The Rebirth of the Chicago Teachers Union and Possibilities for a Counter-Hegemonic Education Movement

For nine days in September, Chicago belonged to the teachers, school paraprofessionals, and clinicians. On September 10, 2012, 26,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went on strike. It was the first teachers’ strike in Chicago in twenty-five years. While public and private sector unions have taken concessions and capitulated to cuts in wages, benefits, seniority rights, job protections, and much of what was won by the labor movement in the twentieth century, the CTU stood up to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Commercial Club of Chicago, and the billionaire hedge-fund managers who have set out to break teachers’ unions and dismantle public education. Chicago was a sea of CTU red. Teachers—and their parent, student, and community supporters—picketed at schools across the city, marched through neighborhood streets, and brought downtown Chicago to a standstill with mass rallies of thousands, day after day. There was no need to defend school entrances against scabs—there were none!

By Eric (Rico) Gutstein and Pauline Lipman

For nine days, the city was a carnival of resistance—subway cars were an opportunity to show off your CTU red. Truck and bus drivers and motorists honked incessantly, not just at teachers massed at schools and on corners, but at anyone walking down the street wearing a teacher solidarity T-shirt. After seventeen years of absorbing the punishing effects of high-stakes tests and top-down accountability that have come to dominate public schools, and are destroying teaching and learning, teachers had had enough—and so had parents and students. After seventeen years of being abused and blamed for everything that is wrong with public education, Chicago teachers were the heroes. Their courage, militancy, and power electrified the country. They were standing up for all of us against the destruction of the public sector and the arrogant concentration of power and wealth that has defined neoliberalism in the United States. Contrary to predictions of both Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials and the mayor, people backed the strike and the union across race, class, and neighborhood boundaries. Polls showed that two-thirds of CPS parents supported the union, despite the hardships the strike caused.

But Chicago has a specific history, and the strike was one battle in a complex and protracted war to defend and transform public education and to rebuild unions on new grounds, as part of a larger battle against neoliberalism. How then do we understand the broader significance of the strike and the potential for a broad social movement in education?

In this essay we begin by locating the significance of the strike in relation to the neoliberal assault on public education and the state’s attempt to use the economic crisis further to attack the public sector and public-sector unions. Chicago, a birthplace of neoliberal restructuring of public education in the United States, is now a center of the push back against it. A critical factor is the transformation of the CTU. The article examines the interrelationship of community education struggles and the emergence of the CTU as a social movement union. We conclude with possibilities for a counterhegemonic education movement in Chicago.

We write this essay as activists and scholars. Pauline writes and teaches about the political economy and racial politics of urban education. Rico writes and teaches about critical pedagogy, education for social justice, and mathematics education policy. We are active members of the grassroots organization, Teachers for Social Justice (TSJ) in Chicago, and have participated in education organizing against school closings and education privatization since 2004. Through TSJ, we were involved in building support for the strike as part of a broad coalition of parents, community members, and educators.

Significance of the Strike and Emergence of Social Movement Unionism

The significance of the Chicago teachers’ strike should be viewed in relation to the global agenda to restructure public education for economic competitiveness and capital accumulation.1 In the United States, this bipartisan agenda began with the Reagan administration’s call to hold teachers and schools accountable for results and to run schools like businesses. Over twenty-five years, various sectors of capital and corporate education “reformers” have pushed a national system of top-down accountability driven by high-stakes standardized tests, national standards, teacher evaluation tied to test scores, mayoral control of schools, and privatization.

In a version of disaster capitalism reminiscent of post-Katrina New Orleans, the 2008 economic crisis was a golden opportunity to accelerate education privatization at all levels, weaken unions, and further streamline schooling for global competitiveness. This was the thrust of the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion economic recovery initiative for education, known as Race to the Top. The ensuing “fiscal crisis” of the state provides a warrant to close public schools, expand privately run charter schools, and dismantle whole school districts (e.g., Detroit), or replace them with a “portfolio” of education providers (e.g., Philadelphia). Billionaire venture philanthropists, such as the Gates and Walton Foundations, are deploying their enormous wealth to steer federal and state policy and local school districts in this direction.2 At a moment when public schools face severe budget cuts, “In state after state, men [sic] with vast personal fortunes invest in campaigns to end teachers’ tenure, end seniority…and clear the way for private takeovers of public schools, where teachers work with no job rights at all.”3 The focus is urban school districts where African-American communities have born the brunt of school closings.

