CTU Members at protest


In September of 2012 the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) carried out a successful seven-day strike against Chicago Public Schools (CPS). This was the first strike by the CTU in over 25 years. As unions decline across the USA and education “reformers” restructure urban public K-12 education along the lines of market mimicking business models, the CTU strike campaign of 2012 stands apart. The CTU bucks these wider anti-union and anti-public education national trends and is the most notable actor in grassroots opposition to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to date. One of the largest union locals in the country stood up to one of the most powerful mayors and defended the profession of teaching and the values of public education against the onslaught of neoliberal education deform.

We set out to understand the turn in the CTU towards a robust defense of professional unionized labor and public education. We interviewed CTU members on their perspective of the 2012 contract campaign, strike and the turn towards what is often called a social-organizing model of unionism. In January and February of 2013 social science professors Stephanie Farmer (Roosevelt University) and Fran Huckaby (Texas Christian University) conducted a series of interviews with 37 CTU members. The interviewees responded to a call for respondents in a series of emails sent out across CTU email list-serves. There were 32 teachers, three clinicians, one para-professional and one counselor interviewed. The grade level breakdown among respondents was: 15 elementary school teachers, seven middle school teachers, five high school teachers, and three teachers working in schools with a range of grade levels. Ethnically, interview respondents identified as white (20), black (12) and Latino (5), roughly mirroring each of these groups’ makeup in the general CTU membership. There were 31 women and six men in the group of people interviewed. The interviews were semi-structured involving open-ended questions that guided the conversation between interview respondent and researcher. None of the respondents’ names or school names are used due to concerns of retaliation by the CPS administration. We hope that this report can be useful for educators and a broad range of unionists alike.

The social-organizing model of unionism adopted by the CTU in the run up to the strike of 2012 played a crucial role in the success of the labor action. Broadly speaking there are two different types or poles of unionism operating in the US labor movement at this time – service unions and social-organizing unions. Service unionism, the most common model of unionism in the contemporary US labor movement, is characterized by the union providing a bundle of services to its membership (such as contract language, grievance proceedings, pay raises, and benefits) in a manner akin to how a business provides services to its customers. The leadership and staff of service model unions are the active agent and the rank and file membership are most often passive spectators in the activities of the union. Service model unions take a reactive stance towards management as union officers solve problems for members in response to complaints, concerns or issues that arise. The rhythm of union activity orbits around grievances, arbitrations, and contract deadlines. The key players in the union are the leadership, paid staff, lawyers and lobbyists. Decision making is top-down and issues of importance are circumscribed by contract language. The de facto slogan of service model unionism is “If it’s not in the contract, it’s not our concern.”

In contrast to service model unionism, social-organizing unionism sees unions as a social movement where the bonds of solidarity within the rank and file provide the foundation from which concerted collective action emanates. In the social-organizing model of unionism the leadership, staff and bureaucracy still exist, but their role is to organize, energize and activate the rank and file for collective action. Social-organizing model unions seek to set their own agenda in dealing with management. Social-organizing unions see organizing as a method to run contract campaigns and contract campaigns as a method to organize the rank and file; they are two sides of the same coin. Grievances, arbitrations and contracts are still key moments in the rhythm of the union, but the unity of the membership, and solidarity actions (often pre-grievance) take their place alongside the more officious features of unionism. In social-organizing unions, membership is active and decision-making is inclusive and consciously strives to expand democratic voice. Crucially, social-organizing unions see the contract, the membership and the union as embedded in a context that includes the wider economy, the political system and culture. Therefore they actively engage the political process in order to fight for the conditions of their membership.

The CTU prior to 2010 was primarily a service model union. The relationship of the rank and file membership to the leadership was most often a passive relationship and if an issue arose, the member would bring their concern to the leadership. The leadership would be active in resolving the issue over and above the membership. In contrast, since 2010 the CTU has moved in a social-organizing union direction where the goal is to make the collective activity of the rank and file membership the core of the union and the leadership’s role is to facilitate and activate the membership.

In order to understand how the different dimensions of social-organizing unionism played out in the 2012 CTU strike campaign, we organized this report into five sections: Context, Organizing, Framing, Actions, and Outcomes. First, the wider economic, political and education policy Context in which the CTU is embedded has played a key role in shaping the activities of the CTU membership and leadership. Second, Organizing refers to the practices and processes the CTU cultivated in order to organize, energize and empower the rank and file membership. Third, Framing deals with how the CTU developed a framework of ideas that are pro-union, pro-professional teacher, and pro-public education in contrast to the anti-union, anti teacher, and antipublic education ideas generated and disseminated by financial elites, the Mayor’s office and the mass media. Fourth, Actions illustrate the collective actions and solidarity activism that the CTU engaged in to promote and defend the collective interests of CTU educators. These actions run the gamut from activities that build solidarity to the strike itself, including the contract campaign and building alliances with parents and community groups. Fifth, the turn of the CTU towards social-organizing unionism has yielded a number of important effects and Outcomes, which are now shaping the terrain over which the CTU will move in the future. These themes of external Context, Organizing, Framing, Actions, and Outcomes provide a conceptual map that seeks to illuminate how CTU members perceive their union, where it has been, what it is doing, how members see their position and influence in the union, and where it seeks to go.

CTU Members at protest in downtown Chicago


The causes and context that led the CTU to move towards a social-organizing model of unions are multilayered, involving forces and events working at the national, state and local level. Nationally, CTU members mentioned No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top legislation as mandating a pedagogical regime where high stakes testing became both rampant and an end in itself. CTU members saw this model of high stakes testing as not useful for students and not a fair or just method of evaluating teacher effectiveness.

At the state level, CTU members reported that the Illinois education “reform” of 2011 called Senate Bill 7 (SB7) was an important motivating factor in the run up to the contract campaign and strike. Illinois SB7 included a number of anti-educator provisions. First, SB7 made it more difficult for CPS teachers to go on strike by extending the time-line of negotiations and creating a bar of 75% of membership voting yes before a strike could be authorized. Second, SB7 removed the length of school day and length of school year from mandatory bargaining issues rendering them “permissive”, meaning that the Board can choose whether or not it wants to let CTU negotiate over these essential features of educator working conditions. Third, SB7 also increased and expanded the role of a draconian “performance” evaluation system in hiring, granting tenure, and termination.

