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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/The limits of progressive unionism: the politics of the Chicago Teachers Union’s April 1, 2016 strike

The limits of progressive unionism: the politics of the Chicago Teachers Union’s April 1, 2016 strike

Platypus Review #86 | May 2016

THE CHICAGO TEACHERS UNION (CTU)—American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 1—conducted an unprecedented, bold, and possibly illegal one-day strike on Friday, April 1, 2016. The strike was initially called to protest threatened cuts in pay during contract negotiations and to send a message: “Continue like this and we will strike!” The CTU leaders changed that focus in the week preceding the strike; by strike day, it became a strike for increased state funding for education and all social services.

Illinois’s union-busting, multi-millionaire Republican Governor, Bruce Rauner, has refused to agree to a state spending budget since July 1, 2015. This has meant great and growing hardships across the state. Hundreds of human service programs for the working class and the poor have been and are being cut, from mental health facilities to state universities. Rauner refused to sign a budget in order to force the Democratic Party-majority legislature to pass his proposed union-busting state laws. So far it’s a standoff and the human cost grows day by day.

The CTU’s April 1 strike has been widely hailed as a strong, even radical, political strike while building on the CTU’s strong and popular 2012 strike. Both actions are a bold contrast to the modus operandi of most teacher and public sector unions, which normally bargain for the least damage they can get rather than mobilize to fight. These unions and their members are facing huge challenges in the present and daunting prospects for the future. Nonetheless, the CTU’s April 1 strike was transformed from a militant defense of contractual gains into a generalized call for funding in a state without a budget. It appeared to be a retreat, with many teachers unsure of the legal status of the strike and fearful of possible Chicago Public Schools (CPS) retaliation. One factor contributing to this uncertainty was the failure of CTU President Karen Lewis to communicate well with members before the strike authorization vote.

On April 1, the CTU did not raise any specific economic demands. Instead, I saw calls on both the legislature and the governor to come up with funding. Nor, in the many public statements that I saw, did the CTU even target Rauner as the enemy. However, after the strike, CTU president Karen Lewis addressed the City Club of Chicago quite clearly on both Rauner and funding sources, saying, “The CTU has been clear on its revenue positions: tax the rich, rein in the banks, and close the budget gaps. Structural solutions require progressive income tax.” About Rauner she said, “(He) is a liar…. Has Homeland security checked this man out yet? Because the things he's doing look like acts of terror on poor and working class people.”1

Changing the focus of the April 1 strike away from the conflict with management was a political tradeoff for the CTU: It meant no retaliation from Chicago Public Schools against teachers who went on strike, while the highly unpopular Democratic mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, went from enemy to silent ally. What appears to be militant and radical looks different in this context. From a potent weapon in a tough negotiation with a Chicago Board of Education appointed by the politically-crippled Mayor Emanuel, the April 1 strike appeared to morph into an innocuous joint appeal with the Board for state funding.

Governor Rauner’s agenda is divide-and-rule class warfare: Either put the unions on the chopping block or let the poor and working class pay the price with their health, education, and welfare. Rauner is following the neo-liberal strategy of “starving the beast” and breaking the unions. This has been going on for 35 years and the unions' traditional politics have completely failed. They have relied on the Democratic Party “friends of labor” and defensive, limited, and superficial labor actions. We've suffered 35 years of defeats for tens of millions while capital has taken all the productivity gains. With a few exceptions, like the 1997 Teamsters strike, we get unending defeats for union and non-union workers and families.

Madison, 2011: Radical union leads “Madison Uprising,” AFL-CIO leaders sabotage movement for general strike

Governor Rauner's attack sets the stage for ‘another Madison.’ There, in 2011, Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker introduced a bill to cut healthcare and education while simultaneously eliminating public unions’ legal abilities to collect their “fair share” of dues and to negotiate over working conditions or anything beyond pay. At first the state union leaders accepted the cuts in both education and healthcare that hurt hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin residents. What happened next broke the traditional union pattern: The University of Wisconsin's graduate students' union voted to oppose Walker's proposed cuts with a strike. Their strike opened the door for thousands of students and teachers who filled the streets (backed by their AFT Local's Executive Board), effectively shutting down Madison's public schools for the whole week. Breaking what's called 'union solidarity' (meaning following the leaders), the graduate teachers' strike and school teachers' response sparked an outpouring of tens of thousands of angry unionists and allies from across Wisconsin and the Midwest who flooded the Capital and occupied it for weeks. That Local union broke the rules and opened the door for the “Madison Uprising.”

