It’s a lot harder to end a strike than to go out on strike.
Everyone was surprised when the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went out on strike, except the teachers in Chicago. A new, arrogant, profane mayor, Rahm Emanuel, had been jibing at the union for months and Karen Lewis; the new union president had been giving back in kind.
Lewis defeated an incumbent union leader who also defeated an incumbent president. Years of Arne Duncan and an enormously powerful mayor had kept union militancy at bay.
The aloof and insulting style of the new mayor was the last straw for the teachers of Chicago.
The union had been preparing for a strike for months – it was not a secret, the mayor openly demeaning Lewis who in turn called the mayor a “liar.” Barbs flew back and forth and the union membership coalesced around their leader.
If the strike ends in a few hours or days and the union achieves all or most of its goals Lewis’ brand of militant unionism may resonate.
On the national platform AFT leader Randi Weingarten has vigorously espoused “solution-driven unionism,” a place at the table to hone solutions to complex education and social issues.
From overcoming the effects of poverty on children’s education to helping teachers master the instructional shifts required by ambitious new academic standards, some of the country’s most pressing challenges are being met with what I call “solution-driven unionism.”
The AFT points to Baltimore, New Haven, Cincinnati, locals in which the union and the school district have crafted agreements that address the thorny issues: teacher evaluation as well as the role of the union in establishing district educational policies. In West Virginia the AFT is a key player in an effort to deal with a wide range of education/social problems in one of the poorest counties in America.
As attacks on teachers unions continue, from last year’s Waiting for Superman to this year’s Won’t Back Down, films that paint teacher unions as evil and selfish, the major obstacle to creating effective schools, teacher activism accelerates.
Lewis’ response is confrontation: a strike, perhaps with support of the communities, a throwback to another era when unions were a powerful force. (See Chicago Tribune report here and up-to-date blogging here)
The risk-reward formula places the future of an ambitious mayor and a militant union leader in the spotlight and on a collision course.
Lewis could emerge as the role model for a new kind of unionism, albeit a throwback to an earlier era. After the teacher strikes of the 60’s Al Shanker became a national figure: to some of scorn, to others as an iconic leader. Woody Allen, in his film “Sleeper” has a witty, unkind comment about Shanker.* The strikes placed Shanker on the national stage, could Lewis become a new national symbol of union militancy?
If the strike drags from days to weeks an Illinois court might order teachers back to school and the union would have to decide whether to flaunt a court order. A republican Illinois governor and a republican legislature could be called back into session to pass harsh anti-union legislation.
Strikers rarely return to work satisfied. Strikes are painful: standing up for core issues versus worrying about students losing irreplaceable instructional time. Was it worthwhile?
In 1975 teachers in New York City went on strike for five days, protesting the layoff of over 15,000 teachers. The settlement required the city to shorten school days to allow for reasonable class sizes. My school district refused to implement the settlement and as a union we decided not to attend Open School day or fill out report cards; a few days before Open School day the court forced the school district to comply. The school board ordered the superintendent to place a disciplinary letter in every teacher’s file. Months later the superintendent offered to remove all the letters. We discussed it and decided to pass on his offer – we were proud of what we did!
For teachers choosing between their union and their students is a painful, conflicted choice.
There are times when standing up: for basic union rights and making schools better is a model for the children we teach.
Occupy Wall Street, demonstrations in neighborhoods, lobbying elected officials, organizing parents, the grassroots organizing that builds organizations is hard and at times frustrating work: it is also the essence of a democracy. To quote Joe Hill, “Don’t waste any time mourning – organize!”
Take a few minutes and listen to Pete Seeger’s advice: “Talking Union“