This neoliberal class project exemplifies “accumulation by dispossession”4—commandeering public goods for private accumulation—whether through opening the Amazon rain forest to cattle ranching, privatizing water in Bolivia, or privatizing public housing, roads, bridges, and schools in the United States. It is in the context of this drive by investors to appropriate public goods—and the related displacement, dislocation, and robbery of the vast majority—that the global neoliberal assault on teaching, teachers, and their unions needs to be understood.5Chicago teachers stood up to this agenda. This is why the CTU strike was followed around the world, as reflected in this solidarity statement the French Teachers Union Federation sent to the CTU:

We just became acquainted of your present struggle for public education against privatization and for your rights. We would like you to know that our federation, the FNEC FP FO, completely support your claims…. We are facing in France the same issues….Therefore we wish you full success with your struggle and the strike you’re preparing with 98% of the teachers in Chicago. Education is an imprescriptible right, stop the suppression of the teachings posts, stop the dismissals, stop schools’ closing, and privatization, [initiate] respect of the statuses and of the collective conventions…. Respect of all social achievements.6

The significance of the Chicago teachers’ strike also has to be understood in relation to the broad attack on the public sector. Insisting that there is no alternative to address the “fiscal crisis,” local governments are pressing for austerity budgets that cut deep into what remains of the social-safety net and decent public-sector jobs. City governments are cutting police and firefighters, slashing public employees’ wages and benefits, closing libraries and schools, foregoing infrastructure repairs and maintenance, and selling off public infrastructure to consortia of transnational investors. This is a class strategy to shift the cost of the crises of financialization, speculative real estate investment, and corporate profiteering run amuck onto the working class and poor—especially people of color and middle-income earners—and to support capital accumulation in the context of lack of profitable outlets for investment.7

Public-sector workers are on the front lines of these attacks.8 This is why transit workers, postal carriers, and Chicago police supported the teachers’ strike. Because 36 percent of public-sector workers are unionized, compared with just 7 percent of private employees,9public workers have the potential to mount an organized opposition to the savaging of public welfare. They are also strategically positioned to fight alongside communities for reinvigorated, more socially just and equitable public institutions. Teachers and other public-sector workers are ultimately responsible to the families and communities they serve, and their working conditions are tied to the funding and quality of public institutions. This calls on unions to emphasize the connection between the well-being of workers and the well-being of communities and to build principled union-community alliances.

The broad-based attacks on teachers and teachers’ unions create conditions for a new teachers’ union politics that breaks with the business unionism that has failed miserably to defend workers and the public interest. The U.S. labor movement might take direction and inspiration from teachers’ unions internationally, particularly, the “social movement unionism” of Honduran and Oaxacan teachers who are in the forefront of national struggles for democracy and quality education, and the anti-racist, anti-neoliberal stance of the British Columbia Teachers Federation, that is allied with parents. Although the contexts are different, the principles are common. A key aspect of social movement unionism is alliances with community-based movements resisting globalized neoliberalism and fighting for social justice.10

In the U.S. context, social movement unionism is counter to the economism and top-down structures that have narrowed the focus of unions to economic struggles and limited their power to backroom negotiations and reliance on the Democratic Party. Social movement unions are allied with broader social-justice movements and are organized like social movements themselves.11 Their power comes from a mobilized, politically conscious, democratically engaged membership and strong relationships with marginalized communities. In Chicago, we are seeing the birth of a social movement teachers’ union that sides with parents and communities to fight for a rich, equitable, and just education for all students.

Chicago: A Launching Pad for Neoliberal Education Policies

Chicago was a prototype for neoliberal education policies in the United States. The city emerged as a model in 1995 when the Illinois State Legislature gave then-Mayor Daley the power to appoint the Board of Education and choose a CEO to run the schools. The appointed board and a succession of CEOs pushed an unprecedented level of high-stakes testing, accountability, and top-down corporate management. Mayoral control was the lynchpin of this process.

