Building fighting teachers unions

By Lee Sustar | Published August 8, 2013 by The Socialist Worker


CERTAINLY, OUSTING ineffective or conservative leaders is an important goal of militants among teachers, as it is for other union activists. And as the Chicago experience shows, a fighting union leadership can make a critical difference. But for most teachers union locals, those are long-term goals. So what do they do now?

That’s where CORE’s history is key. While the caucus only came into existence a couple of years before taking office, its roots go back decades to previous CTU reform movements. More recently, many CORE members were part of the reform administration of Deborah Lynch from 2001-2004, which was ousted after negotiating a weak contract. Others were active in the fight against the militarization of schools as well as school closures. Many first met in organizing around issues of violence that claimed their students.

As CTU President Karen Lewis often points out, CORE wasn’t formed with the idea of taking over the union, but simply making it more effective. The first step was understanding the enemy: hence a study group around Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine. CORE’s first big public meeting in January 2009 drew 500 people in the midst of a classic Chicago blizzard, compelling the then-union president to show up to speak.

Certainly there’s much to be learned by trade unionists everywhere in studying CORE’s activist orientation and organizational savvy. But what makes CORE different is the politics behind the operation. While it is far from a politically homogenous group–CORE unites everyone from Democrats to socialists–the role of the left has been crucial. Socialists, radicals and militants from various organizations and political currents work together in CORE to emphasize union democracy, rank-and-file activism and militant action. This comes not from a nostalgia from labor’s better days, but from a sober recognition of the prospects for unions in an era of a depressed economy, a rollback of the public sector and rampant social inequality.

Just as important, CORE militants saw from the beginning that the teachers’ struggle had to be the same as that of students and parents. Thus, there was no difference between the CTU’s message to its members during the strike and to the wider community: Chicago teachers were defending public education, and got overwhelming support as a result.

CORE’s argument can be summed up as this: Teachers unions will have to struggle harder than they have for decades simply to hold on to what they have–and their fight must be part of a wider working-class movement to defend public services and a decent standard of living. If the revival of teacher reform groups is any indication, it’s a message that teachers are ready to hear.

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