The Rebirth of the Chicago Teachers Union and Possibilities for a Counter-Hegemonic Education Movement

By and | Published in of the Monthly Review


For nine days in September, Chicago belonged to the teachers, school paraprofessionals, and clinicians. On September 10, 2012, 26,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went on strike. It was the first teachers’ strike in Chicago in twenty-five years. While public and private sector unions have taken concessions and capitulated to cuts in wages, benefits, seniority rights, job protections, and much of what was won by the labor movement in the twentieth century, the CTU stood up to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Commercial Club of Chicago, and the billionaire hedge-fund managers who have set out to break teachers’ unions and dismantle public education. Chicago was a sea of CTU red. Teachers—and their parent, student, and community supporters—picketed at schools across the city, marched through neighborhood streets, and brought downtown Chicago to a standstill with mass rallies of thousands, day after day. There was no need to defend school entrances against scabs—there were none!

For nine days, the city was a carnival of resistance—subway cars were an opportunity to show off your CTU red. Truck and bus drivers and motorists honked incessantly, not just at teachers massed at schools and on corners, but at anyone walking down the street wearing a teacher solidarity T-shirt. After seventeen years of absorbing the punishing effects of high-stakes tests and top-down accountability that have come to dominate public schools, and are destroying teaching and learning, teachers had had enough—and so had parents and students. After seventeen years of being abused and blamed for everything that is wrong with public education, Chicago teachers were the heroes. Their courage, militancy, and power electrified the country. They were standing up for all of us against the destruction of the public sector and the arrogant concentration of power and wealth that has defined neoliberalism in the United States. Contrary to predictions of both Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials and the mayor, people backed the strike and the union across race, class, and neighborhood boundaries. Polls showed that two-thirds of CPS parents supported the union, despite the hardships the strike caused.

But Chicago has a specific history, and the strike was one battle in a complex and protracted war to defend and transform public education and to rebuild unions on new grounds, as part of a larger battle against neoliberalism. How then do we understand the broader significance of the strike and the potential for a broad social movement in education?

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