Politics, Policy and Organising in the Windy City: Lessons from 2015 Chicago for Irish Trade Unionism

Two important events happened in Chicago in February 2015, which hold lessons for the Irish trade union movement. Firstly, a major report was released by the Chicago Teachers Union, the highly politicised and organised 2012 strike winners and enemies of the Chicago establishment. It was entitled A Just Chicago: Fighting for the City Our Students Deserve (full report available at http://www.ctunet.com/quest-center/research/position-papers/a-just-chicago ). It proposed wide ranging solutions to a crisis in city education, which went far beyond base union issues such as pay and conditions. Situating school as the heart of communities, it also proposed substantive solutions to a range of community problems like housing, justice, employment and health.

In the same month, and more significantly in many ways, alderman (equivalent of council with less power) and the mayoral elections took place. Chicago driven by big business ‘machine’ politics was severely challenged for the first time in 30 years by the victories of a range of outsider and left candidates in various wards across the city and the forcing of Major Rahm Emmanuel into a run off with the Chicago Teachers Union backed candidate Jesus ‘Chey’ Garcia.

For the city the victory of the Chicago Teachers Union in the 2012 Teachers Strike and their challenge in terms of policy platform and elections in 2015 is based on core underlying principles and practices which hold huge transformative potential for trade unionism, workers and society more generally.

Firstly, the Chicago Teachers Union puts considerable time and resources into effective research. This takes a number of important forms. Research is geared towards tangible existing needs and longer term visions for education. This provides a counter narrative as well as readily translating into election platforms. More important than that though, is that research in the Chicago Teachers Union facilitates organising, and in particular a breaking down of the division between union and community through the merging of ‘union’ issues and ‘community’ issues. Consequently, more broadly building support for left-wing and grassroots activism.

Secondly, the Chicago Teachers Union research does not occur in isolation. It is part of a wider organising prospective, which emphasises high participation and confrontation backed by democratised union structures. Following insurrectionist election victory from the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), in 2012 and built on over a decade of grassroots education campaigning, the CTU embarked on a major campaign of industrial action and won. A 9 day strike was famously extended by a day to give the entire membership time to read and thus reached an informed decision on proposals to end the strike action. High participation in bargaining, as opposed to closed teams, expanded school by school councils and reduced emphasis on full time staffers, changed the dynamics of the teachers union.

Research itself was seen not as an elite media narrative alone but an integral tool in organising within the union. Breaking down the division between community and union was also seen not as a loose alliance of representative bodies but a recognition that union members themselves are members of a community, which needed to be built with the union.

Research breaking down the divide between the union and community perspective, organising emphasising high participation and deep democracy merge in political terms in the form of emphasis on challenging politics from the left but also from below. It becomes, in a city dominated by big business influence over politics and a centre of capitals onslaught, a new way of doing politics as well as a different vision. The fact that a relatively unknown Mayor candidate out resourced 16-1 can push the former White House Chief of Staff to a run off shows the political strength of such a vision. The run off will lead to a second round of voting in April, with a major win for the left possible.

For Ireland, the first message, in particular for teachers unions, is that members want solutions to the problems of their profession and communities as a whole and not just the bread and butter of pay and conditions. This may be particularly relevant for jobs defined by their ‘social benefit’. They also want to deal with a range of issues as a member of a community, from housing to healthcare. Secondly this breaking down of the barrier between community and union, or whole worker organising, as referred to by Jane McAlevey is backed by and driven by the membership themselves. There is nothing new in seeing a union member as a worker, a person with a whole range of class interests who’s life does not end at the end of a shift. But this has been lost in recent decades as the servicing of immediate workplace issues through professional staff has taken over.

Research can support members and communities to fight. Organisers do the same. For a left of the trade union movement increasingly breaking from the Labour Party, years of partnership and conservative policy, these lessons in terms of organising, engagement with communities and electoral ambitions seem all the more apt. And important for the ASTI and TUI as they tackle the issue of Junior Certificate reform and as early childcare educators seek to organise.