How Can Unions Win?

by David Burr Gerrard

Kevin Bacon’s new video imploring millennials to raise their 80s awareness did not mention Billy Bragg’s 1986 song “There Is Power in a Union,” but the idea that there is any power in a union probably seems as remote to many millennials as parachute pants or the White Pages. Actually, this is probably true of anyone born after about 1965. It’s been a long time since we have thought that most workers can realistically be something other than lone and lonely individuals forced to accept whatever terms of employment they can find and hope not to get fired.

Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity is is published by Verso’s Jacobin series and available wherever people have been taught by teachers to read.

Verso Books

McNally Jackson

Your local bookstore


Previously in this series:

Discussing the labor of sex work with Melissa Gira Grant.

Returning to Marxism with Ben Kunkel.

Micah Uetricht is 26. After working for two years after college organizing car wash workers for Arise Chicago, Uetricht turned his attention to the Chicago Teachers Union and its fight against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Strike For America, his book about that fight, and the 2012 strike that resulted — a strike that the jacket copy characterizes as “America’s most important domestic labor struggle in decades” — has just been published.

That Emanuel had previously served as President Obama’s chief of staff underscores the increasingly antagonistic relationship of teachers unions to what was once their connection to political power, the Democratic Party. Uetricht writes that, under these conditions, teachers unions faced a choice between being deferential to “the neoliberal politicians and titans of capital who wanted to destroy them” and “confront[ing] those enemies head-on, with militant tactics like strikes and deep organizing within communities.”

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) — led by Karen Lewis and the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), an assertive faction that had taken control of the union — chose the latter strategy. And it succeeded — more or less. Uetricht identifies as one of the major strengths of the leadership of Karen Lewis and CORE an honesty about what is achievable in a time hostile to unions in general and teachers unions in particular. Though the teachers did not win the thirty-percent raise they sought, the Chicago Tribune wrote at the time that Lewis “argued that the union had successfully rejected Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s attempts to institute merit pay, fought off more stringent requirements in a new teacher evaluation system and secured a recall policy for top-performing teachers who are laid off because of school closings.”

Briefly but thoroughly, Uetricht takes us through the way that Lewis and her caucus gained power in the union and then built towards the strike. Though early chapters, devoted to internal union battles, are occasionally overstuffed with an alphabet-soup of acronyms (CTU, CORE, UPC, PACT), the book is worth sticking with. If unions are to reclaim the status they deserve, they will need a strategy to do so, and this book outlines one potential model. There may or may not be power in a union at the moment, but there should be, and this book makes you think that there can be.

You wrote an article recently called “Nice Unions Finish Last,” and that seems to be a theme of this book as well.

Throughout American history, there have been attempts to cuddle up to the bosses and to management, and to think we can win things from them by appearing to be reasonable. Management never gives up on wanting to get whatever they want, pay whatever they want. Corporations bide their time until unions have been lulled into decreased militancy. Once the unions are unable to fight back, and the culture of struggle is gone, corporations and management just run roughshod.

You also talk a lot about how 21st century unions have to be integrated into larger social justice movements, and can’t just be about bread-and-butter issues.

That’s especially true of teachers unions, and public-sector unions generally. When you’re going on strike, and instead of not making widgets anymore you’re leaving kids without an education, the only way for that not to be seen as a public temper tantrum is to make those kinds of actions not just about yourself, but about the kids, about the broader community. About your patients, if you’re in healthcare. That’s wise on a strategic level — it’s how you gain support rather than staying isolated — but it’s also the right thing to do. Unions should be fighting on behalf of the entire working class, not just their own narrow parochial interests.

And how do you see teachers achieving this?

The CTU gives a compelling example of how to do this. A group of teachers within the Union took on their old leadership. Rank-and-file teachers fought alongside community members against free-market education reform.

Communities have to be treated as equals. There’s a long history in American teachers unions of not doing that. There are some really sordid histories of unions coming into conflict with parents, particularly parents of color.