Back in those cold and exciting Madison days, when “We are all Egyptians” was the consciousness, there was growing support for organizing a state-wide—general—strike among those marching and occupying the state Capitol. A handful of us, initially either IWW members or friends, passed out thousands of fliers explaining the common issues and what a general strike was. We talked with many marchers in the streets, in the restaurants, and in the Capitol itself. More than once, the Capitol halls reverberated to the mass chant “General Strike! General Strike!” The Madison-area South Central AFL-CIO voted to prepare for a general strike and several local unions held such preparation meetings. Many people in the streets, both union and non-union, responded enthusiastically, saying, “That’s a great idea! That’ll stop this nonsense. Why haven’t the unions done that?”

Madison showed that workers in motion responded well to the general strike proposal. Many freely gave us their contact info, union locals, etc. But we had no established class-solidarity groups with which they could connect. And they were not about to become a state-wide organizing group that day.

The general strike idea was created and publicized first by three of us in or friendly to the IWW. The International Socialist Organization, probably the largest left group visible, wouldn’t get involved in this; instead, they supported a National Nurses Union petition calling on the AFL-CIO to take action. Soon, however, we were joined by other anti-capitalist Left groups and individuals ranging from syndicalist and anarchist to communist and socialist, including Socialist Alternative. What did we have in common? A clear understanding that both the unions' top structures and the Democratic Party were our enemies, and a clear understanding that workers have the potential to shut down and even throw off the domination of capital and the potential to create new social relations based on freely-associated labor, mutual solidarity, working class control over production for use, and building an egalitarian society. At a practical level, we lacked a network of similar groups to which we could direct our new friends. We certainly did not (and do not now) have a revolutionary organization with such groups across Wisconsin. Still, we did manage to work toward the common objective: Defeat the capitalist attack and bring forth working class power.

Madison also showed the key role of unions willing to break ranks with the conservative union leadership. Even the local Firemen's union voted unanimously to oppose the threatened legislation despite being exempt from its provisions. They also voted to support the general strike! The moment for building actual workers' power was ripe indeed.

But the state AFL-CIO leaders refused to lift a finger. When asked if they'd help, they said, “No way. If we do support a general strike, they’ll take our treasuries and put us in jail.” Instead, they pushed hard for the recall elections backed by the national AFL-CIO. The goal was to replace both Walker and some of hard-core Republican state senators with Democrats. Wisconsin state senate Democrats had left the state, depriving Governor Walker of the quorum needed to vote on his legislation. This inspired widespread hope. They returned to Madison with a hero’s welcome from huge crowds. As it turned out, however, the Democrat running against Walker for governor in the recall had called for and even implemented many of the same anti-union, anti-worker cuts and “reforms” in Milwaukee, not even defending the unions in his campaign. This Republican-lite lost the recall election—no surprise. But the AFL-CIO strategy was successful on one front: They took people out of the streets, ended the movement for a statewide strike/mobilization, and led the fight into a politically 'safe” dead-end. Mission accomplished.

Chicago, April 1, 2016: Enthusiastic CTU turnout, a handful of union “allies,” and the AFL-CIO’s fear of “another Madison”

Now Illinois workers face the same threat, only in a Democratic Party-controlled legislature. Hence Rauner’s blackmail. How did the CTU and Illinois’ unions (and what’s left of the Left) respond?

In this context, one would think the militant, progressive CTU with 25,000 members and popular leaders would spearhead a drive to unite various city and state unions facing an existential threat together with the many social service agencies and those hurt by the cuts into a powerful force—and that’s what the April 1 strike promised to do. The CTU announced that their strike would be supported by many of those unions and social service agencies. What actually happened?

