Transform Labor, Transform the Left

Editorial, May 2016

CTU leader Jesse Sharkey: an example for labor & the left?

The Chicago Teachers Union, which waged a significant episode in recent labor history during the nine day 2012 strike, mounted another strike on April 1st. 27,000 teachers took to the picket lines and the streets, following an overwhelming authorization vote – enough to overcome Illinois’ highly undemocratic law mandating a 75% super-majority to authorize a public sector strike. As a common reference point on the American trade union left, the CTU is in a unique position as both a militant union with admirable roots in its community and as one of the few unions in the U.S. where the organized political left plays a significant role.

In immediate terms, the dispute between the union and CPS (Chicago Public Schools) is about increased pension contributions to be pulled from teachers’ paychecks (amounting to a significant pay cut), layoffs compensated by increased class sizes, and the desperate lack of funding in the public school system. For Democratic Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who has done so much to earn his “Mayor 1%” moniker, the solution is austerity.

In response the CTU is calling for raising corporate taxes at the municipal and state level. In sort: tax the rich. As uncontroversial as this may sound even to someone standing on the center left, it’s actually this slogan that the capitalist state has jumped on to argue that the strike is illegal. Unlike Latin America and Europe, “political strikes” – in other words, striking over broader political questions like spending priorities rather than bread-and-butter issues at the workplace – are outlawed in the United States. This, in addition to other pieces of anti-labor legislation in the state of Illinois, is being used by the Mayor’s administration and Republican Governor Bruce Reuner in an attempt to delegitimize the union’s struggle1 – or if necessary to provide a legal pretext for crushing the next strike with force, as the court system has done again and again over time.

The union argues that its grievances are legitimate grounds for action as an unfair labor practice; while the situation is somewhat legally ambiguous, an honest assessment would most likely rule in the union’s favor. But the state is not a neutral arbiter, and for communists and other working class partisans the main consideration isn’t legal quibbling but rather what is needed to win the fight. The ruling class’s courts serve the ruling class, but at the end of the day the law’s application reflects the balance of forces between classes. That the Chicago Teacher’s Union’s leadership was even willing to call a strike of questionable legality, and that it may do so again in the near future2, speaks to its militancy and high level of mobilization compared to most unions in the country.

CORE and the ISO

The Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), the left caucus that was voted in to lead the CTU in 2010, emerged during a tumultuous period in the CTU where leadership slates were repeatedly voted in as oppositional voices against the city’s neoliberal education agenda, only to be kicked out once they passed one concessionary contract after another and used top-down methods and dirty tricks to outmaneuver their own ranks. CORE, with chemistry teacher Karen Lewis at its helm, was elected to lead the union on the back of rank-and-file frustration with the CTU bureaucracy’s unwillingness to wage a serious fight against austerity and its own prominent advocacy for social movement unionism.

The International Socialist Organization, the biggest organization among the small and fractured U.S. far left, played a prominent role in forming the caucus and realizing its program in the CTU, and continues to do so today. Starting with only seven members in the school system, the ISO had an influence considerably beyond what its size would suggest in organizing teachers as active trade unionists both in practical know-how and political education3. CORE tasked itself with democratizing the union, breaking from the service model of business unionism and galvanizing education workers to take back control of their own organization. ISO members took initiative on the union’s hugely successful community organizing, winning over the active support of public school parents on the basis of defending public education for their children – breaking the establishment’s attempts to turn public opinion against the teachers during the strike.

But in the course of the strike itself, the ISO failed to pose a political alternative to ‘Mayor 1%’ and has in fact since then allowed its comrade Jesse Sharkey – who is now the CTU acting president in the wake of Karen Lewis’s struggle with cancer – to openly flout the ISO’s own policy by endorsing Democrat Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia during last year’s mayoral election. Not only has comrade Sharkey not been disciplined or refuted in any public way save for vague allusions made during the Garcia campaign, even internal discussion and criticism of his role is a taboo topic. Notably, the organization used its influence to help end the strike with a concessionary contract, selling it as something that “beat back corporate education reform” and is thus a “victory… not just for teachers and other public sector workers, but the wider labor movement.”4

This is a classic example of pissing on the working class’s boots and saying it’s raining. Socialist Worker correspondents writing on the strike’s results do everything in their power to minimize the effective pay cut, the health care premium increase, et cetera in the new contract while at the same time making favorable comparisons between 2012 and the Minneapolis general strike of 1934! At the root, this is not a question of who ‘sold out’ or ‘betrayed’ the Chicago teachers, though the ISO’s unwillingness to transcend bourgeois legality in the face of Rahm’s injunction and its failure to pose an alternative to the existing political machine surely left the teachers without an important weapon for decisively winning the strike. Nevertheless, communists accept that the proletariat will often need to make tactical retreats depending on the balance of forces in the moment. Even a hard-fought defeat is something we must at times accept in the course of the class struggle. But in all things, our movement lives and breathes on political honesty – the working class needs to know the unvarnished truth in order to assess its own strength and make its own decisions.

This peacock-style act, exaggerating one’s deeds out of all proportion, is unfortunately the defining feature of the sect mode of organization. The use of this term is no swipe at the International Socialist Organization in particular: it is the mode of existence for the left today wherever you look. Instead of parties, organizing a substantial layer of the working class and where different trends among the class can air differences in the open while preserving unity in action, we have confessional sects where hyper-activism and heavy-handed bureaucratism are used to justify the sect’s separate existence from the others.

In any strike where the political left plays a meaningful role in its outcome, there will be uncertainty in determining the best way forward. And any time socialists have positions of influence within a trade union (or a legislative body, for that matter), there is a risk that the comrade could adapt himself or herself to the existing political establishment and in the process leave their revolutionism at the door.  But the strength of our movement depends on calling things what they are, not dressing them up in official optimism; open airing of views, not diplomatic silence; and where necessary holding our leaders to account for their mistakes – up to and including recall.

As the possibility of another strike lies on the horizon, we would do well to remember that the left cannot effectively campaign for a democratic renewal of the labor movement until it transforms itself.



  3. Preconvention Bulletin #6, February 2013