In relation to SB7, members also referred to the now infamous Aspen Institute talk by the entrepreneurial philanthropist Jonah Edelman of Stand for Children that was posted on Youtube in July of 2011. In the video, Edelman frankly discussed the elite machine politics that went on behind the scenes leading to the passage of SB7. Importantly, Edelman bluntly characterized the key objective of SB7 as curbing and curtailing the power of the CTU. In the eyes of politicians, the mass media, and entrepreneurial philanthropy organizations like Stand for Children and the Gates Foundation, the real goal of education reform is to break the power of education unions. Identifying as “not a political person,” one teacher reflected on this political strategy:

“They were from the business community, not the education community. Schools are expensive to run. They don’t really care what we’re doing. They’re just looking at a bottom line. That’s how I felt that it was being handled… it was the testing and the increased focus on numbers.”

At the level of the school system, members reported that charter schools, turnaround schools and school closings were important precipitating factors towards greater union activism. Charter schools and turnaround schools give more control over the education system to private school operators subsidized by taxpayers. By state law, charter school teachers cannot be part of the same bargaining unit as CPS teachers, but may form their own union. Therefore, charter schools work in the short term to shrink union membership and democratic control over education. Since 2000, CPS has closed over 150 neighborhood public schools in a slow process of shrinking public education and the ranks of union membership. In some cases, charter schools have been opened in the areas of closed schools and 40% of emptied public school buildings have been leased out to charter school operators. Several waves of CPS school closings and the proliferation of non-CTU schools are seen as sources of job insecurity for CTU members. One middle-school teacher who says she is not an active union member explained:

“Friends of mine work in charter schools. When I hear about their experiences I’m thankful that I have a union… My friends who work for charter schools say if your principal says you have a meeting on Saturday morning, you have a meeting on Saturday morning. And if you don’t like it, there is the door.”

Another high school teacher who is politically minded but not that active observed:

“They have no respect for us. If they could they would eliminate it [public education] right now. They would privatize it all and get rid of all of it.”

Another factor cited as instigating the strike was newly elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s directive to the CPS Board to rescind the contractually agreed upon 4% raise for CTU educators in the 2011-2012 school year. As pay was being cut for frontline teachers, counselors, clinicians and para-professionals, Mayor Emanuel rolled out the first phase of his campaign to extend the school day and extend the school year. For CTU members, the additional obligatory work hours for less pay were a disrespectful attack on CTU educators barely able to keep up with the increasing paperwork burdens. One teacher expressed the sentiments that many other respondents hold:

“I’m actually working for less this year than I was last year. I’m working more time, more hours, really for less pay. And they want to come out and portray it as I’m getting a 60% raise. None of that was really an issue for me, and I would say the majority of the people. It is about testing, about school closures, the expansion of charters, the use of consultants and it’s just the way the CPS runs the system.”

CTU educators also expressed concerns over the culture of hostility to older teachers on one hand and the widespread practice of driving younger teachers to burn out on the other hand. Furthermore, a general lack of educational support staff and services such as nurses, counselors, social workers has made the practice of professional education in the CPS system ever more burdensome. One of the counselors reported:

“I had a little boy come in and his father was killed. It was on the news…I basically can spend 10 minutes with him.”

When contract negotiations got underway, members indicated they were insulted by the proposed gutting of the contract down to a 20-page document and found the proposed management rights language to be an attack on CTU educators as professionals. A high school teacher explained:

“It was more about what kind of power did the principals have, teacher evaluation, testing. That was really the whole story. They wanted to take a 140-page contract and turn it into a 20-page document. The elimination of rights – they wanted to have this management rights clause where they could just come in and take over complete control of the school… I think the whole thing is a culmination of the whole 20, 25 years of irresponsible management by the city of Chicago.”

Finally, at the union level itself, members expressed their fatigue with paying dues but “getting nothing in return” under the previous union leadership. CTU members indicated that although previous CTU President Marilyn Stewart would say she was fighting CPS attacks, in fact she was willing to trade pay increases for massive changes in educator rights, working conditions and a generalized decline in the size and influence of the CTU itself. A high school teacher who is active in the union said:

“We saw how the charter schools were being accepted by the Union. When charter schools first came in, Marilyn Stewart did nothing to stand up to that. We’re sitting around watching this not knowing what we could do. Yeah, I think at that time I didn’t know much about what the Union did because I was assuming that the Union did stuff and it was kind of like, I’m paying my dues what the hell are they doing for me?”

March to support schools


Interview respondents were keen to highlight the differences between the internal workings of the CTU when it operated as a service union in the past and the way that CTU is operating as a social-organizing union today. Respondents identified stronger communication, solidarity-building, research, trainings and a large negotiations teams as ways in which CTU’s social-organizing strategy has made the union stronger and has made them stronger union members. Communication is one area where CTU members see an improvement in organizing. CTU members characterized the new information regime as “more transparent” with strong communication and “constant” email updates. One elementary school teacher explained:

“They’d give you the phone number. The person would email you right away. So first came this structure, this organizational structure, and then the message came through.”

Another elementary school teacher who became active in the union since the strike noted:

“I get constant e-mail up dates from the union as to what is going on. I think that is different. I don’t remember in the past having received as much information as to what’s going on.”

Others linked the improved communication with a higher level of transparency. One high school teacher reported:

“My experience with the union before, going to all the meetings, it was just a fiasco. At the meetings there was all this sniping against one another. Now we know where the leadership is coming from. It’s very transparent… As long as the union is being transparent and giving information, then you keep people happy.”

Members also noted a shift from being passive dues payers who received nothing in return from “the union” (seen as Merchandise Mart – the headquarters location of the CTU). A middle school teacher explained:

“I didn’t feel like I was a union member. I just paid my dues…There was no room for the membership to need to do anything, because “we’ll take care of it”… There wasn’t any education about trying to get the community involved. The union was not fighting against the damage that was being done by Chicago’s policy of closing schools.”