Friday, April 1 was cold and rainy but the turnout at the central downtown rally was warm, feisty, and large. The rally numbered 10-15,000, largely white, young and old, with students and parents, packed with red CTU tee-shirts and hats. Yet the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), despite having hundreds of union members working downtown and facing contract demands from Governor Rauner to accept a pay cut, increased healthcare costs, the end of seniority protections for layoffs, and ending fair share dues collection for their 60,000 members statewide, brought only a few staffers and no contingent of workers. During the rally I did see an AFSCME union banner, but I did not see a union banner with more than a handful of union officers or staff members. Downtown was the central target for a show of unity and strength; as such, it wasn't.

It’s true that were many local demonstrations and rallies across the city that day for state funding and in solidarity with the CTU strike, from Northeastern Illinois University on the northwest side to Chicago State University on the far southeast, and many locations in between. The Labor Notes convention taking place that weekend in Chicago saw hundreds come out to support service workers at O’Hare airport. But why didn't AFSCME and other unions bring their members to the April 1 rally? After all, every public sector union in Illinois could be decimated, as happened in Wisconsin—where over 30% of public sector union members quit after Walker's law passed, with no effective union resistance. Still, there was no real turnout downtown from the Chicago unions despite their having over 100,000 area members in the area. Why not?

In Chicago, as elsewhere, most unions discourage member activism except during contract negotiations or to lobby over legislation. Further, on a day-to-day basis, they mostly operate as junior partners with management rather than as adversaries. For example, the skilled trade unions promote their services as providing more skilled, more efficient, more productive labor. And selling “labor peace” has meant no political challenge to the two-party duopoly. Meanwhile, non-union labor does more work for less pay and fewer benefits. As elsewhere in the U.S., most Chicago unions promote their “friends of labor” Democrats (including openly corporate Mayor Emanuel). Thus, like so many U.S. unions, their daily routine as business partners with management, their top-down structure with their internal political machines, their often high levels of pay and benefits, and their acceptance of legal constraints, and their fear of workers “getting out of hand” all work to keep the union structures quiescent despite facing Rauner's capitalist-inspired attacks. In reality, most (but not all) unions are fully integrated into capitalist structures and ideology and fight to isolate and marginalize the radical left—to isolate and marginalize those who would break free from capitalism’s constraints rather than constantly choose “the lesser of two evils.” The Chicago AFL-CIO leaders fear “another Madison.” They fear that an open conflict here would bring a massive defeat. Rather than risk a fight against their daily allies they pass paper resolutions and do nothing. Like the Wisconsin union leaders, they don't mobilize “their” workers—let alone the wider working class—beyond lobbying politicians and contract bargaining activities.

Since the established union bodies won't organize this fight, who will? Will the CTU be that organizing leader, breaking ranks and leading a grass-roots working class mobilization and effective resistance? The CTU sent busloads of members to join the Madison demonstrations in 2011. Did the CTU leaders learn the bitter lessons from that Uprising? Have they become the more powerful union that breaks the pattern, learning from the Graduate students' daring lead? Or will they remain in the traditional pattern, even while pushing the limits within those bonds?

To their credit, the CTU did get the endorsements of various unions for their one-day strike and the many Chicago-area mobilizations. However, their union allies' miniscule turnout downtown suggests that such paper agreements mean little. Hence, if the CTU wants to build such a real common front, they would have to prepare their members to reach out to other workers and their local unions directly. Building such a fighting front would require hundreds of dedicated volunteers, volunteers ready and willing to engage other union workers, social service providers, and people who depend on state services, to spread the word across their social media, to go to workplaces and public transit stations with literature, and to speak publicly in churches and community organizations. It would entail building groups dedicated to organizing their fellow workers to make an effective fight. This requires real human and material resources. The CTU has both.