You mention that the contract that CTU won was still not perfect.

Part of the union’s strength was in treating its members like adults. This is a time of austerity, and unions are waging largely defensive battles, so of course there are concessions. In the past, union leaders might have said: “This is the most perfect document we could have ever hoped for!” The rank-and-file would rebel at being sold a bill of goods. The CTU was open about the contract’s flaws, and members were grateful. The real victory here was not the contract, though some important things were won. The real victory was showing how to fight back against this agenda in an unprecedented way. It showed people that regular teachers could take over their union and fight back against someone like Rahm Emanuel, one of the most powerful figures in the Democratic Party.

Do you see any hope for teachers unions and unions in general to regain a serious foothold in the Democratic Party?

The way most union leaders have seen to get the Democratic Party back on their side is to be those “reasonable people,” and to cede important issues. [American Federation of Teachers President] Randi Weingarten has ceded all kinds of ground on merit pay. She thinks that people will say: “We see Randi being reasonable, we’ll invite her to the table.” In fact, you have to wrest the power from these people’s hands, you have to show them that you’re a force to be reckoned with and that there are real consequences to following a right-wing path. If those lessons spread, as they have started to in Newark and elsewhere, the Democratic Party will have no choice but to listen. That’s not going to come from playing nice; that’s going to come from strength.

Could you talk about your book in the context of Jacobin?

Jacobin is about reestablishing a left-wing pole in American politics. We think that that’s an incredibly valuable tradition that should not be lost. This is done through contributing to intellectual debates, but also through producing pieces that can be of use to average people.

The right wing has long understood the value of a strong right flank. That pulls the debate to the right. What’s happened with the left mirrors what’s happened with unions: the left thinks that the way to be victorious is to appear reasonable rather than to have audacious and unapologetic left-wing visions of the future.

When I interviewed Ben Kunkel about his book for Jacobin on Marxist theory, he said he thought his book was almost antiquated because of Jesse Myerson’s piece in Rolling Stone, which listed specific solutions.

I thought that was an important moment, when Jesse put that out. Despite the vehement right-wing reaction to the piece, there was also an extremely positive reaction. People aren’t scared of the epithets that are being slung at Jesse. They’re not afraid of socialism. Part of our contribution, meager though it may be, is to keep pushing that, and to encourage people not to be afraid of ideas like the ones Jesse put forward in that article.

You also talk about Occupy, and how its anarchist roots stopped it from formulating demands.

I didn’t mean that to denigrate the Occupy movement. Occupy was somewhat incoherent, but it was an important expression of anger. The CTU strike identified that anger and put it into an effective political form that could push back against Rahm Emanuel and win some tangible demands. So it’s not thumbs-up to CTU, thumbs-down to Occupy. CTU is the sort of thing we need to turn the anger expressed by Occupy into tangible political victories.

You also talk about how Occupy cheered on teachers as they struck.

Yes, and the CTU wasn’t afraid to use some of Occupy’s rhetoric, to use that spirit. CTU wasn’t afraid to name who their enemies were.

Could you talk about that, the importance of naming things?

In political organizing you need an enemy, and enemies do exist. Teachers weren’t just angry at a general idea of neoliberalism being expressed through education reform. They were angry that Rahm Emanuel was screwing them. They were angry that billionaire education reformers had cast them as the people holding America’s children down. You can’t win anything unless you have a clear enemy that you’re fighting against.

What made you write this book?

I was so moved emotionally by seeing what teachers were able to accomplish. Strikes have for so long had a cloud of inevitable defeat, and you’re only negotiating the terms of how badly you’re going to lose. CTU made it feel like you could actually win these things. I’m only 26, but this was different from anything else in my lifetime.

Do you think of yourself as a journalist now?

I imagine I’ll return to the labor movement. Writing is a very lonely pursuit; it’s just you and your computer. The labor movement is much more collaborative, and that’s where I feel comfortable.

