Chicago Teachers Union’s commitment to democracy pays off

Earlier in February, the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools came to an agreement to prevent what would have been the second strike in two years by the union. On Feb. 10, CTU members voted to accept the agreement negotiated by the union’s bargaining team. This robust internal process of discussion and voting has been a prime example of the union’s approach to democracy. The full text of the agreement can be found here

The battle over school reopening in Chicago was a hard fought one. In many ways the political context surrounding the negotiations is more instructive and illuminating than the agreement itself. At the bargaining table, the union faced a stone wall in the form of the mayor and her handpicked team which runs CPS. It’s necessary to look at the wider role that the CTU is playing in the city to understand Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s illogical and unscientific insistence that schools open up. 

Since the 2012 strike against Obama ally Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the CTU has been the leading force for social justice in the city. The union’s demands have gone beyond the bounds of traditional union organizing around pay, including calling for lower class size limits and even for more affordable housing in the city.

On the ground, the union is able to mobilize its membership effectively. CTU is not shy about going on strike. In fact, it was the Chicago teachers who revitalized the strike as a method of struggle in the education justice movement. Individual teachers have been organizing and supporting a variety of social movements throughout the city. Activist teachers gravitate toward the union. Taken all together, the union sets a powerful example for what is possible when we oppose the powers-that-be and has paved the way for continued organizing and struggle throughout the city. 

This social-justice-oriented unionism is unacceptable to the city’s traditional elite. Lightfoot and the capitalists who support her want a weak labor force. One of the reasons the mayor has been so insistent on her reopening timeline is because of the pressure she is getting from the financial elite. At the time of the fiercest negotiations between CPS and CTU, an article appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business, a mouthpiece of Chicago finance capital. Written by a widely connected political reporter, the article implied that members of the business elite were worried about Lightfoot moving too far to the left and were shopping around for potential replacements for her in the next round of mayoral elections.

For anyone familiar with Chicago politics this would seem absurd. How could the mayor who recently called Black Lives Matter protesters “outside agitators” and part of a “conspiracy” be too far left? The Crain’s article was a message to Lightfoot from the capitalists: Stand tough against social justice movements and prevent the forward march of the union. Lightfoot’s words in a recent New York Times interview indicate that she has adopted this position saying that the CTU has, “aspirations beyond being a union, and maybe being something akin to a political party,” and that, “they’d like to take over not only Chicago Public Schools, but take over running the city government.” Clearly the capitalists and their bought-and-paid-for politicians are afraid of a disloyal labor movement.

Because the CTU has forged a beachhead against the capitalist class and business-as-usual unionism, immense pressure has been exerted on the union. One of the most consistent sources of this pressure was the disinformation pumped out by the corporate, capitalist-owned media. Almost every night during negotiations, Lightfoot would get on TV and give a factually incorrect story to the media about the negotiations with the CTU. Her fantasy stories were an attempt to sow confusion and disunity among the ranks of the union and to make union members second-guess their elected leaders. This took a toll on morale. The “CTU members only” Facebook page was awash in posts alternating between the fearful and the denunciatory. Teachers were scared and the confusion fostered at the mayor’s bully pulpit did have an effect. 

The disinformation campaign was accompanied by an utter refusal to negotiate on several issues of key importance to the union. These included: 

  • A 3% positivity threshold to send students remote
  • Commitments to vaccinate all teachers before they return
  • Improvements to remote learning, namely no simultaneous remote and in-person instruction and decreased screen time for students who continue to learn remotely, which the majority of students will continue to do

The union did score several wins. Namely, the it won time. By pushing back the date for in-person schooling, the union won time for more teachers to get vaccinated before going into schools. This delaying action was key for some of our most vulnerable coworkers who had applied for Americans with Disabilities Act remote work accommodations and were either denied by CPS or backlogged. Other wins included: 

  • A more comprehensive testing procedure 
  • Enforceable mask mandates
  • The creation of Safety Action Teams in schools to hold the district accountable. If our schools are not being cleaned to the standards that the district promised, SATs will gather that information to use in future action against CPS. 

Negotiations with the capitalist class are always incomplete. They are always a compromise. There can be no full victory save through socialist revolution. That said, class-conscious workers need to have a sober analysis of the situation at hand. The capitalist class and their political representatives are playing tough right now. This is a difficult moment to organize in and it will take some outside-the-box thinking for our unions to go on the offensive. Our unions must continue to find new ways to get our message out so that we can counter the information warfare coming from the media and capitalist politicians. 

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