Because such worker-to-worker organizing and outreach would mean effectively opposing the union officials' stand, it would bring a sharp attack from the other unions' leaders—to them, it would be sabotage. It would violate their norms of staying out of other unions' affairs and protecting the leaders from criticism. This break from standard procedures would be taken as a declaration of war. Further, any such mobilization would have to propose specific steps to fill the huge public debts and budget shortfalls. It would mean fighting to “Make the Rich Pay,” not the workers and poor.

The CTU, 2012: success in organizing a strike vote, unwillingness to mobilize against school closures

Is there any evidence that the CTU leaders or their leading union caucus, CORE, is headed in that direction? The CTU’s preparation for and conduct of the 2012 strike sheds light on this vital question. State law (aka SB7) requires the CTU (and only the CTU) to get at least 75% of the total active membership to authorize a strike. As someone who worked as part of a local union leadership for three years to win even 65%, I can attest to how hard a target that is. The CTU embarked on a careful, well-organized, step-by-step process to find strong leaders from over 500 schools across the city. They trained hundreds of these leaders to become organizers—to build support in their schools, inform members, answer questions, develop solidarity campaigns with parents and students, all creating confidence. The CTU was overwhelmingly successful: 92% voted Yes to authorize the 2012 strike—92% of the total membership, not only of those voting! This shocked the entire corporate establishment, who had been promised that 75% was an impassable strike barrier. Mayor Emanuel immediately softened his bargaining stance. The fight was on and the CTU scored a major victory against Emanuel and the CPS board.

Was there a key weakness? Yes: There was no preparation to fight the threatened and unprecedented closing of 50 neighborhood schools, almost all in Black working-class neighborhoods. While the new CTU leaders talked much and often of their fight to defend and improve neighborhood schools, they completely ignored the challenges to stopping the closings before and during the strike. There was plenty of rhetoric but no plan to prepare the members for that fight. In fact, the school closings were never even on the negotiation table, and the Mayor’s Board closed the schools the following spring to devastating effect across the Black community and to the large number of African-American teachers laid off in those closures. Effective public relations were not backed by preparation and action to force the issue and win.

Was it legally possible for the CTU to have made the school closings a strike issue? Despite what many say, the answer is yes. Illinois state law lists such closings as “Permissible subjects of bargaining.” This means that both sides must agree to do so. (In fact, the current contract negotiations contain an agreement by both sides that CPS will not close any neighborhood schools for two years.) If one side refuses, the item is not a subject of negotiations and cannot be part of the settlement. However, this does not stop other parties from pushing the Board to negotiate over the closings. Parents and students could have fought for this, as churches, mosques, synagogues, community organizations, other unions, etc., could have as well. But the CTU never prepared their members to work towards this as part of their strike preparation outreach.

In the buildup before the strike, the CTU had widespread support for its push for improved local schools that would include art, music, gym, and playground personnel. The CTU leaders stressed the fact that Mayor Emanuel’s children went to a private school where the students had all that, and more. Thus, they drew upon well-founded class resentment to build public support. Furthermore, the CTU built on much working class public anger against the widely despised corporate-dominated School Board, infamous for its focus on testing, its insider contracts, its replacement of local schools with charter schools, and its poor performance. When teachers actually went out on strike, many parents and students walked the picket lines across the city, often bringing coffee and donuts to warm and support them. Opinion polls showed majority support for the teachers and much anger at Mayor Emanuel.

Was it politically possible to mobilize this widespread, even majority support to force the Board to negotiate its proposed school closings? Yes: the support was visible. The potential existed to force the CPS Board to negotiate their planned closings. Not doing so gave the appearance that the CTU was not serious about defending education for the Black community, a painful and all-too-common reality of many teachers' and other unions. The CTU leadership never even discussed fighting to stop the closings with CTU members during those months of strike preparation during the spring of 2011, nor did they go beyond rhetoric in making those closings part of the strike demands. Why did the CTU leadership lack the political will to organize their willing members to defend public education, their jobs, and their union as conscious fighters in this class war?

