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BCG’s Big Bang: The 2012 Chicago Teachers Union Strike

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Man with "Chicago Teachers Union" shirt holds a sign that reads "We are teaching right now"

When Chicago Teachers Union members struck for “the schools our students deserve”—hand-in-hand with parents and community groups—they inspired “bargaining for the common good.”

When teachers in Chicago went on strike in September 2012, it felt like an earthquake. Across the city, it was difficult to miss the crowds of striking teachers wearing bright union red regalia, picketing at over 600 schools. It was long before the breathless coining of the phrase “striketober,” years before the “Red for Ed” movement that it helped inspire took over red-state capitals across the country. On September 10, 2012, more than 25,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) walked out, demanding the “Schools Chicago’s Children Deserve.” A strike of this size and scale, one of teachers no less, hadn’t been seen in years.

The Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012—the event that more than any other can be credited with sparking Bargaining for the Common Good—was the right fight at the right time. This newly energized teachers’ union formed a deep partnership with student, parent, and community groups, helping to rouse a moribund labor movement that was only then slowly awakening from the economic crash of 2008 to find itself under political attack from all quarters. The 2012 strike built on the work of community coalition partners to frame school closures and privatization as issues of racial justice, creating space for much sharper fights for racial justice to come. And the Chicago strike helped energize a nascent and growing movement of educators across the country, pushing their unions to fight for the common good.

CTU has ‘common good’ in its DNA

To understand the continuing impact of the 2012 strike, it’s important to understand the context. The Chicago Teachers Union first formed in 1898 as the Chicago Teachers Federation (CTF), an all-female union fighting for pay and benefit equity for women teachers, who were treated and paid worse than their male counterparts. Beyond equity issues, the CTF took on fights that could be seen now as “bargaining for the common good”— against a University of Chicago-led and business-backed “factorization” of Chicago’s public schools, and in favor of fair funding. In 1916, that fighting union of women teachers helped to launch the American Federation of Teachers and proudly remains Local 1 of the AFT to this day.

As Chicago became a leader in neoliberal education reform in the late 20th century, the CTU lost touch with its militant history. This happened alongside a broader downturn in union membership, organizing activity and industrial action across sectors of the economy. In 1995, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley successfully passed legislation for mayoral control of Chicago Public Schools, giving the mayor sole authority to appoint the Board of Education and its CEO. Further, this sweeping set of reforms stripped Chicago teachers of their ability to negotiate over non-pay issues like class sizes, and let Chicago’s donor class off the hook for paying into the city’s pension funds for a 10-year period. This legislation paved the way for an appointed school board, dominated by bankers and corporate executives, to drastically deepen austerity via expanding charter schools, closing neighborhood schools, and attacking the teachers’ union.

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These efforts were part of a broader campaign to turn Chicago into a “global city” for the wealthy few. Arne Duncan (appointed CEO of Chicago Public Schools in 2001), Mayor Daley, and others systematically worked to decimate the public institutions that had been built through working-class struggle in Black and immigrant communities across the city. The shuttering and neglect of public housing complexes administered by the Chicago Housing Authority–and the forced shift to private-public enterprises like Section 8 vouchers and “affordable requirements” for new construction–led to the near-disappearance of affordable family housing for low-wage workers.

This struggle for the future of public schools and public housing—and by extension, for Chicago’s future as a Black, immigrant, and working-class city—planted the seeds of what would become the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE). The caucus, led by Black chemistry teacher Karen Lewis, positioned itself to take over CTU in 2010 and eventually led tens of thousands of teachers out on strike in 2012.

Teachers who had directly experienced the Duncan-and-Daley-era school closings in Black communities—notably at Englewood High School, where current CTU President Stacy Davis Gates taught alongside CORE founder and current Vice President Jackson Potter—partnered with organizations like the Black-led Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) to fight back. KOCO leaders and allies had spent the prior decade working to form coalitions with the unions that represented teachers and school workers, to varying degrees of success. It was these efforts, though, that defined the fight against neoliberal, racist attacks on public education, and laid the critical groundwork for the deeper partnership that CORE’s leadership knew was needed.

CORE: The Start of a New Era

As CORE, KOCO, and members of the newly formed Grassroots Education Movement (GEM) were fighting to reclaim Chicago’s public institutions, workers were beginning to wage a sharper fight around what was happening in the global economy. In the cold winter of 2008, 200 workers displaced by globalization occupied their factory, Republic Windows, for five days to win the back-wages and benefits they were owed by the company that planned to shut it down. Leaders of the union at Republic Windows, UE Local 1110, traveled to Wisconsin two years later to help inspire teachers and public workers occupying the State Capitol in Madison in an uprising against the new Republican governor’s draconian anti-union laws.

These were defensive fights that signaled the beginning of a new era of direct action and raised expectations for what labor, community, and political organizing could and should deliver. In September of 2011, Occupy Wall Street exploded into the public consciousness. Its offshoot coalition, Occupy Chicago, would prove to be a critical force in amplifying movements on the ground, including nascent movements to save Chicago’s public mental health clinics and neighborhood schools from closure.

In the midst of this growing drumbeat of action and organizing, a new leadership took on the fight inside CTU. Led by Karen Lewis, CORE won leadership of the union in a hotly contested election in 2010, and wasted no time in transforming CTU into an organizing union, one that prioritized internal democracy alongside a deep partnership with student, parent and community groups.

The 2012 walkout was a strike like nothing the country had seen in years. Tens of thousands of teachers on the picket line. Daily actions targeting the wealthiest and most powerful corporations in the city, joined and frequently led by students, parents and community groups, with critical coordination from member organizations of GEM and longtime labor and community partners in the Grassroots Collaborative. Thousands of striking teachers marching not just around their schools or the central Loop for their pay and benefits, but on East 53rd Street to fight against tax giveaways to developers; down West 83rd Street to join Walmart warehouse workers in their fight for dignified work; on North Ashland Avenue with students to demand an end to the standardized testing regime that threatened to fill the entire school calendar.

