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What I learned about successful organizing from Chicago teachers' strike leaders

By the Notebook on Nov 29, 2012 11:44 AM
Photo: Flickr/Shutter Stutter

by Beth Pulcinella

On Nov. 17, three leaders from the Chicago Teachers' Union came to Philadelphia to share stories and strategies from their work as educational advocates and activists. The event, From Chicago to Philadelphia, revealed to me how the movement to challenge privatization and promote educational justice in Philadelphia has matured and honed its political savvy.

The Teacher Action Group - whose Philadelphia chapter organized the event with Occupy Philly Labor Working Group - has continually drawn links between local school issues and the national landscape. But this event gave participants the chance to maintain that wide-angle focus while also getting the nit and grit from teachers' union members who were on the front lines of the strike.

I have been following the situation in Chicago with keen interest for a couple of years now, since members of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) won enough union elections to gain control of the Chicago Teachers' Union. But how was the union able to organize such a massive and publicly supported strike? From my vantage point, CORE has been successful for a few reasons.

  • The group’s methodology and ideology is rooted in grassroots organizing, where personal relationships and dialogue are prioritized.
  • Members of CORE have not been afraid to discuss the ways that race and racism have created an educational apartheid in this country, a place where the term achievement gap is code for the gap between white students and students of color.
  • CORE worked to alter the image of the teachers' union as an entity concerned only with teacher benefits and contracts.
  • The group was able to articulate a new vision for the union as an organizing body that, in addition to protecting teachers, would simultaneously stand and fight for schools and students.

The CORE members linked the drive toward privatizing public education with the reality that all things public are under attack. The struggle for public education is the struggle for the right to public things, for the right of all workers to be paid a living wage and to be guaranteed a decent retirement.

These ideas about breaking down walls and looking at root causes did not emerge after they had a majority in Chicago union leadership; these ideals had been part of their teaching and organizing. CORE built a valuable infrastructure from these ideals. They hired a team of organizers who worked with teachers at each school to develop phone trees and strategies for listening to and supporting colleagues to take risks and bravely join the strike. CORE invested in its communications structure with a website that was regularly updated and people who would answer phone calls and emails.

It was interesting to hear the panelists’ variety of experiences. I imagined what a strike of that magnitude looks like and wondered what kind of logistical structure is needed to be successful. One panelist, Rolando Vazquez, a union delegate and strike captain at his school, said that he would, each day, do the following: bring coffee and doughnuts, check in with everyone, distribute flyers throughout the neighborhood, and take time to talk with parents and students. Every afternoon, Vazquez would travel downtown with teachers from his school to join the huge rallies. The strike, he said, was an empowering experience for him and his colleagues that no one will ever be able to take away from them.

Debby Pope, a retired teacher and union delegate, described how she had traveled to 10 or 12 different schools, monitoring the strikes there, checking in with teachers. She described four scenes from four different schools the first morning she made her rounds. Teachers at each school, she said, organized their strike in a way that reflected who they were, what made sense for each particular school, from a family picnic to a drum-corps drill-off. It was important to CORE that each school owned their strike.

The third panelist was Michael Brunson, the union’s recording secretary. Brunson was on the bargaining committee and spent the strike in negotiations with the city. As an example of CORE’s commitment to collaboration, he shared how the bargaining committee brought into negotiations a 45-member bargaining team, composed of teachers and school employees from various facets of the school community. Brunson told us that the city didn’t like having to deal with a large bargaining team, but that they were committed to being as transparent and collaborative as possible.

Thinking about how CORE was able to incorporate their ideals into practice, I appreciated how the Teacher Action Group had thoughtfully structured the event. Recognizing that there was much to learn from the panelists, the group was intentional and transparent about the ways they wanted the conversation to stay focused so that we could glean as much as possible from the panelists. There was a moderator who asked key questions. To ensure the audience had a chance to ask their questions, TAG members circulated the room with index cards. Questions were collected and shared with the panel as they accumulated. If you wrote your name on your card, you were invited to ask your questions; if you remained anonymous, a TAG member read your question for you.

After the event, I left feeling like a ball of fiery optimism: Change is possible! Even when your enemy is powerful and rich. Even when it feels like your school is infected with an unrelenting apathy. Even when injustice screams from all sides, change is possible and it is us.

Public schools are under attack! What do we do? Stand up! Fight back!

Beth Pulcinella is a teaching artist and activist now working at the Attic Youth
Center. She can be reached at

The opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the author. The Notebook invites readers to submit guest posts on current topics in education. Send submissions to