CTU president Karen Lewis marches in step with two-time Democratic Party presidential nominee Rev. Jesse Jackson, AFT president Randi Weingarten, IFT president Dan Montgomery, and CORE co-chairman AL Ramirez, all leading an estimated 10,000 people through the streets of Chicago on May 23, 2012. Photo credit: Graham Hill, Substance News2


The CTU is part of the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) and the national AFT. These relationships are significant. What do the CTU’s relationships to the IFT and the AFT tell us about the CTU leadership's potential to definitively break from the labor movement’s conservative practices and lead a fight against the looming union-busting and current strangling of critical social services?

War against Unions

The attacks being led by governors Walker and Rauner are part of a long-range corporate-based campaign to weaken or destroy unions, cut our needed social services, de-regulate industry and banking, privatize public services, cut taxes on the wealthy, and turn everything into commodities in order to make them capitalist profit-centers. Enshrined in global and regional agreements, this is known as neoliberalism. This class-war offensive has been underway since the 1970s when global and U.S. capitalism suffered an actual fall in the average rate of return along with a decline in international trade. In addition, the ruling class faced oil price shock from the OPEC embargo, wildcat strikes (often led by Black workers) that disrupted production and threatened longstanding relations with collaborating unions (from the automobile industry to the postal service), and “stagflation”—stagnant growth and growing inflation. All of this led the ruling class to break up the mutually profitable post-World War II social compact with its highly-regulated economy in which union workers enjoyed a safety net of social services and pay increases that followed productivity in exchange for the unions giving capital a free hand to run production free from worker controls. That compact began during World War II and was later extended during the anti-Communist Cold War; this deal made the unions responsible for keeping the workers “under control” while giving corporate management a free hand in the workplace. By the early 1970s, capitalism also faced rising challenges to the established norms and social relations—between men and women, old and young, officers and soldiers, management and workers, Black and white. The 1960s radical social movements—anti racist, anti-imperialist, Black Liberation, student and youth, women’s, industrial workers’, and anti-war military personnel—all threatened the corporate CEOs and wealthy capitalists’  ideological hegemony. Our values centered on liberation from their restrictions and oppression; our social movements challenged established relations and priorities. The late 60s and early 70s saw mass challenges to their domination on almost every front.

In 1973, international corporate attorney Lewis Powell issued a warning memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Powell’s memo focused on the widespread assault on standard values, values that supported, protected, and serviced the existing social/economic relations. In response, the ruling class multiplied the number of lobbyists and invested hundreds of millions of dollars in think tanks to grasp developments and come up with strategic plans and tactics to fight for capitalist values. For example, the “safety net” of social services became despised “entitlements for the lazy and undeserving.” Anticipating the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council of today, they introduced bills for their legislators to break up the regulations and gains of the New Deal, opening the door for their “freedom” to do as capital pleased, damn the consequences for workers, the sick, the injured, or the unemployed. Their offensive took dramatic form in 1981 when U.S. President Reagan implemented the plan of his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, to destroy the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) union should they strike. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did the same when she led the attack on the British coal miners' strike in 1984. In both cases, the national union leaders refused to call a general workers strike in solidarity with the workers under state attack. At the same time, New York’s Governor Rockefeller sent in troopers to massacre the Black-led Attica inmate rebellion and implemented the “War on Crime” that threw large numbers of Black working class youth behind bars when they had emerged as the cutting edge in the vast social movements. The capitalist offensive was on and we were in full retreat.

CORE, the CTU and the AFT: left credentials for capital's unions partners? 

In education, this re-energized corporate offensive has meant a growing reliance on test scores, the introduction of charter schools to capture unregulated public funds, the growth of charter investment opportunities, and the enlistment of both national teachers unions, the AFT and the National Education Association, to enable this attack—to enforce and sell all of these changes at the bidding of the education-industrial complex. In short, the two national teachers unions have acted as capital's junior partners. One recent example stands out: AFT’s national President Randi Weingarten recently toured the U.S. promoting President Obama's “Race to the Top” (RTTT). RTTT made a few billion dollars available to states that passed laws promoting private charters and forcing teachers' evaluations to reflect student test scores. RTTT originated with private investors in the charter schools and in the booming test industry. Weingarten undermined the opposition of local teachers and their unions to charters and the corporate testing fetish, telling Democratic Party politicians that the teachers supported the passage of these laws. The union-Democratic Party connection helped to sell this, enhancing the corporatization of education and weakening our main defense, public teacher unions.

