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How to Jumpstart Your Union

by ANN ROBERTSON and BILL LEUMER

HOW TO JUMP-START YOUR UNION, just released by Labor Notes, is an invaluable book for any union activist. It details the successful 2010 strike by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), starting with the formation of CORE (Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators) back in 2008 when they had only 22 members; their election to union leadership positions in 2010 when their membership had swelled to 400; and their determination to maintain the struggle in the aftermath of the strike. The book is well written, easy to read, and includes all the essential day-to-day tactics as well as the larger strategic vision that were both responsible for the union’s resounding success.

Strategically, the union veered sharply to the left from the narrow path that unions currently tread. Most unions have determined that their success lies in electing Democrats to office, despite losing ground for decades as a result of this strategy. They carry on the important business of running a union behind the backs of the members, giving only the vaguest reports of their activities to the rank and file who remain apathetic and disengaged. When the membership asks for help, as many of the Chicago teachers did when they were first threatened with school closings and layoffs, they are often told that nothing can be done. When the union itself is under attack, the union leaders give up without waging a fight, as the American Federation of Teachers has done at times in relation to merit pay, which is a union-busting proposal. If a strike is called, it is typically a one-day strike, which hardly poses a threat to the employers. These are symbolic strikes, not real strikes. When these unions engage in phonebanking, they call to get someone to do something while not bothering to solicit the concerns of the person on the other end of the line. If they organize a rally, they manage to draw out a small gathering, which means it is not a real but only a symbolic rally and is more demoralizing than energizing. In short, unions are run like businesses. Excitement is staged, conferences are dog and pony shows where the membership has little opportunity to exercise a voice, small events are hyped, and rank and filers who are looking for a meaningful fight-back soon drift away.

With Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel leading the assault on the public schools in Chicago, closing over a hundred of them and converting them into privately run charter schools, the CTU under CORE’s leadership was forced to chart a new course, and they had no hesitations. They knew that their success lay in educating and activating the membership, a goal that could only be accomplished by extending decision-making power to them. Members are not transformed into self-activated union fighters in a top-down structure. The new CTU leadership also reached out and drew in activists from competing caucuses in order to promote unity. They cemented alliances with parents and community groups, which was aided by the fact that many parents had already been engaged in fighting to stop their neighborhood schools from closing. The new union leaders consciously set out to change the union culture by inspiring their members and assuring them that victory was possible by standing up and all fighting together.

The CTU was also convinced that they must educate their members and allies of the “big picture” that underlay their struggle. This big picture included understanding that privatizing public education (by converting public schools into charter schools, some of which are run by for-profit businesses) is being promoted by powerful billionaires allied with both Democrats and Republicans. Some of these school “reformers” are motivated by the prospects of making huge profits in the “business” of education. Others are motivated by ideology where they wrongly believe the importation of principles from business (competition, efficiency, accountability) will improve the track record of public schools. Obama administration has placed itself in this second category.

The big picture also included an analysis of the surrounding tax structure. The CTU was quick to point out that the taxes of the corporations and the wealthy have been steadily declining for decades, leaving insufficient funds for public education and other social services. So the union mounted a campaign to urge legislators to raise these taxes. In this way the CTU could put itself in the position of not competing with other sectors of working people in need of government-provided social programs but unite with them against a common opponent: the 1%.

The big picture included an analysis of the roles of poverty and racism in undermining the success of students in public schools. Study after study has shown that academic success is correlated with economic standing more than any other variable, including what teachers do in the classroom. Poverty produces so much stress and instability and so many hardships in the lives of students that academic success is virtually out of reach. Yet both Democratic and Republican politicians have found it extraordinarily convenient to blame teachers and their unions for low-performing schools rather than tackle the real issue of poverty, which would require taking money from the rich and investing it in the bottom fifth of the population.