In 2004, CPS turned toward privatization, with Renaissance 2010, a plan to close public, neighborhood schools and expand privately run charter and contract schools. The plan was initially proposed by the Commercial Club of Chicago, an organization of the city’s most powerful corporate, financial, and political elites. At the same time, CPS expanded selective enrollment and specialty public schools, mainly in affluent and gentrifying neighborhoods. Renaissance 2010, trumpeted by Arne Duncan, then-CEO of Chicago Public Schools, as “the Chicago miracle,” became a model for urban school districts nationally.12

By 2012, CPS had closed over one hundred schools (overwhelmingly serving low-income black and Latina/o students), about one-sixth of Chicago’s schools. CPS simultaneously opened almost one hundred privately run charter schools and created thirty-five “turn-around” schools. These moves undermined local school democracy (e.g., the new schools have no Local School Councils—formal bodies for direct, substantive parent and community involvement in local school governance) and teachers’ union membership (charter school teachers cannot join the CTU). In 2012, Mayor Emanuel proposed closing up to 120 more schools by fall 2013, more than all the schools closed in the past ten years.

The dismantling of public education in Chicago disproportionately impacts low-income African-American and Latina/o communities and contributes to their disinvestment and destabilization. All but two of the one-hundred-plus school actions since 2001 have directly impacted low-income students of color. In many cases schools are anchors in neighborhoods stressed by poverty, racism, dismantling of public housing, foreclosures, and social exclusion. Schools are often, to quote a parent, “the heart of the community.” School closings also contribute to the disproportionate loss of experienced black teachers who know the community and families well. Overall, the percentage of black teachers in CPS declined from 40 percent in 2002 to 27 percent in 2012.13

School closings and privatization are also part of a nexus of neoliberal urban economic development policies centered on real estate and downtown development, corporate subsidies, and privatization that has restructured the city for capital accumulation and has pushed out low-income communities of color. In neighborhoods slated for gentrification, closing schools contributes to pushing out the people who live there. The schools are then refurbished and rebranded for a middle-class clientele. In disinvested neighborhoods, many closed public schools are replaced by charter schools. In general, charter schools, privately run but publicly financed, are a source of profit and their proliferation is driven by market-based ideology.

These policies have displaced thousands of students from their neighborhood schools and have not improved their education. Only 18 percent of the replacement schools were rated high performing, and nearly 40 percent are at CPS’s lowest rating.14 There have been spikes in violence and threats to student safety as they are forced to travel to schools outside their communities. In response, parents, students, and teachers have persistently fought the school closings since 2004.

Community Resistance and CTU’s Social Movement Unionism

African-American and Latina/o parents and community organizations, with support from progressive educators, lead the battles against school closings and privatization. Together, we have marched, rallied, picketed, held press conferences, slept outside on the sidewalk in front of CPS headquarters (in winter), marched to the mayor’s house (600 strong), sat in, and been arrested. While we have prevented only a small number of schools from being closed, we have made public education the most contested area of neoliberal urban development in Chicago. We have built solidarity among those resisting and broad political consciousness among the public about the corporate forces behind this agenda.

The leadership of the CTU had been largely complicit with the mayor’s education agenda, but in 2008 a group of teachers formed an anti-neoliberal education caucus, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE). CORE grew out of teachers fighting alongside parents and community organizations. The alliances they forged became an important component of the labor-community formations opposing education privatization in Chicago. These are the roots of the social movement unionism that the CTU is trying to build today.

By acting like the union should have, standing with parents and communities against school closings, fighting for teachers’ jobs, and educating the membership on the corporate education agenda, in just two years CORE won the leadership of the third-largest teachers’ union in the United States. This brought new power and visibility to the grassroots education struggles. The force of the union’s institutional power and membership in every school, its reinvigorated organizing department and new research department, and its public voice strengthened the struggles of African-American and Latina/o communities to defend their schools. Its involvement in these struggles also helped to politicize a teacher membership that had been largely demobilized and ideologically disarmed by a bureaucratized union structure. After just two years in office, a relatively inexperienced caucus led Chicago’s first teachers’ strike in twenty-five years.

