to building support in the community. It also means further strengthening and expanding the activist base of the union.

But in order to win this larger battle to defend public education and to reverse the concessions forced on the union by Mayor Emanuel and the city council, the union must now step forward and politically confront the whole education agenda, which is backed by both major political parties. One crucial lesson, that is not being discussed, even by most of the left in the union, is the need to break with the Democratic Party. Trying to fight the thoroughly bipartisan attacks on public education while still tied to one of the corporate parties is a losing strategy.

It is essential that the leadership of the union begin now laying the groundwork to run independent working-class candidates on an anti-budget cuts, pro-public education platform. This strike demonstrates the potential support for such a step. By running independent candidates, the union could expose further the pro-corporate education agenda and organize that anger into a powerful new political force to change politics in the city. Preparation should begin now to run candidates in Chicago for mayor, city council, and the state legislature.

The CTU is in a position to point a new direction for labor. In doing so, they have a unique opportunity to build links with other public sector workers for the inevitable struggles to come. Next time it shouldn’t be just teachers that come out on strike: it should be transit workers, postal workers, and state employees, all of whom are under ferocious attack by the bosses.