A reply to Herman Benson: The Chicago Teachers Union is a different kind of labor union


The exchange between Herman Benson and Dan La Botz highlights one, if not the primary, issue that has to be resolved if we are to turn back the tidal wave of anti-union and anti-democratic policies that have transformed the nation’s social and political landscape.  I think both Herman and Dan would agree that we need a revived labor movement. But what will drive the revival? And what form should it take?

Herman’s definition of revival seems to consist of more “oomph” from the AFL-CIO leadership and more attention to union democracy.  Both are sorely needed. The question is whether these are adequate to restore, let alone push forward, the political and economic policies we so desperately need.  In education, the answer is a clear “no” and the example of the Chicago Teachers Union supports Dan’s argument.


Yes, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) conducted a militant strike. But it was not a traditional strike by any means, if we take as a definition of tradition what has existed in US unions for four decades.  What we see in Chicago has been more  like the kind of organizing done by the CIO, fusing a progressive social program to union demands. CORE, the insurgent caucus that leads the CTU and was re-elected last month in a landslide (with over 60% of the members voting) has shifted the political terrain of education politics by embedding union demands in a vision for public education. Yes, the strike was a contract dispute, but these courageous, wise activists found a way to win over the vast majority of teachers to use the contract fight to fight for much more. Theirs was a fight for public education – as is their current struggle against the unnecessary, racist school closings that other cities are facing.  CTU has taken on the power establishment of Chicago and the White House.  They organize along side parents and community activists, as partners. In doing so, the CTU has shown teachers and organized labor the kind of unions – and unionism – we need.  Now.


The victory of “right to work” legislation in Michigan shows how very tenuous U.S. labor’s hold is on the right to bargain collectively. Is it even a movement? Herman has been so right for so long about union democracy. Still, his analysis reflects the problems liberals have had in understanding that neoliberalism has destroyed the landscape in which unions have functioned.  (In an upcoming article in “The Jacobin,” I’ll be discussing liberalism’s failure to “get” what’s ailing education and the unions in more detail.)


(Note: You can now follow me on twitter @drloisweiner.)

If you’ve read this far, you were pretty interested, right? Isn’t that worth a few bucks -maybe more?  Please donate and  subscribe to help provide our informative, timely analysis unswerving in its commitment to struggles for peace, freedom, equality, and justice — what New Politics has called “socialism” for a half-century.

One comment on “A reply to Herman Benson: The Chicago Teachers Union is a different kind of labor union
  1. Anonymous says:

    While I agree with much of While I agree with much of the analysis related to many of the issues in the educational system — the obsession with standardized testing. linking teachers’ evaluations to students’ academic performance, the economic, political & social factors (poverty, cuts in spending, sleep deprivation, malnutrition & hunger, abuse/neglect & a lack of physical activity) which influence & undermine the quality of schools — and the necessary changes which need to be implemented, we need to reflect more on other factors which have contributed to the situation that we are in and look at the big picture. Most of us are aware that living standards of been declining in the U.S. for several decades, especially over the last 5-6 years. There have been more foreclosures and bankruptcies, hunger & homelessness and credit is more difficult to obtain. Increasing numbers of people are living paycheck to paycheck, while healthcare, higher education, gas & food have become more expensive. Meanwhile, our freedom & liberty has been increasingly restricted. Given these conditions, why hasn’t a broader section of the population emerged & become involved in supporting the actions of activists involved in issues related to education in places like Chicago? The answer to this question is complicated and a lot to do with the relations btw. teachers & how they are perceived by various groups in different communities. Many teachers see themselves as advocates for students & their parents, locked in an uphill battle against billionaires/millionaires, their political representatives and administrators to shape competing visions of what education should look and feel like. If you ask them, they will say that the same benefits they have enjoyed over the years including accessing health care, pensions and time off should be extended to the general population. Meanwhile, sections of the general population have a much different perspective. In many cases, there has been a nationwide trend of schools being privatized with white teachers replacing more experienced black teachers in communities of color. Many of those white teachers are ill prepared to deal with the realities associated with life in low-income urban areas and do not want to make long-term commitments to the teaching profession either. Beyond this, cities like Chicago remain segregated and many white people including teachers will not send their children to schools with black children. This makes it extremely difficult to make connections & build relationships, enabling politicians like Emanuel to capitalize. There are other factors as well. For example, many high school & middle school math teachers have had until recently a relative secure & stable existence teaching concepts & procedures which have little to no practical value for their students in the long-term, while making many of them increasingly frustrated in the short-term. Some of these students wind up incarcerated where living & working conditions are abysmal. They are not likely to have sympathy for many of their former teachers. Neither will those who are hungry, homeless or chronically ill. And like it or not teachers earn their living to a great extent by disciplining & evaluating their students, responsibilities which mean you will be perceived as an authority figure, something which is bound not to make you that popular with students who struggle academically. While teachers deserve every hour they get off during the school year, many people in other professions are envious and believe that if they should be required to work year-round then so should teachers. Those people have been conditioned to believe that it is not possible in our society to have more vacation without being perceived as lazy. Then add to the mix immigrants who are afraid to rock the boat out of fear of deportation and those who have lost jobs in the manufacturing & construction industries. What did most teachers do to prevent that from happening? In most cases, not much. Finally, you have demographic groups who are competing for tax dollars — the military & senior citizens who are more inclined to fight for a larger piece of the pie than try to expand it. If we are to reverse course, these issues need to be addressed successfully or we will be stunned at how quickly how the educational system is corporatized. As for the resistance in Chicago, it shows that people are extremely frustrated and willing to challenge the inequities. However, this does not mean we should be putting people or groups within the CTU on a pedestal either. After the contract was negotiated, one group of teachers lost their jobs, while another group received raises. The fact that this has been swept under the rug may come back to haunt them if they decide to run candidates for office, which would enable Emanuel to further consolidate his power, something none of us who live in Chicago want to see.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.