In contrast, respondents express a new (or renewed) recognition that the most essential feature of the CTU that makes it a “union” is the solidarity of the membership. The union isn’t some distant bureaucracy, rather the union is “us, we are the union.” An elementary school teacher expressed her changing view of the union as:

“Something to the effect of, well they are the union and they are the ones who fight for me and later I came to realize, ‘No, we are here to fight for our rights.”

This more grassroots approach to union organizing reduced sectional infighting in the union. Younger and newer teachers appreciated rank and file unity and felt the union was a means of inclusion and acceptance by colleagues. At the same time, older and more experienced teachers reported feeling reinvigorated. Another, more experienced, clinician reported that the grassroots approach to internal organizing re-energized a dormant social justice activist:

“At first I wasn’t so sure in terms of Karen Lewis. Since I’m older, I thought, ‘Well she doesn’t really have a lot of experience with it.’ When I listened to her talk and listened to the things that she was trying to do in terms of the grassroots organization, it took me back to how I felt when I was younger and the kind of things that I believed in. And it reinvigorated me.”

In another form of reducing sectionalism inside the union, members expressed appreciation when the union leadership did not solely focus on teachers and instead consciously included “clinicians, counselors and PSRPs” in their statements and discussions.

Interview respondents also praised the increased flow of information as well as the training’s that spread knowledge and skills amongst the membership. One respondent praised the union resources available on the Internet and the use of social media. Training’s were praised in terms of “facilitating issues in your building” “dealing with difficult principals”, being effective in getting newer and younger faculty engaged, and providing the membership with skills to deal with media. Other members appreciated the efforts (both formal and informal) to survey the membership and seek input from the membership as a routine part of running the union and not just a perfunctory, one-off every couple of years at contract campaign time. One teacher who was recently laid off but successfully fought to get her job back said:

“They sent out a survey. They tried to find out what you felt were the important issues. I was like, ‘Are you serious? You really want me to tell you?’ And there were a lot of teachers who said ‘I’m not filling it out. You know that if you put your name on that, it doesn’t matter if you don’t even put your name on it, you’re going to get in trouble.’ I was like, ‘No. Somebody is asking me and god dammit I’m going to tell you.’ So I did it. And I continue to do that because I thought, ‘No one has ever asked me’… I was so grateful that someone wanted to ask me.”

Several respondents made similar comments on the issue of internal organizing and the relationship between “Merchandise Mart” (CTU headquarters) and the membership out in “the buildings.” An elementary school teacher noted:

“Before the strike I saw them as an entity up there to go to. Now I see them as within my building. I mean it’s in myself, it’s my other colleagues. It’s us. It’s not some far out office away. Now I feel more connected to the union.”

Another educator said, “I used to resent Marylyn Stewart’s pay but I don’t resent what Karen gets.” Several respondents mentioned the large contract negotiating team at the contract negotiation table as evidence of an openness and transparency in CTU. Respondents reported that CPS negotiators were dismissive and disrespectful towards the 40-person CTU negotiating team at the outset. One teacher from the negotiations team said:

“The other side wasn’t ready for all of us being there and being a part of the negotiating team. They thought that we were some sort of audience and some sort of gimmick… They were exceptionally disrespectful to us…It was interesting to watch the dynamics and watch Karen and Jesse and some of the other leadership step up and say ‘Well, wait a minute, this isn’t the audience, this is part of our team. They help us, they’re part of this thing’… The tone changed as we went along, they kind of figured out that we’re not going away… We were coming in and telling them this is how it is at high school. And it’s not just my school because we have all these other people where they’re saying it’s my school. Just stories after stories about the reasons we have to have this piece in our big old contract… I felt like we were educating the CPS negotiations team about how schools work. Many of them had never spent any time professionally in a school. They actually asked, “What is a clinician and what do they do?”


Framing deals with the formation and development of ideas and meanings. Framing works to inspire and legitimate the social-organizing union activities and the political positions CTU adopted in the struggle against corporate education “reform”. CTU members reported the their union leadership played a positive role in providing the membership with facts, ideas, and talking points to counteract the dominant frames invoked by Mayor Emanuel, the school “deformers” and the mass media. Several interview respondents identified the new content-driven direction of the CTU magazine as a key element in providing rank and file educators with information and ideas. One somewhat active elementary school teacher said:

“One thing that stands out for me is the difference in the publication that comes out monthly now and that came out under the previous leadership. It was glossy and huge and expensive and lauded stuff like luncheons and pictures with people. … The publication now is smaller. It’s less expensive and it has real political statements in it. That is a huge difference, because I read those… I know a lot of people who read it.”

The focus on content extended beyond the magazine. Members reported forming study groups on privatization. As an active high school teacher described:

“We wanted to know what’s going on, how we understand this. They would start to do study groups. I was fascinated by the fact that I needed to study this. And this is how it started, people who are sitting around understanding what is a union and what it faces.”

Other members pointed to the research department and the work it has done in promoting a pro-educator perspective for the membership of the CTU and providing “the ammo for taking on the media.” Other respondents pointed to the publishing of documents and distributing materials, especially the report The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve, as indicative of how CTU is now providing its membership with information and ideas, so that the union membership can articulate its own perspective in the face of the storm of attacks on public education, teachers, the public sector, and unions generally. An elementary school delegate observed:

“We had people doing research into the issues so that they had the numbers. They had facts to fight back with. It wasn’t just rhetoric, and people started paying attention.”

Respondents also compared the solid facts produced by the CTU research department and contrasted them with the outright lies in the mass media. A high school teacher who is active in the union said,

“I think it did make people a little more aware of the fact that the media in Chicago is kind of bought. It does what the mayor wants. It’s really what the rich want.”

Several interviewees invoked two particular frames. First, in response to the Emanuel Administration’s (and mainstream media) trope that teachers are under-worked, overpaid and therefore a longer school day without increased compensation is appropriate; CTU effectively provided a pro-child and pro-educator counter-frame. Several members made statements that the CTU is “for a better school day not just a longer school day.” One teacher said:

“The Mayor comes saying we want a longer day. Our response was, “Do you want us to baby-sit or do you want us to actually have meaningful activities for the children?”

