Unions need strong vision and understanding of all tools available

I THOUGHT I KNEW what I was going to see and do in Chicago. I ended up being amazed and awed, and sometimes moved to tears, by the tremendous strides educators just like us were taking all around me.

As we all know, there is a momentous internal tussle going on in teacher unions everywhere. Facing withering attacks, do we A) try to negotiate and endorse our way out of the crisis, or B) resist, using the methods bequeathed to us by generations of working class fighters combined with a new recognition of broad community-based unionism?

CTU leaders and most leading activists in Chicago stand firmly in the “resist” camp. Of course we negotiate and endorse potential allies, but if this approach remains dominant, we are likely to be consigned to oblivion in short order.

First, the Chicago strike teaches us that we can fight back, and that “fightback” can win. The strike option, along with the organizing to undergird it, has been put back on the table by the CTU.

Second, on organizing to undergird the strike: After the current CTU leadership was elected two-and-a-half years ago, they set about prioritizing internal and external organizing to a degree that made this strike viable. They built a degree of unanimity that is hard to imagine, yet is clearly achievable.

At rallies and on the picket line, I talked to lots of teachers, paraprofessionals, and human and health service workers, even plenty of conservative and not particularly “union” teachers who nonetheless were in full support of the strike. As far as I know, there was not one report of scabbing or destructive internal dissent. Almost everyone was actively on strike.

This level of organization extended far beyond the schools. Community leaders and parents, especially in the black and Latino communities, participated, along with CTU, in fighting school closures and rallying behind struggles for educational justice such that many of them were strike participants, not just “supporters.” And that translated into broad popular support for the teachers, who were perceived to be fighting for educational justice for children and communities.

Third, was CTU “ready” for this confrontation? Not completely. A progressive, organizing-minded activist core is just developing in many unions, and CTU is no exception. Union leaders had to scramble to continue negotiating while strategizing and messaging during the height of the strike. AFT sent some of its most seasoned organizers to Chicago.

But CTU’s measure of unreadiness teaches two critical lessons: If we wait to fight until we’re totally “ready,” we will never stand up for ourselves; and that nothing organizes people like struggle itself. Negotiating and “organizing sites” has a limited effect, unless coupled with a clear vision and well-understood steps toward something more. Like a strike for educational justice.          

— By David Rapkin

David Rapkin teaches English at Youth Opportunities Unlimited Alternative High School in Los Angeles and is a member of United Teachers Los Angeles. He traveled to Chicago as a representative of CFT and UTLA, spending four days on the picket lines and helping in the CTU offices.