Academisation and the Chicago teachers’ strikes

It is really important and positive that the National Union of Teachers (NUT) conference was so determined to strike against the Tories’ plans to force all schools to become academies and break up national pay and conditions for teachers. It is even better that the NUT aims to coordinate with other unions, including the junior doctors in the BMA. But Andy N’s report shows how the NUT strategy is being shaped by the anti-union laws. The legislation hinders building solidarity for quality education, solidarity which has been at the heart of the successful strategy of the Chicago Teachers’ Union. Ian Allinson, just back from joining the striking teachers in Chicago, discusses how activists in the UK can build the power we need to win.

Chicago teachers' rally 1 April 2016, banners read "Strike 4 Justice, Fight For Funding" and "Rock Beats Scissors, Solidarity Beats Cuts"
Chicago teachers’ strike rally, 1 April 2016

To win any strike, workers have to create a crisis for the decision makers. For teachers in England and Wales, the decision makers are Tory ministers. Creating a crisis for them could mean either:

  • Creating a political crisis that threatened their chances of re-election and goals they consider more important
  • Causing such disruption that their business backers and masters want them to drop their plans

The first route to victory is only possible with the solidarity of masses of people beyond teachers. The second route is possible without such solidarity, but would be much more difficult.

Because solidarity is so powerful, preventing it is one of the key aims of anti-union legislation. The law bans solidarity strikes. It also restricts the issues over which it is legal to strike. Andy N explains clearly the pressure on the NUT to frame their dispute in terms of teachers’ pay and conditions rather than about the future of education. The union’s leadership fears the courts looking at campaign material, including social media, to try to show that strikes are ‘political’ and therefore not legally protected. The pressure is not to explain what academisation would mean for the future of education, not to explain why teachers, students, parents and communities have a common interest in fighting it – in other words, not to explain why the whole working class should stand in solidarity with teachers fighting the government.

Placards at the Chicago teachers' strike rally, 1 April 2016
Placards at the Chicago teachers’ strike rally, 1 April 2016

It is easy to explain to anyone how absurd a ban on ‘political’ strikes is. If your employer is the state and is the state’s policy you are fighting, you can’t avoid that being political. The aim of the legislation is to force unions to articulate their aims in the most narrow and obscure way.

Teachers and education campaigners around the world have been inspired by the Chicago teachers’ fight over recent years. Though they have suffered defeats (such as school closures) as well as achieving victories, they have built real power. Their strike on 1 April was called illegal by the state. The huge march occupying downtown Chicago also defied the law. Their union is more popular than the mayor.

The teachers’ success started with a small group getting together to discuss neoliberalism and education, working out the bosses’ plans for education. This group became the Coalition Of Radical Educators (CORE), which involved itself in community fights against school closures. Rather than just denouncing the “do-nothing leadership” of their local union, they “did what they thought the union should be doing”. In the process, they build a network, clarified their ideas and built real trust with community groups – not by some formal alliance, but by working as part of their campaigns.

CORE was able to explain clearly the corporate agenda for education. Big business wanted a slice of the public education budget. They used extensive testing (lucrative business in itself) to focus on failure and justify “reform”. At the heart of the reforms was the closure of state schools (particularly in poor and black neighbourhoods) and opening of privatised “Charter schools” (much like academies) often run by large chains. The curriculum was narrowed and teachers and support staff cut, along with their pay and conditions. Staff turnover was increased to reduce the proportion of long-serving qualified teachers with experience and bring in cheaper newly qualified or unqualified teachers.

CORE was able to explain how the reforms were bad for teachers, bad for kids, and highly racist. At a solidarity meeting in Chicago I heard how the pupil-teacher ratios were many times worse in poor and black areas, and how medical and counselling services, vital in neighbourhoods where many kids have experienced trauma, were withdrawn. CORE also attacked the financial justification for the reforms. In Chicago I heard the phrase “broke on purpose” over and over again – people argue that the city authorities have made a choice to prioritise corporations over communities, starving education of funds. Making the case for action is much easier if you can identify who is responsible and see that things could be different – there is an alternative.

By doing what the union leadership should have been doing, rather than just moaning about it, CORE eventually won elections and took control of the union. But they didn’t make the common mistake of dissolving or turning themselves into a support group for the new leadership, but used CORE to keep building a radical base and helping keep the new leaders on track.

Chicago Teachers Union has helped create a real labour movement. The fight for better education and for better treatment of teachers are one fight. Dyett High School was reopened after parents went on hunger strike. The community is now demanding the school uses a curriculum they drew up, rather than that imposed by the authorities. People aren’t just fighting to defend the flawed education system they have, they are fighting for the education kids deserve.

The way CTU ran the 1 April strike was instructive. They called on other organisations to join a broader fight. Dozens of unions and community groups took part in some way, including student walk-outs and a march to a juvenile detention centre. Class and race issues were front and centre. There were demands to tax the rich and the corporations. The city spends 40% of its budget on the police. The rally in the afternoon had speakers involved in Black Lives Matter and people calling for revolution alongside more traditional union speakers. Karen Lewis from CTU said kids went to school to learn words like oligarchy and neoliberalism.

Rainbow flags. Placards read "LGBTQs for Education and Justice", "On Strike" and "Governor Rauner is the Wooorrst for Education"
LGBTQs on the Chicago teachers’ strike march, 1 April 2016

Speakers in Chicago were talking about the “rules of the game” being set by their oppressors. They asked the crowd whether we should play the game or change the game. They put clear arguments for breaking unjust laws, direct action and striking whether the state said it was legal or not. The march was called from the platform, after a (largely content free) speech from Jesse Jackson. The march went on to occupy part of downtown Chicago.

Solidarity comes when people can see an issue as important and affecting them, directly or indirectly, and when it is asked for. To ask for solidarity on this scale the teachers have aimed high – made clear they are fighting for better education, against class and race bias in provision, and for a better society.

All of this raises important questions for activists in Britain as they go into this vital fight for the future of teaching and of education. The traditional centralisation of bargaining in education has left weak organisation at school level, with many schools having no union reps. Feeling weak and under attack can lead to setting modest goals, but would high expectations actually make it easier to raise participation? British teacher strikes in recent years have seen a lot of activity – how can this be sustained and built on? If the NUT feels too constrained by the anti-union laws to make clear what the fight is really about, what organisations are required to do this anyway? How do Teachers for Social Justice and the Anti-Academies Alliance fit in? How can teachers win the trust of students, parents and the community that they won’t just settle for a deal on pay and conditions that leaves education trashed? This is the most important fight teachers have ever faced. How can they win the argument to do what it takes to win rather than being constrained by the Tories’ rules of the game, which are designed to prevent us winning? How do activists overcome the divisions within schools and organise “wall to wall” including all the teaching and non-teaching staff irrespective of their union?

Action: The Anti-Academies Alliance has called an event in London on Saturday 23rd April, now backed by the NUT and ATL teaching unions, under the banner “Parents Defending Education“.


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