A number of interview respondents invoked the longstanding teachers’ union adage that “teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions” and referenced the lack of “wrap around services” for the students in CPS. Members also compared the dearth of foreign language classes, arts, and music in the CPS curriculum with the culturally enriched, diverse and dynamic education that students receive at the prestigious private schools where Mayor Emanuel and other Chicago elites send their kids. This linking together of a union frame (teachers’ working conditions) with a professional public service frame (students’ learning conditions) played a key role in providing CTU rank and file educators with a coherent framework of ideas that gave meaning and legitimacy to the CTU in its fight with the mayor and the CPS Board. Rank and file CTU members also noted the role of the union in highlighting the paltry and distorted methods the City of Chicago uses to raise revenue to support vital public services. One elementary school teacher remarked:

“I wanted my union to be talking about professionalism, public education, equality, and funding not based on property taxes. I wanted my union to become political and to be viewed for more than, ‘Here they go, they want another raise.’ We care about the learning conditions. Teaching and learning conditions are the same thing.”

The policy of tax increment financing came up repeatedly with respondents pointing to this property tax scheme as a method for City Hall to underfund CPS whilst funneling tax revenues to the business community and political allies of Mayor Emanuel. Members also called attention to CTU’s union education efforts around issues of educational inequality and social justice. A high school teacher who is a union activist observed:

“In the beginning most teachers, if you ask them about charters or privatization, most of them wouldn’t know what to say. In general, I don’t think they were too educated about it because that previous union didn’t do much in terms of media or reaching out to the teachers. But, education was growing and when people became more educated and mad about privatization I think that also caused them to get more organized.”

CTU members remarked on how they and CTU leadership used the strike as an opportunity to draw public attention to the inequalities in school funding. One elementary school teacher said:

“They were actually educating the public through the media and that was really powerful…People were educated about a number of things during the strike and said things to me like, ‘I saw your President of your union on television. I didn’t know that there are 160 schools that don’t have libraries.”

A high school teacher explained the connection between the strike and CTU framing of the issues:

“We really had that narrative connecting poverty and race with the privatization. Karen, and even all of the members, when we spoke to the media, spoke to the parents, we brought up privatization— about how school closures and turnarounds weren’t on the north side they’re on the south and the west side.”

Interviewees also talked about how they used these pro-teacher and pro-education frames in talking with parents and the community as a means of showing that Mayor Emanuel and the school reformers are not genuinely interested in improving CPS but only really interested in breaking the power of the CTU. Examples in this vein focused on the growth of charter schools, school turnarounds, and school closings.

CTU members march holding signs with "United for students."


Actions bring together and apply the ideas and practices developed in organizing and framing. The process of moving a previously passive membership from a dormant state to one of energized activism is challenging, labor intensive and protracted. Activities that promote greater union activism often start small. Connecting via social media, face-to-face gatherings (such as BBQs) and symbolic gestures of unity are often many people’s first steps into union activism. Members report that CTU’s Red Shirt Friday campaign was at first met with skepticism by previously dormant union members. One high school teacher reflected:

“We took red as our color. Red is a great color. Looks good on a lot of people. It’s the color of labor. And people like symbolism. And so it was a grudging process for some people to just wear red every Friday. And I think that that symbolism started transferring into other things. ‘Well now that you’re wearing the red, can you come out to this rally and wear your red?’ It was a gradual building of things.”

The creation of action teams responsible for organizing CTU members in each school generated turnout for meetings and actions. Members indicated that these teams were effective at bringing in a new layer of people, not previously thought of as “hardcore” CTU activists. One high school teacher noted:

“That went with how our action teams are set up. We had a member from each grade-level team reach out and get the people on their team and friends of ours to come out, where we couldn’t do that before. Before I was just like come on, come to this rally. But now you had your friends and people felt accountable to bring people from their team to these rallies.”

Similarly, a middle school teacher who describes herself as an active union member explained:

“The Action teams were happening differently in different schools. For example, at my school, my delegate is very good. He, from the very beginning of school without a survey, he’s saying; ‘Would you strike and why? What things would cause you to want to strike or do you need more information?’ We spent the whole year making sure that our staff was fully informed about what was going on.”

Increased interaction and communication among the membership helped to reduce the anxieties of younger (and non-tenured) educators. Gradually as the contract campaign gained strength attendance at the union meetings began to pick up. Similarly, school-to-school solidarity increased as action teams began visiting different schools in different neighborhoods. Another elementary school teacher observed:

“I’m in Little Village and there are like five schools really, really close. So we brought all these schools together and we had I think 300 CTU members and supporters based out of churches and working together.”

A number of CTU members noted how the school-to-school solidarity activities not only built necessary solidarity but served to highlight the systemic inequality and racism at work across the CPS system. One teacher noted:

“Before we went on strike the Track E schools were in session. And we went to the Westside one morning… We were talking to the teachers. They didn’t have gym, they didn’t have any prep periods. No library, no music, no art; they didn’t have books to start the school with… I remember my colleagues saying, ‘Can you believe they don’t even have books? They’ve been in school for three week and they don’t have books.”

As part of the organizing campaign CTU made a concerted effort to reach out to parents and community groups. Informal face-to-face conversations with parents, before and after school, played a key role in communicating to parents that the issues most important to educators were also issues of importance for students and parents. A teacher who is moderately active in the union at her school notices:

“The parents and the community know us. I think that they trust that we would not do anything that wasn’t for the best of the kids. We have a history with the families. And the families know us. We taught all their kids. So they know that we’re there to do a good job with the kids.”

Building on this foundation of trust, CTU members talked with parents in the run up to the strike.

Another teacher who is not active with the union reports:

“CPS sent letters home prior to the strike to parents that first week. And the Union countered by giving us letters to hand out to the parents. Everybody took a door…. As the parents came up, we’re handing them the letter from the union in Spanish on one side and English on the other. We made sure the parents were getting both sides of the story. Since teachers have a relationship of trust with the parents— they know us. We were able to say things like, ‘Look at this, this is what they’re trying to do, this is why we’re responding. Please support us. Be prepared for the kids to be out of school.”

