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Commentary: Chicago Teachers Union leaders to tell their story in Philadelphia

  • ctu strike
    Photo: Flickr/Shutter Stutter




by Ron Whitehorne

The recently concluded Chicago teachers' strike has had an impact far beyond the Windy City. There are lessons to be learned that have broad relevance for teachers and all those concerned about public education here in Philadelphia, where the education crisis is similar but even more extreme than the circumstances in Chicago. 

What were some of those lessons?

  • The strike contributed to shifting the education reform conversation from a narrow focus on teacher accountability, as measured by standardized tests, to a broader discussion about poverty, institutional racism, and investing resources in urban schools.  

  • The strike challenged the notion that closing neighborhood schools in favor of opening more charters will lead to improved educational outcomes.

  • The CTU, in its messaging, dramatized the differences between the under-resourced, bare-bones instruction offered to inner-city children and the education received by affluent Chicagoans. The union characterized this system as educational apartheid.

  • By defining the central issue as the defense of public education and supporting the demands of parents, the union won an unprecedented degree of public support and demonstrated the power of a labor-community alliance.

  • The strike and the internal organizing that preceded it show that union democracy and the engagement of the rank-and-file membership can renew the power of the union. Strikes can be won, even in this hostile political environment.

Although the struggle in Chicago is inspiring, it is also instructive. The transformation of the CTU did not happen overnight. It required time, hard work, and creative tactics. The Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), which captured the leadership in 2010, is a seasoned, battle-tested group of union activists. They gained power by developing a vision of social-justice unionism, challenging the existing union leadership, and, when rebuffed, taking independent steps to implement that vision.

On Saturday, Nov. 17, three leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union will share their story and their experience in building a fighting union and a movement to defend public education. They are:

  • Michael Brunson, who as recording secretary is one of the four top elected leaders of the CTU. Brunson, an elementary teacher who has strong roots in the faith-based community, was a leader in South Side United and GEM (Grassroots Education Movement), two community organizations that have played an important role in the city.

  • Debby Pope, a recently retired high school teacher, a strike organizer, a member of the CTU House of Delegates, and a longtime labor activist.

  • Rolando Vasquez, an active teacher, a member of the House of Delegates and strike captain for his school. He will talk about the organizing work that went on at the school level to build the union into an effective strike force.

The event is sponsored by the Labor Work Group, a network of labor activists that grew out of Occupy Philly, and the Teacher Action Group (TAG) a group of social-justice-minded teachers in Philadelphia schools. Both groups believe the CTU experience can provide inspiration and direction for teachers here. They hope that the event will spur more organizing and engagement with the union, both among PFT members and unorganized charter school teachers.

From Chicago to Philly: The Fight for Public Education!
Nov. 17, 1 p.m.
Science Leadership Academy
55 N 22nd St.

For more information email or visit

The opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the author. 

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