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Comments (23)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 29, 2012 1:18 pm
All of the Phila. School District unions, including the CASA,PFT, School Police Union, SEIU 32 BJ,,should have been doing this for the last several years in unity . Regarding the PFT they currently are in no position to create that type of atmosphere they did in Chicago and have enough guts to stand up against the bullies at 440, SRC,politicians, and the rich business trying to privatize or create a charter with Phila schools. Currently, the PFT does not illustrate strong leadership, treat their members with respect they deserve , defend them like they are on their side often, nor execute grievances or arbtitration,.Most officals have been at the main office of the PFT way too long and forget what it is actually like to be in a school / classroom environment nowadays. If you recently contacted the PFT office you will see the often lousy,non-helpful, disengaged service,take -it -or- leave -it atttitude they render to their members.In my opinion ,they would never make it in the real business world like that. The District has been walking all over them for years bit by bit and many of it's leaders watched in awe, instead of fighting fire with fire and taking them to court, and using strategies that actually work like Chicago did. Their tactics of wearing a red "T" shirt means anything to the District .Or the lame rallies they hold and you hardly see any union leadership there for direction.More importantly, I do not get how the leadership is not voted in by it's members. No wonder they don't try as hard since apparently they have a job for as long as they want as our members get laid off, transferred, etc. I see the writing on the wall and the District will get most of it's demands come next contract time ,2013.I am willing to do what I have to do, and have done that, however, the leadership should come from the officers at the PFT ,since that is what their job actually is.If that is done ,eventually it will trickle down to it's members. The PFT officers ought to tell us what techniques they have in mind now so we can stand behind them to deal with upcoming contract issues,school closings, budget concerns, and other matters before us.A lot of PFT members are apathetic about the leadership and it's lack of direction so don't know how ,at this point, you can get them behind you to strike or do what we have to save the students, parents, teachers, staff from the demise that the District wants and looks like it will get unless we fight back NOW.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on November 29, 2012 3:13 pm
Yes, it is hard to have faith in the face of apathy/incompetence or a mixture of both. For sure though, doing nothing can't be helpful and that's been the course, the PFT has taken for the very most part. Jerry Jordan is a nice man but not a strong union leader, at least not compared with the advocates in Chicago. Either that or he has another agenda like Randi Weingarten.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 29, 2012 3:00 pm
Chicago's union is led by rank and file. Jerry Jordan has been out of the classroom for nearly 30 years. (He had a very short stint in the classroom.) Most of the staffers of the PFT have been out of the classroom for decades. Chicago's leadership is powerful because they are not there to dine with the powers that be. When is the last time Jerry Jordan wrote a week's worth of lesson plans?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 29, 2012 1:36 pm
I've been screaming the same thing for 3 years. Bottom line is Chicago has a Teacher's Union, we do not.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on November 29, 2012 4:12 pm
Yes, I agree but what can we do about it before it's too late? I know the PFT is marginally involved with various advocate groups but it's too little too late, especially too little. There's no sense of urgency and hasn't been for a long time. I contend that The PFT is in collusion with "reformers." The influx of unregulated charters is corruption 101 yet it continues unabated. Stop into Daroff for 10 seconds. Funnier yet, stop into one of the Mastery Schools and you'll think Obama's in the building, no information, no access to anything, anywhere. Is that transparency?
Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on November 29, 2012 5:39 pm

On December 13th the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating For Public Schools (PCAPS) will be releasing an alternative plan to that of the SRC and the Boston Consulting Group.   We will be mobilizing students, parents, educators and the broader community to fight for this plan which is the result of a months long process of engagement with community stakeholders.   The PFT leadersip has played a strong role in this process, evidence that they also have learned lessons about how to fight back in the present toxic environment.   This seems to have gone unnoticed by some.

In the coming year the survival of public education and teacher unionism in our city are both on the table.   As I've argued on this blog beating back this attack  will take a shift in attitude and habits on the part of both leadership and rank and file.    We need a united union capable of mobilizing its ranks and building alliances with the community.   Let's push for this in a constructive way.    

One thing that struck me about the Chicago leaders was their humility.  They didn't ride into townt as super heroes who had all the answers.   They were down to earth, talked honestly about the difficult process of rebuilding their union and inspired by example.   And, incidentally, they also wore red on Fridays.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 29, 2012 5:44 pm
Will it include a realistic plan to balance the books? I doubt it!! It will probably assume that money will fall from the sky. Ron, I bet you pay your bills every month.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on November 29, 2012 8:54 pm
The books won't be balanced as long as cretins like Corbett are allowed to cut Philly Ed. 28 times more than Lower Merion Ed. This isn't about balancing the books, it is about balancing the playing field for all the kids, not just some of them. The real fight needs to be waged against the unjust system that segregates the kids, marginalizing the poor. Ron--just so you know, I am a Union Rep and I didn't know about the Dec. 13th Meeting until you just mentioned it. That's a microcosm of my angst about the PFT.
Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on November 30, 2012 8:12 am

I do pay my bills and understand the District must do so as well.   The plan includes a discussion of funding and a call for District leadership to fight for full and fair funding in Harrisburg.   Taking on more debt is not the answer but neither is meekly submitting to the dictates of those who say we can't afford more for our schools.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 29, 2012 8:18 pm
The Chicago leaders (CORE) went against, and replaced, their entrenched, do-nothing leadership to establish a genuine trade union leadership that would fight for the union.
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on November 29, 2012 10:27 pm
Hi Ron, What time will this take place, and where? Is it open to anyone? I've been to a couple of the PCAPS-sponsored events with a fellow teacher, and I would love to attend the unveiling of their plan. Hopefully it will take place after school hours. Thanks.
Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on November 30, 2012 8:27 am

