The Chicago Teacher’s Strike and the Struggle for a New Unionism

By Bill Fletcher, Jr.

Bill Fletcher, Jr.

One of the most striking features of the Chicago teacher’s strike was the level of community support for the teachers. Contrary to public expectations, the strike turned into a social mobilization around education rather than a battle for the special interests of teachers. This feature did not come out of nowhere, but actually reflected an on-going effort to shift the direction of labor unionism in America, and in this case, labor unionism among teachers.

As successful as teacher organizing has been over the last fifty years, there has been an increasing gap between teachers and communities.  This came to catastrophic proportions in the disastrous 1968 New York City Teachers strike, which pitted African American and Puerto Rican community-based organizations against the largely white United Federation of Teachers (affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers) over the issue of community control of schools. While the teacher’s unions became increasingly successful in winning a better living standard for their members, they frequently became a source of resentment for many parents and community-based organizations who no longer saw the unions as being at the vanguard of the struggle for genuine education reform.

It is in this context – after years of struggles within the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association – that the elements of a more social justice-oriented unionism have begun to emerge. New progressive leaders have taken the helm of several teacher’s unions, leaders who recognize that teachers cannot fight their battles alone. Not only do teachers need allies, but the brand of unionism practiced by teachers must share a deeper connection to the larger struggle for progressive education reform, an education reform that collaborates with teachers and parents, and focuses on the needs of the students. The shift represents a critical movement within teacher’s unions, and a shift from focusing exclusively on the needs of members to focusing on the larger challenge of real education reform.

The battle in Chicago was representative of an effort not only to democratize the Chicago Teachers Union, but also to place the it on the front lines of the fight for an education system focusing on the needs of the children and their teachers, rather than the needs of corporations. Corporate America–in both its liberal and conservative clothing–has been actively seeking to alter public education so that it utilizes inappropriate private sector methodology to teach our children. That, combined with an effort to link the school systems with the needs of the so-called free market, has created a school culture where critical thinking is not promoted, but test-taking is.

Regardless of the specific outcomes of the Chicago teacher’s strike — and surely we can all agree that getting kids back in school and teachers back to work is a good thing — it was an inspiring effort in support of the fight for education reform to be carried out in a new, innovative, and pro-people direction.  And for that, our hats should go off to the teachers and parents of Chicago who — despite pervasive media and public sentiment against them – stood tall, and insisted that another road for education is not only possible, but incredibly necessary.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the Director of Field Services & Education for the American Federation of Government Employees.  He is also a member of the Jobs with Justice National Workers’ Rights Board, a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, the co-author of Solidarity Divided, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about unions.

One Response

  1. A Call for Dialog on Real Education Reform
    Carl Proper
    My thanks to Bill Fletcher for his observations on the “striking level of community support for the teachers” in the recent Chicago teachers’ strike, and on shifts within teachers’ unions away “from focusing exclusively on the needs of members to focusing on the larger challenge of real education reform.” (The Chicago Teacher’s Strike and the Struggle for a New Unionism, Posted on October 10, 2012 by dsalaborblogmoderator, By Bill Fletcher, Jr.)
    Speaking as a (retired) union member, a concerned citizen, and a parent of two grown children, I have to admit that I know very little about what real (pro-student, pro-teacher) education reform looks like, or should look like. As a newspaper reader, I generally hear only two choices – “traditional” public schools, where teachers struggle with demands to provide excellent education to students from impoverished families who suspect they are throw-aways in our globalized economy; and “business-like,” non-union charter schools, with selected students, long hours and low benefits for teachers, authoritarian management, guided by standardized tests, and sometimes run for profit.
    Am I the only union person who is similarly uninformed?
    What follows is a request to progressives to use this web site, or other sites, to discuss (preferably tested) educational reforms that a wide spectrum of the left and of working class and America might get behind. I point below to one such reform model –the “Career Academies” now operating within several thousand public schools around the country – as a possibility. But what I would like to hear is dialog about a variety of possible real-world solutions that the left might get behind – ideas from, or that make sense to public school teachers, students and parents. These should be solutions that don’t require “Superman” (or enthusiastic young college graduates, who will work long hours for a year or two before moving on to their real careers) to carry out.
    Career Academies – a Model for Reform?

    I bring up Career Academies as a possibility because recently I’ve encountered writing about them by an education expert, David Stern, a retired Professor at the Graduate School of Education, U. Cal. Berkeley (acknowledgment: Dave is an old college roommate of mine.) I claim no expertise in this area – just frustration at having no reform alternative to recommend to friends considering the corporate / charter school alternative.

    Career academies, as I understand the term, are small learning communities, generally consisting of several teachers and their students within a high school. They respond to the frustration of many that, in troubled communities “In effect, states pay districts simply to keep teenagers in custody. The law requires teens to attend school, and districts get money simply for keeping them there. For funding purposes, all that matters is that they be physically present at a school, not what they learn there.” (This is a comment on school district incentives, and on laws, not teachers.) They seem to have a number of positive features – a focus on saving lives, not dollars:
    i. Combining “career” and “academic” training for all students.
    ii. keeping groups of students, teachers and support staff together, in a “family-like” atmosphere for a significant part of the school day;
    iii. team teaching, including adequate team-based prep time;
    iv. involvement of potential employers and/or colleges in the educational process (and to the extent this responds to corporate needs, this appears to be a fair exchange);
    v. some online and offsite instruction – which is especially important for many students whose parents constantly relocate to find work or escape creditors or dangerous situations;
    vi. continuing contact by advisors or teachers with students after they do move .
    Although, by law, at least half the students entering California Partnership Academies (that state’s version of Career Academies) must have high-risk characteristics, numerous studies have found that Academy students show more improvement in attendance, grades and credits earned than non-Academy students, and are more likely to stay in high school. They have superior graduation rates, and higher earnings 8 years after high school, with no reduction in postsecondary educational attainment.
    Despite the higher initial costs of their education, their higher graduation rate, and consequent higher lifetime earnings and taxes repay State, local and Federal taxpayers several times over. This is the kind of long-term payback that leads to a rising standard of living.
    But, notwithstanding their apparent effectiveness, Career Academies, at least in California, are threatened by shrinking state budgets. They have their defenders, but they need many more.

    Do these Career Academies, and thousands like them around the country, represent what brother Fletcher calls for — “education reform … carried out in a new, innovative, and pro-people direction?”
    This is a request for readers to suggest answers, or to identify any beneficial reforms – not necessarily in beautiful essays — and to listen to each other. Career Academies might be an example of what is needed – an idea with a history and a wide range of real world success to point to. Or perhaps not. Perhaps there are better ideas?

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