A Bright Light in Dark TimesCTU struggle explored in Labor

Randi Storch
Randi Storch is a professor of history at the State University of New York, in Cortland. She received her PhD in 1998 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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Tom Alter
Tom Alter is earning his PhD at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
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Editor’s Note: Duke University Press makes available one article per issue of Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas to non-subscribers, for 6 months after posting. We have selected Tom Alter’s recent article on the CTU from the Fall 2013 issue. We welcome your comments about this essay. Randi Storch provides an introduction and commentary.


State University of New York employees are reeling from the union contract negotiated between the faculty union (the United University Professions) and the Governor’s office. Behind closed doors and in the post-Scott Walker anti-public employee environment of the day, the union’s negotiations team took a beating. In the end, the largest union that represents faculty in higher education agreed to furlough days (or in Governor Cuomo speak, Deficit Reduction Leave) and a significantly higher individual and family cost to health care. It is true that the membership did ultimately vote in support of this concessionary contract, but they did so only after being told by union leaders that if they did not vote yes, they would only be hit with an even worse contract than the one proposed and that fellow union members would be sure to lose their jobs. Solidarity?

Tom Alter’s article on the Chicago Teacher Union’s (CTU) 2012 strike reminds readers that even in this anti-union climate, there are alternative union models that offer inspiring outcomes. (Editor’s note: this article will be available free for non-subscribers for the next 6 months. Click on the link above or to the right.) According to Alter, the key to the CTU difference is in the choice made by a small group of teacher activists to break away from the union’s business model and to organize along the lines of social movement unionism. This means that CTU activists refused to make their union about inwardly focused issues and individual gain. Instead, their outreach, membership mobilization and educational materials offered a fundamental critic of the neoliberal assault on public education. They placed their union power in the service of a better society.

Alter does a great job describing the structural stages in the CTU’s social movement activism from 2004 through the strike in 2012. I would have also liked to read more about the personal experience of CTU social movement unionism on teachers. By marching in a Labor Day parade and on picket lines, holding citywide membership meetings and deliberating democratically, many Chicago teachers underwent a fundamental process of politicization, and that story needs to be told.

Still, in the big picture, Alter is right. We don’t need more strikes and labor organizing along a business union model. What today’s workers need is a labor movement that is not simply working to defend their own jobs but one that is enmeshed in broader community struggles and able to articulate the link between their own improved workplace conditions and a healthier and stronger community. We owe a big debt of gratitude to Chicago’s teachers for leading the way.

4 responses to “A Bright Light in Dark Times: CTU struggle explored in Labor”

  1. Justin Law Justin Law says:

    This was a really informative article. And, a lesson for the labor movement. But…
    Nearly fifty schools closed, and thousands of people let go, despite the strike. A failed legal battle to prevent school closures over the summer.
    What has been the response of the CTU? And, how have they engaged the community on closures? What does the future hold for the CTU, and for social movement unionism in Chicago?

    • Tom Alter Tom Alter says:

      Thanks for the comment Justin. You ask important questions.

      The school closures and the subsequent loss of around 3,000 teaching positions was a
      real defeat for the CTU. The CTU fight against the closures had two fronts – the legal one and a grassroots community campaign carried out in similar fashion to their strike. They won the community campaign, like their strike, in that the
      overwhelming majority of people in Chicago opposed the closures. However, this did not prevent them from losing the legal fight and the schools were closed.

      Also, recently the Chicago City Council voted 36 to 11 against the TIF Surplus Ordinance that would have returned
      millions of dollars back into neighborhoods and schools instead of the current practice of funneling the money to corporate elites. Those voting against the ordinance included twenty two aldermen who had originally sponsored the bill and three who only a month before had addressed the Take Back Chicago rally of 2,000 people organized by the Grassroots
      Collaborative, a coalition of unions (including the CTU) and community organizations.

      These defeats rightfully have union and community activists asking the ages-old question of “What is to be done?” Some activists are beginning to look at questions of political power in regards to next year’s city elections. This can be seen in the title of the press statement from the Grassroots Collaborative in response to the TIF ordinance defeat –
      “Aldermen Flip Flop on the TIF Surplus Ordinance Highlights Need for Independent Leadership in Chicago City Council.”

      Currently there are serious discussions fermenting within political circles that were involved in the CTU
      strike on the need to run independent working-class candidates in next year’s election. The recent election of an open socialist to the Seattle city council has helped intensify these discussions and made more people open to the idea of running independent working-class candidates in Chicago. What will happen remains to be seen, but I think, despite the
      recent defeats, that people are still trying to figure out how to move forward is an encouraging sign for the future of social movement unionism and independent political action in Chicago.

  2. Guest says:

    Thanks for the comment Justin. You ask important questions. The
    school closures and the subsequent loss of around 3,000 teaching positions
    was a real defeat for the CTU. The CTU fight against the closures had two
    fronts – the legal one and a grassroots community campaign carried out in
    similar fashion to their strike. They won the community campaign, like their
    strike, in that the overwhelming majority of people in Chicago opposed the
    closures. However, this did not prevent them from losing the legal fight and
    the schools were closed. Also, recently the Chicago City Council voted 36 to 11
    against the TIF Surplus Ordinance that would have returned millions of dollars
    back into neighborhoods and schools instead of the current practice of
    funneling the money to corporate elites. Those voting against the ordinance
    included twenty two aldermen who had originally sponsored the bill and three
    who only a month before had addressed the Take Back Chicago rally of 2,000
    people organized by the Grassroots Collaborative, a coalition of unions
    (including the CTU) and community organizations. These defeats rightfully have
    union and community activists asking the ages-old question of “What is to be
    done?” Some activists are beginning
    to look at questions of political power in regards to next year’s city
    elections. This can be seen in the title of the press statement from the
    Grassroots Collaborative in response to the TIF ordinance defeat – “Aldermen
    Flip Flop on the TIF Surplus Ordinance Highlights Need for Independent Leadership
    in Chicago City Council.” Currently there are serious discussions fermenting
    within political circles involved in the CTU strike on the need to run
    independent working-class candidates in next year’s election. The recent
    election of an open socialist to the Seattle city council has helped intensify
    these discussions and made more people open to the idea of running independent
    working-class candidates in Chicago. What will happen remains to be seen, but I
    think, despite the recent defeats, that people are still trying to figure out
    how to move forward is an encouraging sign for the future of social movement
    unionism and independent political action in Chicago.

  3. Justin Law Justin Law says:

    It does seem like there are issues to organize around:
    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/education/ct-school-board-meets-met-1121-20131121,0,2275261.story
    And that this is an opportunity for the labor movement to engage other organizations (as was proclaimed at the last AFL-CIO Convention), and build a stronger movement, with broader goals. And to show what social movement unionism can do.
    Chicago is a one-party town though, but that party is really just a coallition of factions, politically. My guess is that a whole lot of voters, and I would even wager-party people, are eager and willing to embrace another approach to the city’s most pressing issues. But for most of these, only if it is done within the party. Perhaps, Harold Washington’s first run for mayor is an example to look to for guidance? Perhaps not. Regardless, it is going to be a hard enough road to get enough support to win within the party; to be outside it will make it even more of a challenge. As labor historians, I think we should remind people of the difficulties encountered by labor parties in the US. This being said, with the right leadership, strategy, and organization, maybe it could be done. Given the current context. And, with even a progressive like De Blasio in New York being second guessed on the relationship between the party and labor, maybe it should be done. I wonder what John Fitzpatrick would recommend?
    Thanks for the comment, and for bringing us up to date. I look forward to seeing how things develop.