The strike itself was a tremendous victory. It defied Mayor Emanuel’s attempt to shift the economic crisis onto teachers and working people in Chicago as a whole, and to weaken and make the union irrelevant. But the impact was greater than this. Teachers who had never been political activists were leading picket lines and rallies and explaining to the public the assault on teaching and public education. Although the CTU was legally limited to striking over wages and benefits, the issues that were most visible on teachers’ handmade signs were those that also most concern parents and students: smaller classes; more art, music, nurses and social workers; an end to the tyranny of high-stakes testing and an end to education privatization. The CTU’s move toward social movement unionism creates a new pole within national teachers’ unions and the labor movement in the United States.

Possibilities of a Counterhegemonic Education Movement in Chicago

A convergence of social forces and unfolding crises has created an opening for a counterhegemonic education movement in Chicago. The economic crisis, the accumulated effects of neoliberal education policies, the acceleration of school closings, the illegitimacy of mayoral control, the persistence and maturation of the education-justice struggles in black and Latina/o communities, and the rebirth of the CTU have created conditions for new alliances and new possibilities to contest the dominant education agenda. This new moment was crystallized in the Chicago teachers’ strike.

There is a new basis for unity between parents and teachers. In 2010, Illinois’s “fiscal crisis” prompted CPS to threaten broad cuts to music and art and increases in class sizes, even in affluent neighborhoods. This alarmed middle-class parents, a key constituency that Chicago’s mayors had worked to recruit to public schools. These parents, whose neighborhoods had experienced no school closings, formed a new organization to lobby against the cuts. Then, shortly after his election in 2011, Mayor Emanuel launched a crusade for a longer school day as a quick-fix education reform. This more-of-the-same, interminable-day approach to improving schools with no additional resources angered parents across the city and galvanized some white working-class communities. As parents who had not been involved in previous education struggles began protesting Board policies, they came into contact with black and Latina/o parents fighting school closings and charter expansion.

In 2012, these groups of mainly white parents, African-American and Latina/o organizations fighting school closings, and education-justice organizations formed a cross-city campaign for an elected representative school board in Chicago. A nonbinding referendum for an elected board won 87 percent of the vote in a sampling of 13 percent of the city’s approximately 2,500 electoral precincts. It is significant that the precincts spanned Chicago—economically, racially, and geographically. Many of these organizations formed the backbone of community solidarity for the teachers’ strike. Today they are part of a grassroots multi-racial, multi-class community-labor alliance that includes the CTU. Although this alliance is young and has inevitable complexities, it is united in opposition to school closings and privatization and in support of a democratic, community-based process of school transformation.

Neoliberal governance of schools in Chicago seems to be losing its legitimacy. The strike was a defeat for Mayor Emanuel who moved aggressively against the union as soon as he was elected. The credibility of top-down accountability and the Chicago Miracle has eroded. Today there are almost three times as many schools on academic probation as when the district initiated the policy in 1997, and racial gaps in academic achievement have increased.15 The referendum for an elected school board prompted even the major newspapers to suggest cosmetic changes to the mayoral appointed board. With thousands of parents coming out to oppose school closings, local elected officials are compelled to side with them. The mayor and CPS officials are on the defensive for now. There is chaos in the CPS administration: five CEOs in four years, a revolving door of staff in the central administration, and an appointed, unaccountable Board of Education with diminishing credibility. Even CPS’s current CEO acknowledges that distrust of CPS is rampant. The CTU strike, supported by a majority of Chicagoans, crystallized a counter pole to neoliberal education policies.

Neoliberal hegemony rests in part on the conviction that there is no alternative to the market, and there is no other way to imagine society. What is emerging in Chicago is a reaffirmation of public education with values of fairness, justice, democracy, interdependency, and the common good. These values, although not dominant, contest neoliberal ideologies and discourses of competitive consumerism, markets, and state retrenchment that govern public-education policy in the United States.16 These values are also explicit in the platform of the citywide education coalition in Chicago. The CTU’s proposal to transform Chicago Public Schools, The Schools Chicago Students Deserve, is a concrete yet visionary program toward these goals.17 It confronts the education apartheid that characterizes the sedimented structural and ideological racism embedded in school policies and resource distribution. Moreover, in a radical departure from the politics of austerity and competition for scarce resources, CTU proposes funding this agenda by redistributing wealth through equitable school funding, ending corporate tax subsidies and loopholes, returning to schools the mayor’s billion-dollar real-estate-development slush fund, and progressive taxation.

