How Chicago Teachers Got Organized to Strike
November 12, 2012
The seven-day Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike in
September didn't just beat back a mayor bent on
imposing some very bad "education reforms." The union
also developed a deep new layer of member leaders and
won broad public support. One poll showed 66 percent of
parents sided with us.
Our win was possible because of several years of
patient organizing, focused on getting members to step
The work began with the election of a new leadership
team from a reform caucus in June 2010. Many in the
caucus had waged battles going back to 2001 against the
school closings that were targeting Black and Latino
We knew we had to build up the union to be ready to
strike, if necessary, to defend our contract and our
students. But the vast majority of our members had not
experienced any of the nine strikes from 1967 through
1987. Leaders were committed to building a member-
driven union to battle alongside parents and students
and make our contract campaign one front in a bigger
fight to save public education.
To get the members in fighting shape, our first step
was to start an Organizing Department, made up mostly
of teachers and paraprofessionals who came off the job
to work for the union, with each organizer responsible
for 100 schools in regional clusters.
We held trainings for delegates (the elected reps in
each of more than 600 schools) and other activists,
with workshops on contract enforcement, fighting school
closings and charter proliferation, ways to fight for
funding, how to use research, and engaging parents.
Dozens of rank-and-filers spent summers being trained
and working in the community in an organizing
LEADERS IN EVERY SCHOOL
Staff organizers worked to develop leaders in every
school. They came to know all their delegates: who had
a lousy principal, who rarely ran union meetings, who
had their building solid. Organizers ran school
meetings to listen to members and activate them, not to
Members knew the threats were real: thousands of
layoffs, funding cuts, and anti-union teacher-bashing
in the press had made that clear. Organizers' goals
were to educate members about where these attacks were
coming from and to convince them that winning was
possible if large numbers of us were in motion in the
schools, streets, and communities.
Between October 2011 and February 2012 the Board of
Education voted to close or "turn around" 17 schools,
provoking huge fights that engaged many members and
parents. Members showed up for regional union meetings,
rallies, forums, alderman and legislator calls and
visits, phonebanks, board of education meetings, budget
hearings, buses to the state capital, and to testify at
hearings on school closings.
The tactics of our coalition were confrontational and
escalated throughout the effort. We disrupted and took
over a board meeting; parents and community activists
occupied a school; and community organizations led a
vigil outside the mayor's home. These actions built
members' confidence in the types of tactics we would
use during the strike and provided visible examples of
joint union-community action.
In every action, we stressed the big picture: that our
fight was about a better school day and getting the
resources into neighborhood schools instead of charter
schools. We made it clear that the union was not alone,
but part of a broad coalition. We called the board's
policies racist and pointed out that, in Black and
Latino communities, students, teachers, and schools
were set up to fail, paving the way for closings and
Action Committees. A year before the contract expired,
we started up Contract Action Committees in each
building. Each committee member was responsible for
communicating with about 10 employees face-to-face,
including teachers and paraprofessionals, as well as
the engineers, security staff, and lunchroom workers in
The message was always for members to build their own
local activities and reach out to parents and
community, particularly through the local school
The committees circulated an open letter for parents
and teachers to sign. The letter said that, if we were
going to have a longer school day, it must be a better
school day, with a rich curriculum, more social workers
and counselors, and high-quality facilities.
This letter helped committee members develop their
organizing skills by talking to every CTU member in
their building, and it built their confidence at
engaging with parent leaders.
Developing Bargaining Demands. To develop our demands,
we went to our 28 existing member committees, which
cover topics like early childhood, substitutes, special
ed, testing, and many more. Each committee came up with
demands, and we gathered additional input at regional
union meetings. Demands were finalized in our
Professional Problems Committee with lots of rank-and-
Regional Meetings. We held after-school regional
meetings, open to all, at multiple locations around the
city. Whenever a big issue came up, such as the anti-
union "Performance Counts" legislation in late 2011, we
emailed members to come listen and say what they
We also held regional meetings specifically for the
Phonebanking. We made it a point to phonebank members
who were new, those who were the lowest paid and the
least protected, beginning at the start of 2012.