Do you see hope for something like this happening in New York?

New York has the Movement of Rank-and-File-Educators, which, starting with the name, is explicitly modeled on CORE. Things are more difficult in New York. There’s much more discipline in the ruling faction. The only reason that CORE won was that there a fight within the old guard, but there’s no indication that that kind of opportunity exists here. That said, the Movement of Rank-and-File educators has done amazing work, and has started down the long road that CORE traveled. Elsewhere — in Newark, for instance — there’s been more movement.

Even in places where there aren’t these kinds of caucuses, they’ve certainly recognized the piece about working alongside communities. In Chicago, one of the first things the new leadership did was produce a document called “The Schools Chicago’s Children Deserve,” which put forward a positive agenda of what education reform can and should look like. Since then, there’s been “The Schools Portland’s Children Deserve,” “The Schools Philadelphia’s Children Deserve.” People recognize that community engagement is required.

What makes CORE different from their old leadership isn’t just the existence of a leader like Karen Lewis who was willing to go toe to toe against Rahm Emanuel. People say, oh you needed a big personality like Karen Lewis to go up against a big personality like Rahm Emanuel. CTU succeeded not because Karen Lewis is willing to yell at Emanuel, although that is important, but because CTU totally changed the union’s relationship to the 26,000 members of their union. They made sure that the members were the ones pushing the agenda. The old reform caucus brought in a few people who thought that they could do better.

CORE said no, the rank-and-file are the ones who will be making the decisions in this union. That’s important not because democracy is good in some abstract way; it’s important because that’s how the fight back against corporate education reform can happen. When Karen Lewis says something, Rahm Emanuel knows that there are 26,000 members behind what she says, and that what she says is an accurate reflection of what’s believed by 26,000 voters, 26,000 people ready to get out in the streets.

Standardized tests are clearly one of the focal points of this entire debate. Could you talk about them a little more?

It’s clear that there’s this obsession with data and metrics around these school reform attempts. Teachers repeatedly say that they’re not opposed to sensible metrics, but there’s an obsession with them that comes at the detriment of real learning. Teaching becomes about rote memorization of the stuff that’s going to be on the test. That data is then going to be used not to improve a teacher’s teaching, but to close the school down, or to blame the teacher for supposedly poor performance.

Standardized tests have deprofessionalized teaching, deskilled it. They make teaching a joyless activity. You have to clamp down on any natural curiosities that arise. Maybe students are interested in dinosaurs; dinosaurs are not on the standardized tests.

I think it’s a big deal in Chicago right now that a group of teachers are holding a boycott of a standardized test called the ISAT. That’s a direct result of this empowerment that teachers have felt, of this ascendant feeling they can push back against these things that have debased their profession.

Can you talk more about teaching as a profession, the joy of it?

I’m not a teacher, so I’m not the best person to talk about that, but no one goes into teaching to administer standardized tests. People who go into teaching make massive sacrifices — of their time, financially — because they really believe in teaching. Parents know that; that’s why the campaign led by neoliberals and the right wing to demonize teachers as lazy and overpaid hasn’t really caught on among average Americans, because people have a gut sense that no one goes into that profession out of laziness or greed. They do it because they care about children. That’s the only thing that could make them sink the kind of hours they do into their jobs.

So there’s pushback against attacks on teachers’ tenure and how much they get paid, and there’s pushback against efforts to drain all the joyful aspects out of the teachers’ profession.

So. I want everyone who reads this interview to Google you and buy your book and read the rest of your work, but when they Google you they’re going to come across the polar vortex video.

(Laughs) Yes, they are. What’s your question? I hope it’s not: how is your penis?

I guess my question is: why did you upload the video?

I ask myself that every day.

David Burr Gerrard’s debut novel, Short Century

, is out this month from Rare Bird Books. This interview has been condensed and edited.