As we write this in April 2013, Mayor Emanuel claims that CPS has a $1 billion budget deficit, and plans to close fifty-four schools; almost all are in black communities. This has brought the battle against school closings to a head. Many thousands of parents, teachers, students, and community members have come out to public hearings to fight for their schools. They draw inspiration from the power of the strike. As one parent recently said at a school closing hearing, “The teachers shut down this city last summer—we should be able to do that on the west side!” Whether Emanuel’s appointed school board can actualize his threat, and at what cost to the city, remains to be seen.

The strike, the elected school-board campaign, and the alliances that are forming demonstrate new possibilities. The CTU strike changed the education landscape, locally and nationally. It showed that teachers’ unions in partnership with the community can stand up to the neoliberal assault on public education. It showed the power of social movement unionism that was born, in part, out of community education struggles and that, in turn, enlivens them. It is possible to imagine a counterhegemonic formation that could push forward an agenda for education justice that might spill beyond schools to a claim for the right to the city itself. Whether we can capitalize on the outpouring of resistance and organize a sustained movement will depend on what the masses of people in Chicago and conscious organizers are able to do together in the coming period. In any case, there is a long and complex road ahead. The CTU, as it develops into a social movement union, has a critical role to play because of its political stance, institutionalization, resources, reach, discipline, and capacity to support struggles initiated from the communities in which its members teach.


  1.  Pauline Lipman, “Neoliberal Education Restructuring: Dangers and Opportunities of the Present Crisis,” Monthly Review 63, no. 3 (2011): 114–27.
  2.  Kenneth J. Saltman, The Gift of Education: Public Education and Venture Philanthropy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
  3.  Diane Ravitch, “The Pattern on the Rug,” Education Week’s Blogs: Bridging Differences, March 27, 2012,
  4.  David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  5.  Mary Compton and Lois Weiner, eds., The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers, and Their Unions (New York: Palgrave, 2007).
  6.  Hubert Raguin and Jacques Paris, “Solidarity Message to Chicago Teachers Union from French Teachers’ Union Federation FNEC FP FO,” August 28, 2012,
  7.  David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (Brooklyn: Verso, 2012); Jamie Peck, “Austerity Urbanism,” City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action 16, no. 6 (2012): 626–55.
  8.  Dan La Botz, “A New American Workers’ Movement Has Begun,” in Michael D. Yates, ed.,Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).
  9.  Bureau of Labor Statistics, Economic News Release, “Union Members Summary,” January 23, 2013,
  10.  Mario Novelli, “Globalisations, Social Movement Unionism and New Internationalisms: The Role of Strategic Learning in the Transformation of the Municipal Workers Union of EMCALI,”Globalisation, Societies and Education 2, no. 2 (July 2004): 161–90.
  11.  Lois Weiner, The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012).
  12.  Jitu Brown, Eric (Rico) Gutstein, and Pauline Lipman, “Arne Duncan and the Chicago Success Story: Myth or Reality?,” Rethinking Schools 23, no. 3 (2009): 10–14.
  13.  Illinois State Board of Education, “Data Analysis and Accountability,“ 2000,
  14.  Linda Lutton, Sarah Karp, and Elliott Ramos, “Mapping 10 years of School Closures,” WBEZ, December 7, 2011.
  15.  Pauline Lipman and Eric (Rico) Gutstein, Should Chicago Have an Elected Representative School Board? A Look at the Evidence (Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago, Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education, February 2011),
  16.  John Clarke and Janet Newman, The Managerial State: Power, Politics and Ideology in the Remaking of Social Welfare (London: Sage, 1997).
  17.  Chicago Teachers Union, The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve: Research-based Proposals To Strengthen Elementary And Secondary Education In The Chicago Public Schools(Chicago: Chicago Teachers Union, 2012),