Additionally, the CTU formed alliances with social justice community groups at an organizational level. The CTU worked closely with Action Now, Arise Chicago, Kenwood
Oakland Community Organization, The Pilsen Alliance, Raise Your Hand and Take
Back Chicago
. This connecting-with-community element of social-organizing unionism is especially important for public sector unions and unionized educators. An active elementary school teacher said:

“We connected with community groups in Bronzeville and the Kenwood Oakland Community (with KOCO) and the community groups up north. That strong community participation and community participation from parents, the support from parents especially, really helped us in the media.”

As the contract campaign ran into late spring, CTU leadership organized a huge rally and march in downtown Chicago at the Auditorium Theater on May 23rd. The May Rally, as it was widely identified by respondents, drew over 6,000 CTU members and their supporters to Chicago’s downtown and was an epiphany for many CTU members. Interview respondents report realizing that “This is real” and “we are strong” and “we have support.” The CTU came together en masse in a public space and boldly declared that the Emanuel regime of CPS is bad for educators and students alike. This event and this message signaled a breakthrough and qualitative leap in the rising level of energy and activism of the CTU. The May Auditorium Theater event was a tipping point in the consciousness and confidence of the CTU rank and file.

One active high school teacher explained:

“When we had that big rally, I mean, you could see people in windows waving, people honking. You knew there was no way that Rahm’s gonna come out on top.”

Another educator observed:

“I think citywide everybody was surprised that it was such a sea of red all over. Once they saw everybody was united it just built up the momentum stronger and stronger.”

A third non-active educator said:

“I was really surprised about the people that were stuck in the bus surrounded by teachers in the streets. The bus couldn’t move, but the people on it were cheering us. It was really something.”

A paraprofessional new to the CTU noted:

“The day we went downtown, that was also wonderful. Right before school was ending, to go downtown and to hear Karen Lewis speak and to see a sea of red shirts. I know that I’m part of history and know I’m going to make a difference.”

In early June, following the May Auditorium Rally, the CTU held a strike vote where, of the 90% of all CTU members who voted, 98% voted to support a strike. The CTU overcame the strike vote obstacles set in place by the union busting law – SB7. The Auditorium Theater rally and the strike vote were concrete victories for the organizing efforts of the CTU. The CTU was now in a position of strength in the schools, on the streets and at the negotiating table. And yet, this upsurge in energy, activism and support needed to be given form and direction by effective organizing and campaigning techniques. Pre-strike trainings were noted for conveying practical information as the strike approached. A high school teacher said:

“We found out we had a strike training that would last the weekend before we started back to school… What we did was go to the training on Saturday at Jackson Potter’s. They gave us the information on what you need to do in your schools… What we had to do was take 300 staff members and organize them into teams of team leaders, strike captains and everything else.”

Informational and practice pickets were effective at both giving the membership technical know-how in the art of picketing and protesting, but also as a means of raising morale for the membership. These pre-strike pickets had the added benefit of providing members with a glimmer of how the community was likely to respond to the picket signs. Knowing that people in the community supported the strike gave members a sense of confidence and power. A teacher noted:

“It’s called the practice picket…. I was able to model the things I had learned and the chants I had learned in the previous trainings for the younger teachers. And before they knew it, they had the megaphones, they had the speakers and they were leading the chants. You know what was nice about it? That was the beginning of us knowing that maybe there are more people behind us. When we were doing the practice pickets, people in cars passing by were tooting in support of us.”

On September 10, 2012, the CTU took its first labor strike action in a quarter century. CTU members engaged in the traditional work stoppage activity of picketing outside the buildings of their respective jobsites in the mornings. People wore red on the picket line and sought out high exposure locations such as busy street corners and viaducts over the expressway to bring attention to the strike. At other times CTU educators walked the neighborhoods near their schools and sought to engage parents and the wider community in discussions about the strike, what was going on in CPS, in public education and in the public sector more broadly. One high school teacher expressed:

“We wanted people to see red so we would go where there was heavy traffic and start marching there. People were so organized – they had megaphones, they had chants. They were finding ways to motivate one another. People brought their dogs in little strike shirts.”

Many CTU members pointed to the constant stream of emails updating them on strike actions and where negotiations stood on a day-to-day basis. The rank and file expressed gratitude for the union’s transparency, which also worked to reaffirm member’s confidence in the “rollercoaster” experience of the strike.

Interview respondents report that relations with the local businesses were notably positive. Strikers used local businesses as places to rest, organize picket line logistics and use the restrooms. In many cases these positive teacher-business relationships persisted after the strike. One of the non-active special education teachers reported:

“A little restaurant across the street let us use the rest rooms, gave us a place to sit, plus free coffee and water. We have been trying to support them. We go there for lunch. We order things from them to let them know that we want to support them.”

CTU members saw firsthand how much support they enjoyed from the community at the schools and in the surrounding neighborhoods. An elementary school teacher who is active in the union observed:

“We did some marching and some passing out flyers that day as well. The reaction from basically all of Englewood was so overwhelmingly supportive. You see somebody in this color of red; everybody is honking with support.”

Students proved to be a morale booster for CTU members, as many students walked the picket line with their teachers. In turn, the picket line often served as an entry into wider political awareness for students. One high school teacher remarked,

“Students realized they were part of it. I think that triggered a whole level of consciousness that they would never have had, had they not participated in that experience.”

In response to the picket lines cars often honked in support, as would various vehicles with working people, such as buses, garbage trucks, and cabs. Police officers wore buttons that read “Proud CTU member.” Firefighters and other city workers showed up on the picket line and brought food and water to the teachers. Parents, people from other unions and city workers also snatched up the ubiquitous Chicago Teacher Solidarity and the Chicago Flag with Apples t-shirts. Parent solidarity was identified as especially crucial. Survey research by mainstream media sources revealed that over 60% of parents with children in CPS supported the CTU strike. One teacher reported:

“I had parents tell me that they saw that the strike was not about us, it was about the quality of their child’s education. We worked to get that message out when we were talking to them.”

