How do you go back after you shut down a city?

February 7, 2019

Kirstin Roberts, a veteran of the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, has advice for teachers in LA and elsewhere about how to handle the letdown that follows a historic victory.

AFTER THE victorious strike of Los Angeles educators, I’ve heard that some United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) activists are going through what might be called a post-strike letdown.

Some UTLA members were taken aback by how strong the arguments against the contract were from some of their co-workers, and that many of those arguments didn’t seem to take into account the victory that had just been won. The idea was that more could have been won by staying out longer.

It reminds me of the aftermath of our similarly successful and historic 2012 strike here in Chicago in 2012 against Rahm Emanuel’s school board.

The feeling of disappointment was most pronounced among people from the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) — the caucus that won the union leadership a few weeks before and paved the way for the strike. Those who identify with CORE tend to be the more left-wing and militant section of the union.

Chicago teachers on the march during their nine-day strike
Chicago teachers on the march during their nine-day strike (Sarah Ji)

It wasn’t just the debates over should we stay out or should we settle. I really do remember that feeling of going back to work, and what a shock it was to be back there.

You’ve been out on the streets fighting alongside your co-workers and the community for yourself, each other and your students, and then all of a sudden, you’re put back in the day-to-day grind, where things feel very much like they did before you went on strike. It was almost like: “Wait, did I dream that whole thing?”

They came after us immediately after the victory in 2012. There were the layoffs and the school closings by the board, but you could also feel it in petty harassment in the buildings from the principals, especially the most vicious anti-union principals.

There were some principals who weren’t that vicious and were actually sympathetic to union demands, but there were a lot who weren’t sympathetic, and they tried to make people’s lives hell. They went after teachers through the evaluation system. People who they identified as being part of a new militant leadership in the union, especially delegates, were targeted.

It was also true that while we won a decent contract with some important gains, we didn’t win everything we wanted or needed. Our biggest victory was our survival and ability to fight another day against an opponent that had vowed to wipe us out. Many of the things that made our jobs so hard and our schools so miserable were things we weren’t able to fix in that one strike.

Image from
(Eric Ruder | SW)

So people had really high, aspirational expectations for the schools our students deserve that we couldn’t accomplish in that battle. We had to learn that this was going to be a long war, and we had a lot to do to get ready for it.

I WANT to make sure folks in this latest round of strikes know that in our 2012 strike, CTU delegates voted to take two days more after a settlement was reached to let our members read and vote and debate the contract back on the picket line.

We didn’t immediately go back to work. We met on the streets outside schools, in neighbor’s yards, in church basements and at restaurants. We read the contract and debated what it meant.

It was a crucial process that really made a difference in terms of internal organization. Even though we still had people who were against the contract, it didn’t lead to people feeling like it was out of their control. They knew their voices and votes on that contract mattered.

So my advice to education strikers today is to take the time to be democratic. The parents won’t break with you for one or two more days. They’ll get it. The boss always says, “You take this now or the offer disappears.” If you’ve built a unified strike and done the work to get parents behind you, you can call the bosses’ bluff!

We should tell the bosses — and the people — that we can’t sign contracts without reading them first, and the people who have to work under the conditions of those contracts are the people who need to read it most closely.

Another thing I did after the strike — and I was glad after the fact — was I bought a bouquet of red carnations, and I wrote a little thank you card to each of my co-workers the first day back. I asked them to wear a red carnation to keep spreading the solidarity and send a message to the parents that we were back, but we were united to keep fighting for the schools that students deserve.

Socialists at work

An SW series dedicated to discussing how to organize in your workplace. The ISO’s Labor Working Group has contributed how-to guides, and readers are adding their own experiences.

That brought people together at a moment when there had been some divisions in my building around certain parts of the contract, and it helped mend some of those divisions. Even little symbolic things like that can be important.

HOW DO you prepare for a post-strike letdown? I hope we get a lot more strikes to help us figure this out.

I’d say, first, that you go back into your workplace consciously thinking about how to build upon what you just won. It could be a contract provision or legislation. Or maybe you lost this battle with the legislature or in the realm of collective bargaining, but you won a stronger sense of unity among the union, and with parents and the community.

But whatever unity you built and whatever change in consciousness you achieved around your issues — taxing the rich, how charters bleed the public school system — go back in with a plan about how to nurture those lessons and spread those demands, because it’s going to be tough.

You’re going to have to deepen and protect the key lessons and ideas that got you out on strike in the first place. Never forget: Your demands were just, and your demands still need to be met.

It’s going to be hard, because being back at work means you don’t have all day to think and march and argue and laugh with your co-workers and yell at politicians.

But talk to the people you’re closest with and figure out what you’re going to do to carry that unity — which really is what organization is: just people uniting together around a common cause — back to work with you?

People are going to have to start discussing this on the picket lines while they’re out. And they probably already are, but one thing that organized socialists can do is play the conscious role of naming that for what it is.

Because the bosses will come for you. The more you got from them, the more they’re going to come for you. It is an ongoing battle — a class struggle that doesn’t end until we get to a society that doesn’t need bosses anymore.

We’re seeing this play out pretty hard in West Virginia and Oklahoma. The teachers are facing what can only be described as retaliation for the organizing they did last year by legislatures that were caught unawares.

