“What I learned about successful organizing from Chicago teachers’ strike leaders”

On Nov. 17, three leaders from the Chicago Teachers’ Union came to Philadelphia to share stories and strategies from their work as educational advocates and activists. The event, From Chicago to Philadelphia, revealed to me how the movement to challenge privatization and promote educational justice in Philadelphia has matured and honed its political savvy.

The Teacher Action Group – whose Philadelphia chapter organized the event with Occupy Philly Labor Working Group – has continually drawn links between local school issues and the national landscape. But this event gave participants the chance to maintain that wide-angle focus while also getting the nit and grit from teachers’ union members who were on the front lines of the strike.

I have been following the situation in Chicago with keen interest for a couple of years now, since members of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) won enough union elections to gain control of the Chicago Teachers’ Union. But how was the union able to organize such a massive and publicly supported strike? From my vantage point, CORE has been successful for a few reasons.

  • The group’s methodology and ideology is rooted in grassroots organizing, where personal relationships and dialogue are prioritized.
  • Members of CORE have not been afraid to discuss the ways that race and racism have created an educational apartheid in this country, a place where the term achievement gap is code for the gap between white students and students of color.
  • CORE worked to alter the image of the teachers’ union as an entity concerned only with teacher benefits and contracts.
  • The group was able to articulate a new vision for the union as an organizing body that, in addition to protecting teachers, would simultaneously stand and fight for schools and students.

The CORE members linked the drive toward privatizing public education with the reality that all things public are under attack. The struggle for public education is the struggle for the right to public things, for the right of all workers to be paid a living wage and to be guaranteed a decent retirement.

These ideas about breaking down walls and looking at root causes did not emerge after they had a majority in Chicago union leadership; these ideals had been part of their teaching and organizing. CORE built a valuable infrastructure from these ideals. They hired a team of organizers who worked with teachers at each school to develop phone trees and strategies for listening to and supporting colleagues to take risks and bravely join the strike. CORE invested in its communications structure with a website that was regularly updated and people who would answer phone calls and emails.

It was interesting to hear the panelists’ variety of experiences. I imagined what a strike of that magnitude looks like and wondered what kind of logistical structure is needed to be successful. One panelist, Rolando Vazquez, a union delegate and strike captain at his school, said that he would, each day, do the following: bring coffee and doughnuts, check in with everyone, distribute flyers throughout the neighborhood, and take time to talk with parents and students. Every afternoon, Vazquez would travel downtown with teachers from his school to join the huge rallies. The strike, he said, was an empowering experience for him and his colleagues that no one will ever be able to take away from them.

Debby Pope, a retired teacher and union delegate, described how she had traveled to 10 or 12 different schools, monitoring the strikes there, checking in with teachers. She described four scenes from four different schools the first morning she made her rounds. Teachers at each school, she said, organized their strike in a way that reflected who they were, what made sense for each particular school, from a family picnic to a drum-corps drill-off. It was important to CORE that each school owned their strike.

The third panelist was Michael Brunson, the union’s recording secretary. Brunson was on the bargaining committee and spent the strike in negotiations with the city. As an example of CORE’s commitment to collaboration, he shared how the bargaining committee brought into negotiations a 45-member bargaining team, composed of teachers and school employees from various facets of the school community. Brunson told us that the city didn’t like having to deal with a large bargaining team, but that they were committed to being as transparent and collaborative as possible.

Thinking about how CORE was able to incorporate their ideals into practice, I appreciated how the Teacher Action Group had thoughtfully structured the event. Recognizing that there was much to learn from the panelists, the group was intentional and transparent about the ways they wanted the conversation to stay focused so that we could glean as much as possible from the panelists. There was a moderator who asked key questions. To ensure the audience had a chance to ask their questions, TAG members circulated the room with index cards. Questions were collected and shared with the panel as they accumulated. If you wrote your name on your card, you were invited to ask your questions; if you remained anonymous, a TAG member read your question for you.

After the event, I left feeling like a ball of fiery optimism: Change is possible! Even when your enemy is powerful and rich. Even when it feels like your school is infected with an unrelenting apathy. Even when injustice screams from all sides, change is possible and it is us.

Public schools are under attack! What do we do? Stand up! Fight back!

– Beth Pulcinella is a teaching artist and activist now working at the Attic Youth