Members trained by the organizing department (sometimes
volunteering and other times paid) described what the
board was doing, heard members' thoughts, and projected
a vision of how we could win.
In these calls members were asked to do something-such
as come out to our big rally, attend a training, get
involved in their school's contract committee, or fill
buses to the state capital. We tracked how willing they
were to vote for a strike.
Bargaining Team. We convened a big bargaining team-30
members drawn from all sectors, seniority ranges, job
categories, and caucuses. This happened right after we
took office because we had to bargain over the layoffs
of 1,500 members. We brought in the best leaders from
other caucuses, which worked well to create buy-in and
Special Report. Our research department produced a 45-
page report with graphs, charts, photos, and data-The
Schools Chicago's Children Deserve-that projected a
vision in which every child, regardless of her parents'
income or zip code, would get a world-class education.
This report was pivotal in building support, both
within our ranks and among parents. We circulated it
everywhere, among parents and politicians, education
experts and the press. It called the Chicago system
That crucial phrase, regularly used by union leaders,
helped show that the union was on the side of Black and
Latino children and was willing to be direct about it.
Jesse Jackson picked it up. The report made it clear to
anyone what CTU was fighting for, and backed it up with
research showing what children need.
We also distilled the report into a 10-point one-pager
in English and Spanish and took it to every meeting.
In 2011 the Illinois legislature passed a law that the
CTU would need the votes of 75 percent of all members
(not just of those voting) to call a strike. To beat
that threshold, we couldn't go into the vote cold.
Practice Vote. We wanted to vote before the school year
was over, while the issues were hot and members were
having daily conversations with each other. We took a
dry run May 10. Members at their schools took a four-
question poll with questions that would elicit a yes
("Do the Board's bargaining proposals disrespect CTU
This practice vote allowed us to test our machinery and
signal to members that a strike vote was coming. Rank-
and-file leaders had to drive turnout on a scale they
had not experienced before.
Ninety-eight percent rejected the board's proposals,
with 21,000 of 26,000 members participating-showing
that the contract campaign had worked.
Even before this, when organizers went out to schools
for meetings, we would ask for a show of hands on "How
many would vote for a strike?" And spontaneous "mock"
strike votes were bubbling up from the membership,
simply because they were so angry at the board. We
would get calls from delegates: "My staff met yesterday
and we voted 98 percent to strike."
Rally. On May 23, after many phone calls, emails, and
school meetings and three weeks before school would end
for the semester, 7,000 members wearing their red CTU
t-shirts swarmed downtown to a march and rally.
Our signs said "Yes to Respect," "Yes to Smaller
Classes," and "Yes to Student Needs." The huge turnout
bolstered the rising mood of exhilaration and power.
Teachers sang along to Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" and
Aretha Franklin's "Respect." Two parents and a high
school student gave stirring speeches.
When President Karen Lewis, a veteran science teacher,
spoke, a chant went up: "Strike! Strike! Strike!"-led
by members, not the officers.
The march merged us with Stand Up Chicago, a union-
sponsored group that stages militant actions against
millionaires and bankers. Thousands of Stand Up
protesters and the downtown public greeted CTU members
with cheers and support, helping win over those who had
been fearful of public reaction if we were to strike.
"I've never been so proud of being in the union,"
people said afterwards.
Strike Vote. The tremendous energy of the rally
propelled us to the strike authorization vote, with a
delegate in charge at each school and a secret ballot.
A worker center ally recruited clergy to observe the
vote count in anticipation of Board of Ed accusations
After two years of preparation, 90 percent of teachers-
and 98 percent of those voting-voted to authorize a
* * *
Norine Gutekanst is a former third-grade bilingual
teacher who now heads CTU's Organizing Department. For
much more on the reform movement in the CTU, their
fights against school closings, parents' involvement,
and the strike, see more Labor Notes articles listed
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