Another active middle school teacher discussed:

“I was worried at first that parents wouldn’t be supportive just because of all of the negative media. But when the strike started, we had parents there every single day. We had pancakes for breakfast; we had enchiladas for lunch. They were so supportive. Tons of parents and parents from our Local School Council came out and they joined us in marches.”

Parents who supported the strike were most supportive of the attention that the strike was bringing to funding inequalities between schools, along racial lines, and the lack of wrap around support services in so many CPS schools. Parents were becoming increasingly aware of how CPS was becoming a tiered system of schools with charters, selective enrollment and neighborhood schools. As one active elementary school teacher explained:

“We took advantage of the chance to speak with parents. They asked ‘What’s going on?’ And I said, ‘Okay, here is this, here is that.’… Like about what’s going on with charter schools. I could say, ‘Do you realize that they don’t have to have certified teachers?’ They said, ‘What does that mean?’ I said, ‘They may have no experience, they may have no teaching credentials.’ And they were like ‘Oh, that’s not good.”

Some CTU members, parents and other supporters visited Aldermanic offices. After visits from CTU delegations two aldermen (who had initially publicly opposed the strike by signing a no strike letter exhorting teachers to stay on the job and work without a contract) publicly changed their position and came out in support of the striking teachers. A non-active elementary school teacher relayed the story:

“The alderman really stepped up too. He first sent a letter to all the teachers in the ward that said basically, ‘Think about the kids and just go back to work without a contract and we’ll work it all out.’ We were like, ‘I don’t think so.’ Then after rallies in the neighborhood with many parents supporting the teachers, he then changed his position and wrote a letter of support for us.”

Another elementary school teacher had a similar experience:

“Our alderman, Alderman Chandler, signed the letters to the CTU saying we should not strike. We went down and picketed his office. Some of us went inside to talk with him about taking his name off the no-strike letter…. So later at the House of Delegates meeting when we were voting to suspend the strike, we heard that two Aldermen had removed their names from that no-strike letter. He was one of them. He totally turned around, because we talked to him. He knew our parents were asking us who to vote for and we’re going to tell them to vote for the people that support the public schools.”

On several days during the strike, mass afternoon marches were held in the Loop. The marches started outside of CPS headquarters at 125 S. Clark St. and then proceeded along different routes throughout downtown Chicago. These marches produced an enormous “Sea of Red” as up to 30,000 educators and their allies filled the streets of the Loop, marched, chanted, cheered, and brought traffic to a halt. As on the picket lines in the morning, public support for the afternoon marches was notable. One counselor who is not active in the union succinctly stated, “They came blasting at us but within two days they realized teachers have a lot of friends.” Another teacher who only recently became active in the union shared:

“I remember getting on the ‘L’, to go downtown for the march in the Loop in the afternoon, and the car was filled with teachers in red t-shirts. And every time somebody got on, it was great, you know, whooping and hollering. There was just a sense that, ‘Wow we are really in this together!’ I loved reading people’s signs because I found out a lot about what was going on in schools, just from the signs. And there is something about people being together and being very unified.”

A third teacher said:

“We hear numbers and we see numbers on the news, but then to be a part of it, that was amazing… I’ve never been a part of anything that large before and it was the mission of the better conditions for everybody, for students first.”

A high school teacher conveyed the significance of the downtown rallies:

“All those afternoon events downtown, I think that emboldened people. I think if we had just had been at our neighborhood schools and just gone home in the afternoon and then the next day came back out to the same neighborhood school, I think the morale would’ve dropped. I think the energy level would have been lower. But you could see the people who attended those afternoon marches in the Loop. When they came back to their school the next morning they were pretty stoked.”

Another elementary school teacher reported:

“After we did our morning on the picket line, we went to lunch in our little group. Then after lunch, I drove downtown. I was the ‘Designated Driver’ [ laughter]. And then we marched, however long it all lasted. One of the most inspiring moments was to see the youth in the bands. That was so motivating that first day. And I mean they were doing that for us! It was wonderful. I also want to say that the support of the police department was wonderful.”

A counselor connected the downtown rallies to a change in media coverage:

“It appeared to me that there was a shift in the media, that it became somewhat supportive towards the end of the first week. And I think it became supportive because they saw the support downtown.”

On September 14th the Board of Education and the CTU negotiating team reached a tentative framework agreement. On September 16th the CTU House of Delegates voted by a wide margin to continue the strike at least until the next House meeting set for Tuesday, September the 18th. This maneuver stunned many observers and media commentators. Some pundits and observers suggested that the CTU was reckless. Others speculated that the leadership had lost control of the House of Delegates for the Local.

In contrast to this talk from outsiders and media pundits, interview respondents pointed to this two-day period of discussion and debate as indicative of a genuinely democratic union. Interview respondents also talked about the frank discussions on the picket line regarding: “what had been won in the contract and what was still left to fight for.” One teacher said:

“It was two more days, but once we got that contract in our hands, we went to wherever we had to go. We ran off copy after copy and we distributed it. They went and met in churches and they met in stores and restaurants. They met everywhere. It was amazing. And then they went through it. They really examined it.”

Another active high school teacher conveyed:

“I was actually glad that we did extend it a couple of days. It gave every school and every teacher and member of the Union a chance to think about what we were going to do. Do we really, should we come off, the strike? And it was sort of the antithesis of what you think of these back room deals with most union leaders.”

When educators returned to school on Wednesday the 19th of September some teachers met in the parking lot of their school and walked back in together in unison. Others talked about how they now fully realized the truth behind the slogan “Chicago is a Union Town.” Another noted that, “the strike gave people a voice.”

CTU members marching on strike.


The outcomes of the 2012 CTU contract campaign are manifold, affecting individual CTU members, the interactions between educators inside a school, relations with principals, relations between schools, relations with parents, and relations with other unions. Individual members said, “I feel more connected to the union” and noted increased turn out at union meetings and events. Other members reported that they pay more attention to the contract language now, that they have a renewed sense of identification with the union, that they read more about union and education issues, and have more political discussions with their fellow educators. One interviewee who was an apolitical dormant union member before the 2012 contract campaign is now a delegate in the House.

