The rank and file vis-a-vis the union leadership

One important lesson from the recent Chicago teachers strike is the role that the leadership of CTU played and, behind this group, the role of the rank and file in bringing about change within a traditional, business oriented union, including a change in leadership.

From an article in Counterpunch on the Chicago strike:

Over the last ten years or so these people (the education reformers – TH) have had their way. Cowardly and complicit union leaders—American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten being exhibit A—have gone along with this BS until blaming the teachers has become the default position of much of the country.

No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are two sides of the same coin. Flip that coin and the problem is—the teachers. Not poverty. Not lack of childcare. Not crumbling infrastructure or adequate funding, just greedy teachers and their obstructionist unions.

No one, nowhere, has challenged this vicious cycle. Then along comes the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) victory, electing Karen Lewis to the CTU presidency in 2010, and with it a whole new ballgame.

The CTU now had a leadership and program not willing to play ball with the Democratic Party or the union bureaucracy. This is a leadership with many experienced class struggle people who understand what must be done—Say no to Rahm. Say no to the Gates and Say no to the Pritzkers. Say no to a corporate agenda for the schools. Say no to a vision of the future where children are drones taught just enough to become cogs in their machine.

This union leadership knew the first step in their counteroffensive was to engage their rank-and-file. They went school by school and teacher by teacher, to involve them in their union. Unlike the Vaughn and Stewart union administrations before it, they valued input from the ranks.

Next, they went to the communities. They were there when the parents protested for a library in the Pilsen neighborhood and they were there to protest every school closing that came up. They were on the offensive.

This leadership also understood the importance of solidarity. I remember marching behind their banner in Madison. They were there for UNITE-HERE, they solidarized with the postal workers, they solidarized with the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) workers.

This leadership kept the membership mobilized. Town Hall meetings. Mass demonstrations at the Auditorium Theater. Labor Day rallies. And more. They did not run and hide.

This leadership fought against racism. They stood for ending the disproportionate firing of African Americans teachers. This leadership stood for libraries, smaller class sizes, art teachers, music teachers, gym teachers, nurses and counselors.

When Rahm and his arrogant school board came with their one-sided proposals and their insulting refusal on the four percent raise, they thought they could roll right over the CTU and have their way.

After all, didn’t Rahm get his way as Obama’s-Chief-of-Staff ? Didn’t he get his way as Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee? Antiwar Democrats? Irrelevant. Progressives? Fucking retards. Yes, he had his way until he ran into Karen Lewis and the class-conscious leadership of the CTU.

The CTU stayed visible. The CTU engaged allies; other unions, the community and students (the Voices of Youth high school students were really inspiring). They did not fold up at the first sign of adversity.

For more information about the Chicago union “reformers” and their organization, CORE, here’s their website:

When I was running for President of the STBU last May, I published a campaign blog which included this page on the question of bureaucracy in the union

Not much has changed since then. Indifference, even hostility, has marked the reaction of the STBU leadership to initiatives from the group (REWT) publishing this blog, such as the mark-in at Dundas Square in June. They did belatedly come on board for the “funeral” at Queen’s Park on the eve of the passing of Bill 115 (well, they showed up).

There are some on the left who get impatient, understandably so, with the union and its top down leadership. Preferring to engage in politics outside the union, they conclude that the union is a bureaucratic monolith, incapable of change. They are wrong and the CTU experience proves that. The role of the left is twofold: first, to participate in the struggles and discussions where the members are – the schools, the union delegate bodies and union committees; second, not to substitute itself for the union but  to attempt to fill the void of inaction left by the leadership through reaching out to members who are looking for an alternative. And that’s where REWT comes in.

Posted by Tim Heffernan, October 3, 2012


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