The big picture finally included CTU’s own vision of how public schools should operate. They titled their document: “The Schools Students Deserve,” and they emphasized the necessity of small classes, textbooks for every student to be available on the first day of classes, a de-emphasis on standardized testing, and so on. In this way, CTU could keep the needs of their students in the spotlight, instead of framing their struggle solely around bread and butter issues for teachers.

CTU’s persistent organizing and educational efforts paid off.  When the question of striking finally came to a vote, 98 percent of the teachers who participated voted to strike. This amounted to 90 percent of the entire membership endorsing the strike, which was extraordinarily high under the circumstances.

When the strike got underway, CTU unleashed its full organizing capacities. They had organizers at every school and staged huge rallies as a show of strength. A stunning 95 percent of the teachers participated in picketing their schools. Fortunately their community allies stood shoulder to shoulder with the teachers, but the union movement was not always at their side. The Chicago Federation of Labor, for example, refused to step forward to help because they did not want to confront the Democratic mayor, Rahm Emanuel, their “friend.”

A tentative agreement was finally hammered out, but only the delegates in the union are technically allowed to vote to end the strike. Nevertheless, the delegates believed that the decision was so monumental that they insisted on extending the strike for two days so that the entire membership could read the tentative agreement and advise them how to proceed. Ninety-nine percent of the membership took advantage of the offer so that teachers were spread out on sidewalks all over the city reading the proposal and voicing their opinions. When the membership finally formally voted on the agreement, 79 percent voted to accept it.

Although abstractly the contract might not look like a smashing victory, in fact the union managed to push back and hold the line on some of the most important aspects of their working conditions. It is important to keep in mind that the union was up against a powerful assault led by Democrats, Republicans, and billionaires. Nevertheless, the teachers succeeded in defeating merit pay, which is crucial, because merit pay is awarded on extremely arbitrary criteria, which is demoralizing to teachers, and it forces teachers to compete against one another for raises, which destroys the spirit of solidarity. They managed to limit how much standardized test scores could be used to evaluate teachers to 25 percent, which was crucial since these test scores are extraordinarily unreliable in measuring teacher performance. And they won some layoff rights and a modest pay increase, among other things.

There was one crucial domain in which the teachers were not successful – school closings – because it did not fall within the domain of collective bargaining. After the strike was over, Rahm Emanuel then proceeded to close 47 schools, despite vigorous protests by parents, teachers, and students. (Diane Ravitch, an influential historian of education, has suggested that Emanuel might have done this simply to punish the teachers for their strike.)

And this failure leads to a point not addressed in the book but is crucial to the union movement: unions need political power, not just a voice about working conditions. They need to remove people like Rahm Emanuel from power and replace them with independent candidates who are pro-public school and pro-working people, not pro-rich and pro-corporation. The Democrats have been vociferous across the country in demanding that public workers make both wage and benefit concessions. The Democratic Party has played a leading role in lowering taxes on corporations and the wealthy, contributing to the obscene growth in the inequalities in wealth. Democrats accept money from labor unions and sometimes throw crumbs in their direction, but as The New York Times reported (November 18, 2013), they speak out of both sides of their mouth. On the one hand they call for higher taxes on the rich. On the other hand they have no serious intention of pursuing that policy because they do not want to alienate their rich benefactors. This is their “dirty secret,” according to The Times article. Acquiring political power, then, requires that organized labor execute a clean break with the Democratic Party, meaning that unions begin to rely entirely on themselves and organize their own independent political party that is dedicated to fighting for the interests of all working people.

The Chicago Teachers Union has in fact recently taken the first step towards establishing political independence. They announced the formation of an independent political organization (IPO) that among other things aims at joining with allies to “train people who are part of our movements to become elected officials.” If they succeed in these endeavors by drawing other unions and community allies into the struggle where the new political party is based on a fight-back program, it will amount to the dawn of a new day for organized labor and working people in general.

Ann Robertson is a Lecturer at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association.

Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org

Ann Robertson is a Lecturer in the Philosophy Department at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association. Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org

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