Reflections on the Anniversary of the Chicago Teachers Strike

I was outside the Chicago Teachers Union offices that Sunday night, Sept. 9, 2012 -- camera in hand -- as CTU President Karen Lewis declared to the media,

"Negotiations have been intense but productive, however we have failed to reach an agreement that will prevent a labor strike," Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said at a dramatic 10 p.m. Sunday press conference. "Real school will not be open [Monday]. ... No CTU member will be inside our schools."

The CTU officers, flanked by teachers, paraprofessionals, and clinicians, declared the first strike for Chicago schools in 25 years. It was a somber moment. School workers were hoping to resolve the differences and bring back some student-centered wins that night. The only option at that point, without giving in to an administration that seemed determined to make even deeper cuts to the services offered to students, was a work stoppage.

Beard School teachers bring a strike vote ballot to a sick friend in the hospital who did not want to miss the vote.

That moment came after months of meetings and organizing conversations between school workers about a vision for better schools and how that could be achieved through collective strength. Teachers for the first time were discussing class size, air conditioning, and books on the first day as political issues that they could organize to win.

Ray School teachers reach out to parents, explaining the details of contract negotiations.

CTU members showed their strength through rallies, protests, and a 90 percent vote to authorize CTU leadership to declare a strike if negotiations failed. CTU members prepared for this moment emotionally, physically, and financially.

Famous protest signs from CTU rank-and-file members showing that "we're not going to take it!"

The strike lasted seven days. Seven days of marching. Seven days of organizing parents. Seven days of laughter. Seven days of tears.

As CTU's online organizer, I was receiving Facebook and Twitter messages from members throughout the city asking me when I thought they would be back in the classroom with their students. It was a draining -- yet rewarding -- experience for all.

CPS Parent and Huffington Post contributor Matt Farmer shows his support for CTU members at a 4,000 member rally in May 2012.

None of this would have been possible without school workers talking to each other and talking to the communities we serve. The public was on our side.

Chicago's community speaks out for Chicago school workers in this video.

The strike came just two years after CTU elected new leadership, a slate that ran on a platform of organizing school workers and reaching out to parents and students to build real power to fix Chicago Public Schools. The landslide victory in June of 2010 was a mandate.

The new administration essentially "gave back" the Union to its members. Although right-wing pundits tried to separate union leadership from the rank-and-file, it was clear that members felt the need to go on strike and the leadership followed. This was evident when the tentative agreement between the Board and the CTU was sent to members for a vote and the members voted to stay out on strike a bit longer to review the contents of the deal. The members liked what they saw and overwhelmingly voted to ratify an agreement that had real wins for students and members. The school year continued and students made up the few days they lost during the strike.

In the age of the 24-hour news cycle and social media, this may have been the best-documented strike in history.

Some of the artifacts are available on display at the URI-EICHEN Gallery in Pilsen (2101 S. Halsted St., Chicago, IL). The opening for the show Chicago Teachers Union: Rank and File CTU member photos, art, strike posters, member testimonials. is Friday, September 13th at 6:00 PM. Click here for more details.