Creating a New Model of a Social Union: CORE and the Chicago Teachers Union

By | Published in of the Monthly Review

The success of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike in September 2012 was a stunning rebuke to the forces of privatization and corporate education reform. The defeat of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s ambitions to deal a decisive blow against the largest union in Chicago took on national implications precisely due to continued implementation of the school reform model of closing public schools and replacing them with publicly funded but privately run charter schools. Chicago teachers and a majority of the parents of Chicago students fought back against the national basis of this campaign, fronted by Arne Duncan, the former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Obama’s current Secretary of Education, through national programs like Race to the Top.

Three years ago when the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) ran for leadership of the CTU, few would have predicted their ability to turn the union around from six years of do-little leadership into a force capable of taking on a nationally funded, bipartisan “education reform” movement that seemed likely to achieve its goal of weakening and possibly destroying the largest remaining union sector in the United States—public education unions. CORE and the CTU’s success was not due to replacing a weak leadership with a militant one willing to strike, but rather to the creation of a layer of union members in the CTU who saw the struggle as one for what CTU president Karen Lewis calls “the soul of public education.”

I would like to trace the evolution of CORE as a coherent and fundamentally different union leadership that transcended traditional trade-union politics and became the inspiration for a new vision of social unionism. This new model is needed if the union movement is to survive the corporate onslaught, much less expand to champion the needs of the increasingly impoverished working class. Secondly, the articulation of a new type of unionism capable of both mobilizing teachers and reaching out to a community that is underserved by underfunded schools had to be carried out both within the CTU and in the community of parents and students who make up public education in Chicago. There were significant barriers to achieving this melding of trade union demands and the needs of Chicago’s students that had to be overcome during the course of organizing for the strike. A key part of how this was accomplished was by building alliances between the union and the community that involved developing a shared vision of what education should be, and pointing out where it falls short.

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