Presidents of both the national AFT and the state IFT publicly supported RTTT—which CTU’s Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) and the CTU's national convention delegates opposed. In fact, right after being elected in the sweeping CORE victory in the CTU's June, 2010 election, the delegates voted for a resolution to the upcoming AFT convention in Seattle condemning RTTT. When they submitted it, they were told that the AFT’s chairperson, President Randi Weingarten, would rule it out of order; the delegation would have to challenge her ruling and call for a vote of the convention in order to get a vote on their resolution. Rather than fight, however, the delegation—following the lead of CTU President Karen Lewis—voted to drop their resolution in exchange for some time to make critical remarks. By the IFT convention in the fall of 2010, the CTU delegation did not even propose a resolution critical of the IFT president's support for the RTTT laws, laws which were then passed by the overwhelmingly Democratic Illinois state legislature.

Karen Lewis ran for and was elected vice-president of both the AFT and the IFT (offices she still holds). To run on the AFT slate with Weingarten, Lewis joined their caucus, the same caucus that CORE defeated in 2010. Karen Lewis promised not to accept a position with the IFT if elected as CTU’s president. She did the opposite at the first convention, elected as Executive Vice-President with a compensation of $63,500.

Does their record, then, suggest that the CTU leadership might lead a break with the conservative union practices and lead the fight against social cuts and threatened union busting? No: The CTU will not lead any such break—at least, not with their current leadership and politics. That does not mean that the CTU leadership is just another big-talking reform group. The CTU leaders come from a reform union caucus (CORE) that took up a fight against charters, school closings, and unnecessary testing. CORE denounced the corporate agenda for education when the existing CTU leadership did nothing. And the CTU is far from being just another big-talking, do-nothing union. The CTU organized a sit-in at a Cadillac dealership to demand the release of millions of sequestered tax dollars, organized the 2012 strike in the face of huge barriers and after 25 years without CTU strikes, and organized the unprecedented April 1, 2016 strike. In 2014, CTU President Karen Lewis openly challenged Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and prepared to run against him for mayor on a union-friendly platform until she became ill with a brain tumor. The CTU has formed an enlarged negotiating committee for the current negotiations and has brought the leadership-endorsed tentative agreement before them, which they turned down. The CTU sent busloads of members to attend and speak at a recent Black Lives Matter rally in Chicago. The CTU has broken the mold many times.

CORE was and is rightly seen as the model of rank-and-file, militant, democratic, social unionism. However progressive, that is not the same as understanding the class war educators face as part of the working class, nor is it a substitute for grasping the potential in organizing in a class-conscious way against the common enemy. Part of CORE’s appeal was its militant, democratic, and direct opposition to the Board’s policy of closing local schools and opening over 50 charter schools. It’s common for newly elected reform candidates to face corporate challenges that test their stamina, cohesion, and politics, however.

In addition to the challenges posed by the summer 2010 AFT convention and the fall 2010 IFT convention, CTU’s new CORE leaders faced challenges from CTU’s corporate management and from big investors in charters channeled through the Democratic Party. Within days of the June, 2010 election, CPS sent layoff notices to 1,400 CTU members, citing economic shortages. Although CORE had concluded that there were adequate reserves, the new leadership nevertheless filed suit challenging the process of the layoffs, but not the layoffs themselves. As the layoffs disproportionately affected Black teachers, the CTU later filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Occupation Commission, but otherwise neither took nor advocated any further steps. In both instances, the new leadership focused on how the attacks were undertaken, but not the attacks themselves. The CORE slate had campaigned on the slogan “Mobilize the power of 30,000!” but settled for legal challenges once in office. Vice President Sharkey justified this by arguing that the leadership was responsible to the entire membership now—including the opposing, conservative grouping.