Solidarity and unified action are now more common inside the buildings. One teacher noted that when she sees a colleague in the hall there is recognition of: “I’ve seen what you can do.” The professional problems committee (PPC) is a key arena inside the buildings that has gained prominence. Some previously non-existent or moribund PPCs are now venues where teachers are able to advance their own interests and address areas of concern within the school. A high school teacher conveyed:

“We just held our PPC election. Because we haven’t had one. I tried setting up one a long time ago but it was a nightmare. The reason why I think it was better this time, we had a full, we had 13 people running for seven spots. Whereas before it was like maybe the number of people… it was like if you wanted to be on it, you could be on it… But this time around, people are willing to think of it more as they have a voice. They can use their voice to make education decisions.”

Another special education teacher noted:

“I think that at the PPC we pretty much didn’t have one before. It kind of just went by the wayside. We didn’t really keep meeting. We would have one or two meetings at the end of the year and then whatever. Now, I think that people have been more forthcoming about having issues because we feel like we can trust each other. You’re not going to just get blown off and ignored.”

Some schools have used the PPC to take action to reduce excessive paperwork. Other schools “opted students out of a standard test for the first time” or are starting to “resist the avalanche of different assessments.” Other teachers reported being more effective in using the contract to counteract the efforts of over-aggressive principals since the strike. PPCs are also used to keep principals “from playing favorites”. Other principals are responding to the new sense of solidarity in a more collegial manner, are more forthcoming in sharing information and are actively seeking good relationships with the staff at their school. The solidarity and unified action of the strike experience has also helped educators to form stronger relationships between schools, and between parents and teachers.

In addition, many previously moribund Local School Councils (LSCs) are now becoming energized and claiming a voice in the shaping of education at neighborhood schools. LSCs provide a concrete mechanism through which CTU members can communicate and cooperate with parents and the community to defend and promote quality public education. An active high school teacher related an illuminating example:

“Our principal has been very directed toward what he wants. Everything is what he wants. We had a lot of classrooms at the start of the year that had substitute teachers. There were 16 classes that had substitute teachers. And those were core classes too. So [we] went to the principal and we said, “What’s going on with this? Why do you have certified teachers in these classes not teaching?” They’re doing pseudo-administrative tasks. This is what I think the best part of the strike is. We gathered a bunch of people from Albany Park Neighborhood Council to show up to the LSC meeting. And as soon as we went down, we got our names put on the agenda. The second that happened, those teachers that were put in pseudo-administrative posts were removed from their post and put back into the classroom. So we went from 16 classes with subs to one.

One school got rid of an unqualified and unprofessional principal in a campaign that made smart use of the PPC and the Local School Council, cooperated with the Parent Teacher Organization and used the tactics of solidarity activism from the strike. The teacher from the school explained:

“After the strike we were so empowered that we went back and got rid of our own principal… Our very first faculty meeting [the new principal] announced: “No field trips, you can’t write anything to parents, no food.’ Everything was ‘No, No, No’… She was paranoid. She accused somebody of breaking into her office and stealing personal things. As the union delegate I started nailing her with PPC agendas… They wanted this new type of principal to come in who had much more of the business management approach and didn’t have to have any experience… Then the local school council meetings started becoming well attended as the news spread through the parents on the playground and LSC and the PTO, how all of these things were happening in the school… Then in January after we worked the PPC and the LSC, a team of [CPS security] had escorted her out… I don’t think it would have happened at all without the strike. The strike brought us together… It made some people realize that good things happen when you stand up for yourself.”

The CTU strike of 2012 helped the CTU build relationships with other teacher and public sector unions across the Chicagoland region. CTU showed solidarity with the Evergreen Park Teachers strike campaign that followed the CTU strike in September 2012. A high school teacher noted:

“I think what’s funny is we went on strike in September and there have been more strikes this year than any year in the past 25-30 years in education. Not just Chicago but nationwide. I think that’s a very clear indicator that workers are unhappy, that the centralized control of schools is not working. That [education] should be a community based thing and not a politically based thing.”

Still other CTU members have been inspired by their success of the strike to continue to struggle against CPS policies that they see as harmful to public education. For instance, a few months after the strike, CPS announced that it was considering which of the 120 of its nearly 680 neighborhood schools they were going to close in the 2013-2014 school year. Teachers who were mobilized by the strike focused their efforts on the school closings. A high school teacher discussed how the strike and the direction the union is going in has rejuvenated him politically:

“I’m going to go to a network meeting and they’re trying to close these schools. I wasn’t going before and speaking in front of the board and now I am. Because, now I see a lot of people are with us.”

Respondents also noticed that the strike empowered parents and students to continue protesting against neighborhood school closures. The elementary school teacher who became active due to the waves of school closings conveyed,

“The same parents who helped us out with the flyers during the campaign continued to help us out. Best example – when we had the Pilsen Little Village school closings hearing. Over 1,000 people showed up to this thing and the same parents helped flyer.”


These interviews highlight a number of important changes that have taken place inside the CTU since 2010. The shift in the CTU from service unionism to social-organizing unionism was driven by a series of financial, political, and administrative initiatives and forces that the service mode of unionism was increasingly less effective in dealing with. Financially, the systematic under-funding of CPS and perpetual budget crises have undermined public education. Politically, the roll out of anti-union charter schools and the imposition of a longer school day (in conjunction with a pay cut) signaled a growing crisis for unionized educators in Chicago. Administratively, the policies of high stakes testing and the inordinate expansion of paperwork degraded the professionalism of educators and point towards a future where teaching will be de-skilled factory work.

In this context the CTU was compelled to either accept a slow death by one thousand financial, political and education cuts or to fight back by returning to the labor movement’s roots in social unionism. The attacks against teachers and public education have generated their own resistance in the form of the CTU turning towards social-organizing unionism to defend unionized labor, the profession of education and public education more broadly.

