Friday, September 16, 2005

A Lesson From Chicago

by George Schmidt

The last time Chicago struck, in September 1987 (hard to believe it's 18 years ago), the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union was so unprepared for the strike that we didn't even have picket signs printed up.

The media and our enemies made big of the fact that the union didn't really want a strike. The first two days were chaotic, but by the end of the third day we had things shut down tight. And that went on for another 14 days. The frenzy with which our enemies went after us during those days (once the police were called saying that I had threatened scabs with a gun on the north side high school picket line and searched my car top to bottom) was unmatched, but as a result of the strike they were set back more than five years in their attempts to strip Chicago teachers of their rights.

Ironically, test scores went up by the end of the 1987-1988 school year higher than at any time during the 1980s (Chicago has always had annual testing; only high stakes since mayoral control in 1995).

The reason?

The strike produced more unity than had ever been seen among teachers before. Everyone worked harder than ever before, because during the strike we had become a militant community. Not one of the mostly illusory "gains" since mayoral dictatorship was put into Chicago in 1995 has exceeded what we did as teachers in 1987-1988 after shutting down the school system for the entire month of September.You can build a movement during a strike, and the attacks on teachers and unions give everyone a chance to see class forces in action and learn from it.

Every teacher who plays "Good teacher bad teacher" before a strike has to confront the sheer dishonesty of the attacks from the media and ruling class during the strike.It would be nice to go to war (striking) with militant union leaders. But, as Lincoln learned long before other said it, you go to war with the generals you have and win with the privates who are willing to fight like hell.In May 1988, the year after that strike, I ran for President of the Chicago Teachers Union against Jacqueline Vaughn and got 40 percent of the vote.

That combination of things (strike and militant election fight) bought us another few years before we allowed ourselves to be weakened in the face of corporate "school reform."

(George Schmidt has been involved in the Chicago Teachers’ Union movement and has been following our Union for many years)

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