Perhaps the biggest test came at the end of 2010 when some wealthy charter investors funneled about $600,000 through an education nonprofit to elect several pro-charter candidates to the Illinois legislature. This demonstrated that big money could defeat union-sponsored candidates. The Democratic Party leader then set up a special committee to craft a new education law with several of these pro-charter politicians and direct representatives of these investors. They then threatened to end the CTU’s right to strike, to eliminate the right to seniority in layoffs and recall for all other union teachers statewide (something already given away by previous CTU leaders), and to force all teachers to accept student test scores as a large part of their evaluations. The presidents of both the CTU and the IFT were invited to join this group to come up with a “compromise” bill. The price of admission was their agreement to keep the negotiations a secret—no teachers were to be told and they were not to engage in any form of pressure or public activity. Karen Lewis and the then-president of the IFT agreed.

I introduced a motion that CORE oppose these secret meetings and instead campaign against this deal among CTU teachers, in the CTU House of Delegates, within Chicago’s working class, community, religious, union, and parental allies, and with threatened teachers and their local unions statewide. A straw poll in January, 2011 showed 22-11 support for Karen’s move and opposition to that motion. Every staff person (with one initial exception) and every officer present supported Karen’s stand despite CORE’s campaign promises of transparency. This included (again with one initial exception) all the members and supporters of several left groups: the ISO (including CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey, an ISO member), the Progressive Labor Party, and the Freedom Road Socialist Organization.

The CORE steering committee cancelled the February membership meeting without giving an explanation. The March meeting held a long discussion, after which one member “called a quorum” which blocked any vote. A vote was finally held in April, as the secret negotiations were nearly over, and the results were 3-35 against the motion. The months-long debate featured numerous personal attacks from two key people, both self-identified leftists: George Schmidt, who went on to a lucrative position as a CTU consultant, and Jesse Sharkey.

CORE officially supported the secret deal. These negotiations over SB7 led to the end of seniority for layoffs and rehires statewide, the inclusion of student test scores in every teacher’s evaluations, and the then-unprecedented legal requirement that 75% of CTU’s total membership authorize a strike (rather than a majority of those voting). This insider deal cut out and hurt over 50,000 union teachers statewide. They were faced with a done deal struck behind their backs with no chance to decide if they wanted to fight or not. Then, on February 1, 2012, the CTU endorsed the same Democratic Party leader, Michael Madigan, who set up the secret committee that led to SB7, shedding more light on their traditional political outlook.

Illinois’s Democratic governor, Pat Quinn, delivers the keynote speech at the CTU’s Legislators Educators Appreciation Dinner at Plumbers Hall in Chicago, Illinois on October 28, 2011, months before the CTU’s endorsement of Michael Madigan. Photo credit: George N. Schmidt, Substance News3

What explains this 100% about-face by CORE and its leaders elected to CTU office? Basically, there was no strategic agreement within CORE on how to actually fight the capitalist education agenda. Yes, we criticized the RTTT and its charter-first, union-busting agenda. Yes, we discussed how it emanated from the deep pockets and huge appetite of the big investor class. But we never discussed, let alone agreed upon, a strategy to fight it, let alone one based on a class analysis that laid bare the huge potential of hidden allies and forces also hurting from these attacks. This lack was not, in my opinion, an accident. It reflected the reform strategy of careful confrontations conducted strictly within a single-issue framework—an approach long identified with the brilliant anti-communist reformer, Saul Alinsky.

One key to enforcing compliance by union officers and all those holding staff positions with leadership decisions, like that of President Lewis here, was the introduction of a gag order. Officers and staff were forced to sign a document stating that they would not discuss any union business outside of official union bodies. This meant, for example, that they could not oppose any leadership decision in CORE or anywhere else. Failure to sign would lead to termination.

The strategy of working from within the union apparatus for greater influence meant going along with the leadership and keeping your mouth shut, whatever the consequences for the membership, parents, and students—it meant going along or getting fired. Not surprisingly, CORE is in effect an administration caucus, like the one it replaced. And the CTU continues the same basic path, albeit with much more militant and radical rhetoric and some militant actions isolated from a class-struggle strategy.