Tenatively planned for 4:30pm at SD HQ at 440.   Please come and bring your friends. More details will be forthcoming.   PCAPS is also gearing up to fight the school closings and there should be another large meeting following the announcement of the closing list.   Stay tuned.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 30, 2012 8:32 am
Why tentative? Every minute matters for mobilizing folks to attend. Every stakeholder should know about this today. Please clarify. Will every building rep be advised and expected to produce full cooperation in this moment Ron? Will Jerry Jordan stand up and communicate this to the building reps? If the press will be there, the people of Philadelphia should be there. The numbers of folks that show up, and the diversity of the crowd will answer the question if PCAPS has been successful. I am not being cynical and negative here. I wish the coalition lots of luck and I will do my part to get grassroots folks to attend.
Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on November 30, 2012 9:45 am

Any organization and particularly a coaltion has to plan, dicuss and finalize based on range of considerations, that's why I say tentative,  There certainly will be a mass mobilization and all the member organizations are being asked to pull out numbers for it.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 1, 2012 9:13 am
Ron: Some of us work second jobs and need to know a week or two in advance to be able to arrange work schedules. Please get it out there as soon as possible when the PCAPS alternative plan rally-roll out will be! It's already 12/1/2012!!
Submitted by 4'-DMAR|Serotoni|2-FMC|3-FMC|3-MMC|4-FA|4-MEC Crystals|5- (not verified) on September 1, 2013 12:28 pm
I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you make this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it for you? Plz reply as I'm looking to create my own blog and would like to know where u got this from. cheers
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 1, 2012 8:16 am
During the Obama reelection campaign, they fired up their rank and file on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. If I were head of the PFT, I would be sending emails and texts at least weekly, reminding members of what exactly the school district is looking for us to give. Paying for benefits on top of ending the step increases on top of a potential 5 year pay freeze is a lot to concede. PFT needs to step up its efforts to inform members of what could be at stake. One meeting won't cut it.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 10, 2012 5:01 pm
The PFT DOES send out texts and emails, all you need to do is provide with your email address and number for the texts, as well the PFT website, the PFT Facebook page, chapter meetings in the buildings with your Building Rep and Building Committee, Membership with the leadership etc. Sorry, folks, this "B" and "M" is old and tired. Don't blame the leadership because members are not willing to make an effort
Submitted by Bonnee (not verified) on December 4, 2012 7:09 pm
I always read this news; my first time posting. I'd like to chime in on this conversation. A Union is made up of and is the voice of its members. Members who decide to be on the front lines or not during good and bad times for its rank and file workers. Union leadership stands for me, the member. Next, all the bulleted items from Bulcinella's article that were approached in Chicago have already commenced or are being put into place by PFT leaders and various other grass-root organizations in the City of Philadelphia, along with our local AFT team because everyone involved knows this fight will take more than just the leadership of PFT to win. Save Our Schools! PCAPS organizers held its first structural/organizational meeting at the PFT office with Jerry Jordan, as a gracious host, taking a back seat to the efforts that were put into place. Stakeholders from diverse realms of education came to place their stake at the table toward having our City's public schools saved. Educator unions are actually not teacher-focused, they are student focused in order to help increase the success of the children educators serve. I believe many get confused about that delicate role played for this type of professional organization. While on the other hand, its members -- what have you done to lift your colleagues up? I am assured when I show up or not at school each day,that my concerns for good teaching and learning are being met through my Union leaders, because I am reaching, lifting, sharing my thoughts concerns and questions with them. How? PFT, the organization & Jerry Jordan, our President has Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and most recently text messaging has been added to the communication network giving members or whoever wants to be a part of the conversation an opportunity. I also want to add, all of us need be on the same playing field when it comes to saving our schools - Philadelphia Public Schools.I do not believe the TAG event was slated to bust up efforts that are already in motion. There is power in numbers -- Philadelphia Public School Teachers are still the powerful force this City has ever had to contend with when it comes to stabilization for children and change for me, the member. Needless to say, I am a graduate of Philly Public Schools and am a successful adult, working, teaching, sharing, collaborating hard to get my students to be believers in their own future, their own success. Philly Public School Teachers, we are the ones we've been waiting for - to speak on behalf of all the families we serve. Our children deserve more, therefore making our workplaces better. So while I'm teaching, PFT Leaders, please represent for me and my students! Are we ready to stop waiting?
Submitted by psychotherapy degree (not verified) on September 2, 2013 3:38 am
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Submitted by Gayle Robinson (not verified) on December 5, 2012 11:57 pm
We can say what has not been done, but here we are..We are the union and if you don't like how things are going ,"then take the bull by the horns and make your move"...State your vision and how you will apply it.
Submitted by (not verified) on September 1, 2013 11:40 pm
This is a topic that's near to my heart... Best wishes! Where are your contact details though?
Submitted by Karen Lewis (not verified) on December 10, 2012 2:39 pm
I would like to add some clarification. While the leadership of the CTU is in fact CORE, the success of the strike was due to all CTU caucuses coming together (5 different 150 member caucuses ran in the 2010 election).

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