Tomorrow over a million public sector workers will go on strike. Amy Gilligan reviews Micah Uetricht’s recent book Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity which looks at how teachers in Chicago organised and won.
Originally published in the Summer 2014 edition of the rs21 magazine
The story of the victorious Chicago teachers’ strike in 2012 is inspiring for a number of reasons. It shows that it is possible to take on, and win against, austerity driven attacks in the public sector. It shows it is possible for trade unions to organise around big political questions and win high levels of support from the the wider community. It shows it is possible to confident rank and file that can take on politicians, management, anti-trade union laws and the leaders of their own unions. In Britain, the strike has been cited by all sides in recent debates in the NUT. Micah Uetricht’s short book recounts the experiences of the strike and how it was built. It is a useful resource for anyone who thinks such victories are needed.
The roots that the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) had in the local community provided a crucial dimension to the strike. This meant when politicians tried to claim teachers were damaging children’s education, they found very little traction among parents and the wider Chicago population. During city centre strike rallies, other workers came out into the streets to show their support. The author describes how, just because he was wearing a red strike t-shirt, he was given free coffee and bus rides in solidarity with the strike.
It is clear from the book that the successes CTU have had would not have been possible without developing a rooted rank and file organisation in every school. In the first section of the book, Uetricht looks in detail at how this was built. He argues that the 2012 strike would have never happened without the victory of CORE – the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators – in the union’s internal elections in 2010. CORE developed as a response from rank and file teachers and community groups to the closure of schools and the failure of the leadership of CTU take action. It managed to win the election partly because it organised from below, over many years, but also because it had a political vision of a different kind of education system.
CORE has been committed to developing union activists across the union, and encouraging school level organising. This meant during the 2012 strike, teachers were able to organise actions, such as marches on the mayor’s house, independently from the CTU leadership. It meant that when a contract was negotiated during the strike, the union leadership felt they had to extend the strike for two extra days to give union members time to read the contract properly. The leadership knew they couldn’t impose something on a membership that had developed a strong democratic culture and were not dependent on the union’s leadership to take action.
There is much we can learn from how the Chicago teachers, and the left within the CTU, have organised. Winning wider community support for workers taking strike action, making the strike a political fight for a different vision of education, and having members who were confident to lead in their own workplaces were all key parts of the victory in 2012. Rank and file organisation is probably where we are weakest in public sector trade unions in Britain. Strike for America is a refreshing read about how it is possible to build such organisation and, crucially, win.