Organizing for the class war

Facing a one-sided class war, we clearly need groups with strategies and tactics with which to build a powerful resistance. I don't see evidence in CORE of the political outlook needed to organize the battle needed to turn the attacks around and force those with the money to pay up. We need a core of class warriors working to build our forces for that fight, something that CORE and most reform union caucuses are not yet prepared to undertake—and something that many nominally left socialist and communist groups also do not prepare for as they join progressive union administrations like CORE and the CTU. Their strategic outlook gives them access to become officers and hold important staff positions which provide influence with the membership and beyond, but also ties them politically to what is acceptable to leaders such as Karen Lewis. In the CTU, this includes the International Socialist Organization and Progressive Labor Party. Their insider strategy deprives us of potential class-war leadership and provides left credentials to limited reform leaders.

Many millions of working class people and others face ever-harder times. That deep discontent and anger is visible today as millions break from the standard corporatist politics of Democrats and Republicans. Given this reality and the decades-long retreat of most unions, what can we do to promote resistance and the fight for an alternative? The current state budget impasse in Illinois means that many outside the unions are under attack and are hurting badly, just as in Wisconsin, from cuts to healthcare and education. Many are looking for a way to defend themselves from such corporate-sponsored attacks. And, like that of Governor Walker in Wisconsin, Governor Rauner’s declared objective is to destroy the public sector unions as the first step in weakening all unions. Hence, the conditions exist for a common front both to defend against these attacks and to fight for the money to finance quality public services. If, as seems likely, the union structures will not undertake this fight, who will, and how?

As I write, the Democratic Party has introduced legislation to change the Illinois state income tax from a flat 3.5% tax to a graduated tax. This would require a constitutional amendment. This looks to be the focus for the funding fight, pulling all involved into lobbying their politicians in Springfield. It could conceivably become a battleground as in Madison—but only if some organized force again breaks the mold and leads a strike or direct worker action that disrupts business as usual. Where might that force come from?

We cannot depend on most (especially higher level) union leaderships to fight this fight, nor should we hold our breaths and wait to see if unions like the CTU develop the politics needed to break from the standard limits and take on this fight. As Wisconsin showed, the Graduate Students Union had to break with the state union leadership to trigger the outpouring of workers. Their first-day strike and march broke the ice and opened the door for the massive mobilizations. They and the Madison AFT executive board took a big risk. So far, I see no sign of that politics in the CTU.

Class-conscious solidarity groups are the missing link. We can support union-led campaigns and we must organize independently of union formal structure—that way we are part of a force not tied to any sellout deals. Such work is not limited to any one political camp. In Madison, our small efforts united different left tendencies along with some unaligned workers new to the Left. While such formations are not a substitute for revolutionary organization, they can become a testing ground for various tendencies already on the ground, and for tendencies beginning to form—who knows? Growing pains will lead many to consider and take steps not done in “ordinary” times. Working class dissatisfaction is growing and visible in the millions who back the presidential campaigns of Bernie and Trump, along with the Fight for 15 and Black Lives Matter. The turnout for the Madison Uprising was stupendous, with bitter-cold rallies drawing tens of thousands at a time. We need to find and/or organize groups built on the common understanding that we face a class war.

Today the big capitalist class is still on the offensive. Nevertheless, their very successes in the United States and globally have sown the seeds for current and coming rebellions. What direction that takes depends, in part, on how we understand this development and create our strategic response for our class and the oppressed—as Lewis Powell did for his. We can be passive observers or take an active role; that choice is ours. |P


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  1. Karen Lewis, “President Karen Lewis at City Club of Chicago,” Chicago Teachers Union, April 20, 2016,
  1. George N. Schmidt, “Fifth annual event will provide CTU members and delegates with the chance to join growing ‘democracy in action… CORE Convention kicks off evening of August 17,’” Substance News, August 17, 2012,
  2. George N. Schmidt, “CTU endorses primary candidates after exhausting reviews and some heated debates…. Union also highlights new legislation that will help public schools in Chicago,” Substance News, February 2, 2012,