Along with actions by like-minded unions of K-12 educators in Los Angeles and St. Paul, the CTU strike was clearly defined as one for the common good. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration admitted as much, filing for an injunction on day five of the strike contending that “state law expressly prohibits the CTU from striking over non-economic issues.” These issues were the heart of the fight, whether around class sizes, classroom air-conditioning, reduction of standardized testing or any of the rest of the “Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve,” CTU’s policy blueprint, released widely in the long lead-up to the strike.

2012 Changes the Game

While the impact of this strike shows clearly in the rising militancy of public school educators in the 2010s, culminating in the “Red for Ed” strikes in 2018 and 2019, as well as strikes in Los Angeles, Oakland, and again in Chicago, the real impact was much larger: it helped create a new model for working-class struggle.  When labor and community activists from seven states gathered in Washington, DC, in May 2014 to create the Bargaining for the Common Good network, they drew their greatest inspiration from the spirit of the Chicago strike.

Ten years later, the seeds planted by the 2012 strike continue to grow and blossom throughout the BCG network and beyond. Within the field of public education, the 2012 CTU strike—and the “Red for Ed” movement that followed—gave the nation a language for understanding who benefited from union-busting, school privatization, and high-stakes testing. In his 2009 State of the Union address, President Obama pledged to expand charter schools and incentivize testing-based measures of teacher performance. These two “education reform” measures have since become broadly unpopular thanks to the wave of teachers’ strikes, which galvanized public support for educators and pulled back the curtain on who was funding and benefiting from these measures.

The 2012 strike also accelerated the paradigm shifts that had been touched off by Occupy Wall Street. Together, both events broke open prevailing narratives about who could organize (professional organizers) and for what (the shrinking realm of the immediately winnable). Large numbers of people were politicized, swiftly and sharply, through the scale and scope of direct action struggle, with clear targets for their ire, higher expectations for what they could win, and a fuller sense of hope about what was possible.

This rapid transformation opened up new arenas of political struggle. The year after the strike, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed more than 50 public schools, the majority of them in Black communities. To date, this is the largest school closing in American history. At the state level, Democrats—who in 2011 had stripped Illinois teachers of their right to bargain over non-economic issues and raised the threshold for a strike authorization vote—attempted to slash public pensions. The bill passed, but was ultimately defeated in the courts as unconstitutional.

Building Working-Class Political Action

Seeing the need for a political organization separate from the Democratic Party, the CTU worked with longtime allies in community and labor to form United Working Families (UWF). Since the group formed in 2015, over 20 of its members—many of them organizers and rank-and-file unionists—have been elected to city, county, state, and federal office. UWF member Delia Ramirez, elected to the Illinois state legislature in 2018, successfully championed legislation to restore CTU’s collective bargaining rights and win an elected school board for Chicago. In June 2022, she won a Democratic primary for the U.S. Congress with the support of national figures like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A local Chicago teacher currently co-chairs CORE and chairs CTU’s political committee, a testament to the long-term, grassroots political infrastructure that has been built in the years following the 2012 strike.

Leaders within the CTU have continued to push the boundaries of militant labor organizing. The union held an illegal one-day work stoppage in 2016 that put abolitionist leaders of the Laquan McDonald protests alongside rank-and-file teachers, and a ten-day strike in 2019 run jointly with SEIU Local 73, the public sector union representing some of the most poorly-paid school workers (including paraprofessionals and custodians). Together, they won both “common good” demands—including a nurse and social worker in every school, protections for immigrant families, resources for unhoused students—and historic wage increases for the lowest-paid education workers in the city. The depth of relationship built with Chicago’s communities was evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, when teachers took action to win clear safety protocols around school re-opening with the broad support of parents across the city.

The ongoing impact of the 2012 strike was felt deeply this past June, at the semi-annual conference hosted by Labor Notes, a magazine dedicated to “putting the movement back in the labor movement.” An overflow crowd of over 4,000 union activists gathered in an airport hotel conference center just outside Chicago, greeted by both outgoing CTU President Jesse Sharkey and incoming CTU President Stacy Davis Gates. Dozens of CTU leaders and allies led workshops on subjects from “Strike Support” to “Community-Labor Coalitions” and beyond. Workers organizing at coffee giant Starbucks and in the warehouses of Amazon came together—two of the most inspiring and important union organizing campaigns in modern times taking up the struggle of SEIU’s decade-long “Fight for $15,” a campaign launched by retail and restaurant workers in Chicago directly in the wake of the 2012 strike.

During the main plenary session of the conference, sharing a stage with leaders from, among others, the Amazon Labor Union, Starbucks Workers United and the UAW’s five-week long strike at John Deere, new CTU President Stacy Davis Gates got some of the biggest applause of the night when she proclaimed, “Labor has got to include the worker from sunup to sundown.” 

The 2012 strike, then, was not the culmination of a union strategy. It was a marker and a step, however loud and visible, in a fight that had been building for the decade before and has continued for the decade since. If our unions are to build the power we need to win, we must do it hand in hand with the communities that surround us. If our movements are going to build on the victories that help light our way, we must do it hand in hand with those who are fighting the same enemies on different terrain. If we are to do the necessary work to transform our cities, our country, and our world, we must do it together.

Featured image: Protester from 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike. Photo courtesy of Sarah-Ji (Love & Struggle Photos)

Convergence is co-publishing this article with Nonprofit Quarterly.

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