CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new book co-written by a pair of University of Illinois experts in labor relations provides a detailed account of the seven-day strike by the Chicago Teachers Union in 2012.
“A Fight for the Soul of Public Education: The Story of the Chicago Teachers Strike,” by labor professors Steven K. Ashby and Robert Bruno, documents how the strike became a cause célèbre for the labor movement at a time when other teachers unions had seemingly surrendered to the pressures of corporate-driven education reform.
Steven K. Ashby, co-author of “A Fight for the Soul of Public Education: The Story of the Chicago Teachers Strike.”
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
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“In the midst of the strike, (Chicago Teachers Union president) Karen Lewis said that ‘a fight for the soul of public education’ was being waged,” said Bruno, who is also the director of the Labor Education Program. “We felt it was important to chronicle this important moment at the crossroads of public education and unionized labor. The Chicago Teachers Union sees itself as leading the fight to save public education from powerful forces – including the president-elect’s choice for education secretary, Elisabeth DeVos – that want to privatize it.”
The book, published by Cornell University Press, uses interviews, first-person accounts, union documents and media reports to tell the story of the strike that shut down the Chicago public school system for the first time after 25 years of relative labor peace.
The book explores the two overlapping but equally important countervailing narratives about the strike and its aftermath. One is a grassroots story of worker activism, a creative contract campaign and a dynamic strike told from the perspective of rank-and-file union members and their community supporters.
The other describes the role of state and national political figures and their zeal to impose top-down educational governance changes on public schools and limitations on union bargaining rights – “the shadow network of libertarian think tanks, the river of private money and self-described ‘education reformers’ who flocked to the fight because it aligned with their ideology,” Bruno said.
In reaction to the changes imposed on public schools across the country in the name of education reform, the Chicago Teachers Union redefined its traditional role and waged a multidimensional fight that transformed the scope of collective bargaining into arenas that few labor relations experts thought possible, Ashby said.
“It proved that the collective bargaining process is a very powerful, creative and viable tool for improving the lives of workers,” he said. “It also shows that unions can’t just be service organizations. They have to be member-driven. You have to educate your workers and mobilize them and connect them to the community they serve. You can no longer simply negotiate across the table with the other side. There has to be a return to an activated, muscular, rank-and-file unionism.”
The union linked its members’ teaching conditions to students’ learning conditions. It called for reducing class size; installing air conditioning in classrooms; having textbooks available on the first day of class; and insuring that students have classes in art, theater, dance, music and world languages, as well as access to a school library.
And the union, leading up to and during the strike, repeatedly challenged the unequal aspects of school funding cuts and layoffs, Bruno said.
“Chicago Public Schools had been shuttering neighborhood schools in predominantly communities of color for years,” he said. “Those schools had higher numbers of black teachers, so with each school closing the system lost additional African-American staff.”
The book includes a detailed account of the actual bargaining process, revealing the strategies of both the school board and union representatives – something that will be of interest to labor historians and labor relations practitioners, Bruno said.
“The labor movement needs to build a strong, powerful relationship with the public in order to galvanize change for the common good, and this book will show how the Chicago Teachers Union did just that,” he said. “It will also show how public sector unionism can use collective bargaining to represent and defend the interests of everyday working families. It points to how unions need to reimagine their role so that they serve more than just the self-interest of their members.”