They’re coming back to try to break up what organization does exist among school workers, and to try to push back whatever gains were made, whether in political consciousness or legislative victories or both. That’s going to happen to us every single time. The second that workers win a victory, the bosses come after you.

PLUS, WE had won this contract, but because it had been so long without a strike and a robust union organization built up in the schools, it was all just on paper. To enforce it, you have to get your co-workers together to fight smart at work.

Some people think the union will swoop in to solve problems at work, but it can’t really do that until there’s some degree of knowledge, confidence and unity at the workplace. That isn’t to say that union representatives aren’t important in helping create those things, but at the end of the day, the union is only as strong as it is in your building, among you and your co-workers. And that’s really hard work.

It takes a long time to learn how to create that sense, especially for the newer generation that wasn’t connected to the legacy of older teachers who had participated in strikes in the 1980s.

At one time, the CTU was considered one of the most powerful labor unions in the country. It was led by people like Jackie Vaughn, a trade union militant, a Black woman and a very strong leader of the union in the 1980s.

People who came up under her and right after her learned a lot about what it takes to build a fighting union. That generation of teachers was a product of radical civil rights struggles as well as the labor movement. They had pride in their jobs, in their union and what they had accomplished in busting up the old racist Daley machine during the Harold Washington administration.

To rebuild our union’s strength from 2010, when it was elected, through today, CORE brought together that older generation with the new generation of younger social justice educators and educators who had cut their teeth in the era of neoliberal school reform.

We benefited in 2012 from our veteran teachers, but there weren’t enough of them left, and their schools were being closed, both before the strike and after it. So that generation can’t be as much of a transmission belt of lessons about how to fight for a new generation of union leaders and militants.

I should also point out that it’s important for that transmission belt to go both ways, because conditions in the schools and city have changed, and you want younger voices to be part of that leadership mix as well.

That organization gap is real, and I imagine it’s quite real in other places as well, after decades of a one-sided class war. While some individuals have a memory of how to fight because they’ve been around a long time and others are ready to fight, the organizations that fuse those people together in workplaces are few and far between. We have to rebuild those.

They got built up a little bit in 2012 and a little more in 2016 when we had to fight against having our pensions stolen, school funding slashed and furloughs in the midst of a horrible budget crisis in Chicago.

Those fights have built up our fighting capacity in the form of those building-site workplace connections. We do have more people today who stand up for themselves when the boss tries to get away with something.

It’s still not where we want to be, but that’s why the struggles themselves are so crucial, even though it feels like a passing dream sometimes — when you feel like you’re waking up to a crappy workaday reality.

Luxemburg, Lenin and other socialists were so right when they made the point that in every struggle, in every strike, there is a little bit of socialism. It’s there — you can feel it.

It’s absolutely true when people say, “It’s only been a few days, but so much has happened that it feels like a lifetime.” Such a radical unlearning and learning anew goes on about yourself and what you can do. And about your co-workers who used to really piss you off — yet they were some of the best people on the picket ,line and you think, “What the hell happened to you? Where have you been all my life?”

You learn about yourself and the people around you and you see that flowering of personality and creativity that exists in every one of us, but is so squashed down by the reality of work.

IN SCHOOLS, there are a lot of squashed and broken hearts, because most teachers go into the profession with a pretty big chunk of themselves wrapped up in this romantic promise of the transformational power of education — of what schooling should and could be.

It can seem naïve, but it’s really a lovely vision that is very quickly contradicted by the reality of how under-resourced our schools actually are. You start the job wanting to change the world or to change the world one student at a time, and every day you go to work, you have your heart broken a little more.

So when teachers go on strike — particularly strikes like the CTU’s in 2012 or UTLA or the red-state rebellions — raising aspirational demands about what kind of schools and society we want, it’s like falling in love again with that person you were, and starting to believe in that vision again.

In 2012, my head teacher — who was one of those older teachers who had been on strike before and lived through a lot of ups and downs in CPS — wrote two letters to the parents, one before and one after the strike.

The letter before the strike was about how sad she was that the two sides couldn’t come together and about teachers not really wanting to go on strike, It wasn’t anti-union, but it certainly wasn’t pro-union or explaining the strike in a way that parents could relate to and get behind us.

I’ll never forget the letter she wrote afterwards. It was one of the most eloquent distillations of the vision of what kind of schools our students deserve.

She wrote that we weren’t just fighting for a contract, we were fighting for a completely different set of priorities in this society. She wrote that we weren’t going to win all of that in this one strike, and that was going to take time, but we were going to create that together — parents and teachers and students together.

It was beautiful, and that transformation occurred over the exactly nine days between the beginning and end of the strike.

That post-strike letdown is really about coming to terms with the limits of collective bargaining in the face of a brutal and systemic social crisis. Yes, there is a little bit of socialism in every picket line, but we don’t just need a little socialism. We need a lot of socialism!

That’s where it should also be a priority to have some conversations about the kind of unity and organization that can get us to a world without bosses. It may not be the first conversation with every co-worker, but it should be in the mix somewhere along the line, and it should go along with your socialist newspaper paper and fliers inviting them to a socialist meeting or conference.

Socialism is just shorthand for everybody’s wildest dream of a society worthy of their best selves. You probably met some of those amazing people on the picket line. Don’t let them forget.

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