An emphasis on organizing is at the heart of the turn towards social-organizing unionism in the CTU. CTU members report increased transparency, improved communication (top-down and bottom-up), and a renewed sense of rank-and-file unity. Previously moribund schools now have a new generation of delegates. Educators share ideas and information via social media. House of Delegates meetings are both more professional and more productive. Contract campaign organizing surveyed member’s attitudes and built a network of action teams. The CTU carried out an extensive membership training regime covering topics including internal organizing, dealing with troublesome principals, presenting information to media, and the logistics of picket/strike activities. Crucially, during the contract campaign the CTU created a large and inclusive negotiations team that sought to reduce sectionalism in the union by including members from the five different caucuses, as well as representatives across school types, job descriptions, and demographic groups. A large and genuinely representative negotiating team increased transparency and subsequently increased solidarity within the union.

During the strike, organized and informed collective action was essential. The act of continuing the strike for two more days so the rank and file could genuinely discuss and debate the best path forward is a cardinal indicator that the CTU has embraced internal organizing. Similarly, post-strike organizing has focused on in-school solidarity in the buildings, pre-grievance actions, and using the PPCs and LSCs to advance the interests of CTU educators.

The CTU has been successful in the contest of ideas by giving the membership information and tools to frame ideas in a manner that is distinct from Chicago’s elite establishment (Mayor Emanuel, CPS administration, The Civic Federation, and so-called reformers bent on undermining public education). The CTU has actively developed an independent set of ideas, which provide rank and file educators with the tools to identify and act upon their own interests as educators, professionals and unionists. CTU publications and media have taken a distinctly political turn, providing readers with meaningful content dealing with issues of importance to the CTU membership as both unionists and professional educators. CTU media now takes up topics such as the corrosive effects of charters, privatization, and tax increment financing on the very foundation of open, inclusive, and equitable public education.

Two pro-teacher and pro-union frames are especially notable here. The frame “for a better school day, not just a longer school day” and “teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions” meld together the two roles of unionized labor and professional educators. So much of the assault on unionized public education teachers seeks to pit the role of professional teacher against the role of unionized laborer. And yet there is a fundamental truth and political efficacy in highlighting the connections between educator working conditions and student learning conditions. The CTU is demonstrating to unions and educators nation-wide how to combat this false division between “the union” and “the profession of education” by reframing the issue as one of teachers taking a stand to defend the common good of quality public education. Additionally, the frame of “teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions” resonated with the interests of parents and the larger Chicago community, and activated them to support CTU’s strike actions. In the era of marketized and privatized business model education it is social-organizing unionism that can defend the profession of public education. Serving the common good isn’t tangential or an after effect of social-organizing unionism for educators. Rather, it is at the core of what unionized professional educators can and should do.

The social-organizing unionism turn in the CTU involved developing a repertoire of collective actions within the schools and connecting with parents and progressive community groups. CTU in-school activism has taken the form of wearing red on Fridays, and generating increased attendance at union meetings in the buildings and running strong picket lines. Furthermore, the CTU has cultivated ties of support and mutual solidarity with parents and the wider community. Since public education serves the common good, the student-teacher relationship carries with it important connections with parents and the wider community. Parents know and trust their kids’ teachers. Parents understand that teachers face enormous challenges in the classroom. At the same time, teachers know and understand the hardships and struggles that CPS parents face every day. The specific features of the teacher-parent relationship provide a unique opportunity for political cooperation. This parent-community activism has taken various forms including: handing out informational flyers to parents in the run-up to the strike, marching in the neighborhoods, and organizing against the most recent draconian wave of school closings.

The CTU has been able to build strong ties with progressive community groups such as Action Now, Arise Chicago, The Grassroots Collaborative, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, The Pilsen Alliance, Raise Your Hand, Parents for Teachers and Take Back Chicago. The interdependent character of the educator-student-parent-community web of relationships provides the basis for building a genuinely progressive alliance to stand up to the combined forces of Chicago’s establishment elites.

The most dramatic evidence of the effectiveness of this progressive alliance was demonstrated in the rallies and marches in (and near) the Loop. Having the membership of the union come together for mass rallies (Auditorium Theater and Union Park) and marches in the Loop had two key features. First, these rallies and marches were a means of letting CTU members viscerally experience the scale of their own power in unity. Second, the sight of thousands of educators on the streets garnered significant public attention (both on the street and in the media) and provided an opportunity for the everyday public to express their support for the CTU without the elite media filtering the public-CTU interaction.

The CTU has undergone a new beginning. The turn towards social-organizing unionism has reinvigorated the union. The 2012 contract campaign and strike were an important step in orchestrating resistance to market mimicking business models of education. Since the strike, the organization that was built has mobilized to fight against another wave of school closings and vicious budget cuts. These more recent campaigns have been facilitated by the solidarity formed between CTU members with each other, with parents and the wider community.

Importantly, there are some specific features that make urban public education unions amenable to social-organizing unionism. First, public educators are highly skilled professionals. Their labor is difficult to replace in a short time frame. This aspect of how labor markets are arranged makes a strike more impactful as hiring replacement teachers is far more burdensome than hiring replacement workers in many other fields. Second, public educators are professionals whose labor process is both independent and cooperative. Teachers are independent in the classroom and yet cooperative in shaping curriculum, sharing lesson plans, and engaging in professional development. The collegiality and professionalism of working both independently and in cooperation with others provides for the possibility of more horizontal and bottom-up forms of union organizing for public educators. Third, public educators are responsible for the well-being and development of children. This commitment to the care of children is recognized as a positive activity across wide swathes of the culture. People know that public school teachers serve the common good.

Subsequently, public support for teachers is easier to build than public support for unions in other sectors of the economy. In turn, highly skilled labor serving the public good provides a just, powerful and effective basis for defending the interests of educators as both professionals and unionists.

In an era when the national, state, and local levels of government have all embraced what are essentially anti-social policies of privatization, market mimicry and antiunion austerity for public education, the successes of the CTU are truly stunning. For unionized public educators, social organizing unionism is not an option; it is a necessity–a necessity that can play a key role in redirecting the economy, political system and culture to genuinely serve the common good.

CTU members marching on strike.