Democratic to the CORE

The Chicago Teachers Union’s secret to success? The rank and file are in control.

BY Micah Uetricht and Jasson Perez | Published November 30, 2012 by In These Times

During September’s Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike, local and national media rushed to frame the fight as a clash of oversized personalities: the stubborn, foul-mouthed Mayor Rahm Emanuel against the brash chemistry-teacher-turned-union president Karen Lewis. Even progressive media hyped Lewis as the driver of the union’s victory, praising her personal toughness as more than a match for Emanuel. It was classic “Great Man” historicism, tracing the strike’s origins to leaders’ personal traits.

Few accounts mentioned the constituencies behind these leaders. For Emanuel, this includes anti-union charter-school advocates, who donated $12 million toward his election. In Lewis’ case, it was the dictates of her 30,000 members. Indeed, the CTU is one of the most vibrantly democratic union locals in the United States.

Since a 2010 upheaval within the CTU, rank-and-file teachers have made up the union’s leadership, and members make many of its day-to-day decisions. Public actions are typically planned and executed by members themselves, not paid staff. And the CTU took the incredible step of extending its September strike an extra two days to ensure members had a chance to examine and debate the proposed contract.

As Lewis puts it, “We put the power into the hands of the rank and file, where it belongs.”

In recent decades, as the American labor movement has declined in membership and power, several unions have undergone a sea change, with new leaders proposing bold visions for how to revitalize labor. But rarely have those visions been as closely tied to a commitment to member-led democracy as in the CTU.

Shifts in leadership

Unlike many unions, in which officials cling to power for decades, the CTU has a long history of leadership turnover. Even when leaders did not run the union democratically, the CTU’s structure allowed for reform caucuses to develop. The United Progressive Caucus (UPC), which was rooted in racial justice caucuses in the 1970s but failed to push back against corporate education reform, held power for three decades. Proactive Chicago Teachers (PACT), a reform caucus pledging to recapture a past union militancy, briefly unseated the UPC in 2001—the same year current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan became CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), pushing an agenda of closing public schools and opening charters.

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