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A Tale of Two Teachers Unions

Issue 279

Militant Chicago Teachers Union shows how to transform a city.

Norm Scott May 8, 2023

On April 4, former Chicago public-school teacher and Chicago Teacher Union (CTU) organizer Brandon Johnson was elected mayor of Chicago. His opponent was Paul Vallas, former CEO of the Chicago school system and an adamant foe of the CTU who staked out tough-on-crime positions that were expected to give him a clear path to victory. The long and tangled history between Vallas and the CTU made this victory especially sweet. Vallas was the favorite of The Chicago Tribune, pro-charter school billionaires, the police union, Republicans in general and corporate Democrats, including the Obama wing of the party.

The rise of the leftist Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), founded in 2008 and taking power in the CTU in 2010, galvanized the nation’s labor movement with a 2012 strike that embarrassed Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Obama administration shortly before the 2012 presidential election. To pull off the strike, the CTU hired organizers, including Brandon Johnson, to spread its message. Street actions, including demonstrations at banks, were part of the strategy. The union’s power and influence in Chicago have only grown.

“Why doesn’t UFT leadership want us to have the right to strike?”

Despite leading two strikes in the last decade since taking power and a major pushback on COVID-19 strategies, the CTU remains popular with parents and segments of the public. While mainstream corporate media has downplayed the significance of the Johnson victory, left-leaning media hailed the win as a blow to the corporate wing of the Democratic Party.

Johnson got 80% of the Black vote, despite opposition from Black elites. No group was more indispensable to his winning campaign than the Chicago Teachers Union. The CTU, which has fought the austerity politics coming out of City Hall for over a decade, provided millions of dollars in donations and mobilized many of its 25,000 members to volunteer for Johnson’s campaign. More broadly, the CTU’s endorsement signaled that he was the candidate progressive Chicagoans should support. 

Another left-leaning social-justice union, The United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), recently supported their city’s lowest-paid striking education workers by refusing to cross the picket line and closing down the school system for three days, leading to a massive win for those workers. UTLA has also led its own strikes and remains popular with parents and the public. 

In contrast to Chicago and Los Angeles’s teachers unions, New York City’s United Federation of Teachers (UFT) has partnered with the Adams administration to move its retirees from Medicare, the only public health-car option, to a privatized Aetna Medicare Advantage plan. An amendment at the union’s Delegate Assembly calling for the UFT to lobby to remove New York State’s ban on public-sector strikes led union leaders to denounce the move with arguments that ranged from the ­obscure to the ridiculous. Recent headlines on an opposition blog captured the moment: “Why doesn’t UFT leadership want us to have the right to strike?” 

Why have teachers unions in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York  taken such divergent paths?  What is New York City losing by having a neutered teachers union that eschews militant grassroots ­organizing in favor of insider politicking? What would it look like for New York City to have a teachers union with deep ties to its school communities as well as other social movements and that was ready and willing to throw down against our local billionaires in order to elect a bold progressive to lead the city? After all, the UFT has almost 200,000 members, making it almost 10 times larger than its sister union in Chicago and has more financial and ­personnel resources at its disposal. 

Origins Matter

if progressives inside the UFT can topple Unity and make the union more militant, it will be a seismic event in public education and in city, state and national politics.

Left-wing teacher-union caucuses rose to power in Chicago and Los Angeles in the past 20 years in response to the all-out assault on public schools launched by the corporate-backed education “reform” movement. Meanwhile, the UFT has been stuck in its early 1960s origins at the forefront of the national teacher-unionization movement of that era. Most of its wins came in the 1960s as the result of militant unionism and rank-and-file action, including strikes. Ties to the city’s political elites have become fossilized over subsequent decades. When the corporate education-reform movement hit the city with Mayor Bloomberg’s takeover of public education in 2002 under a new mayoral control law, the union went along with many of his policies: charter schools, high stakes testing, rating teachers based on the outcomes and closing schools based on standardized test scores.

The early days of the UFT were often raucous, with a strong dose of democracy and rank-and-file activism that made some of the founders uneasy. Unity Caucus, a top-down political machine operating under the principles of democratic centralism and loyalty oaths, became their instrument of control once Albert Shanker took power in 1964 and has maintained its dominance.

Shanker was a strident anti-communist intent on keeping the left from having any influence within the union. Mechanisms were established to consolidate Shanker’s control of the UFT. As the UFT’s size grew, it gained sway over New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the statewide federation of teachers unions, and then the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the national union. In 1968, Shanker became the face of a deeply polarizing series of strikes by the teachers union that were directed  against a Black-led experiment in community control of schools. In 1983, he backed a right-wing report, “A Nation at Risk,” commissioned by the Reagan administration that was the opening salvo in the war against public education and led to decades of bad education policy. Recently the report has been labeled as “fake news” for using intentionally-flawed data to make public schools look worse than they were. Shanker’s support prevented the AFT from taking a stand.

The anti-left roots were sown internally in the UFT, and their DNA animates a continued opposition to progressive, left movements inside the union. Since the late 1960s, opposition caucuses inside the UFT have operated to the left of Unity but have repeatedly been fragmented by their own sectarian politics and an anti-democratic union structure designed to keep Unity Caucus in power permanently. In 2019, four separate left caucuses ran against Unity with predictably disastrous results. In 2022, they all united under a shared banner and made inroads into Unity’s dominance, capturing more than one third of the total vote, and 43% of the active teacher vote. If the coalition holds together for the 2025 election, there may well be a serious challenge to Unity for the first time.

It always seems impossible until it’s done. But if progressives inside the UFT can topple Unity and remake the union in the image of its more militant siblings in Chicago and Los Angeles, it will be a seismic event in both public education and in city, state and national politics.

Norm Scott is a retired New York City public-school teacher who taught for 35 years and was involved in three UFT strikes. He has participated in many UFT opposition caucuses since 1970 and is the editor of Ed Notes (ednotesonline.blogspot.com) since 2006. He is currently active with Retiree Advocate, a retiree caucus challenging Unity Caucus for control of the 60,000-member UFT’s retiree chapter.

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