Chicago: The Great Teachers’ Strike

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“First class songs and satire rooted in the experiences of ordinary people. They make us laugh, they make us cry, they make us angry, they make us think.“  Paul Mackney, former Joint General Secretary, UCU


Chicago: The Great Teachers’ Strike

As battle lines are drawn across the United States between the corporate elite and the mass of the population, the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) and their community allies joined together to fight for public sector education. Their demand was for an education that teaches children to think, create and challenge and not provide zombie labour for the profit machine.


Chicago tells the story of the 2012 CTU’s strike and explores their successful organising agenda that empowered their members and mobilised parents, students and the wider community. That agenda produced a strike vote of 98% on a 90% turnout, 9 days of mass pickets, creative sit-ins and demonstrations covering 840 schools across the city, and hundreds of thousands of vocal and active supporters. As a result, the CTU and their allies managed to stall the corporate onslaught and develop a fighting agenda demonstrating that another education system is possible.


Weaving together music, song and inspirational video footage and interviews, Chicago provides compelling lessons for both educational and broader public sector resistance here in the UK.


Produced with financial support from the NUT.


Background to Chicago: The Great Teachers’ Strike


“The GERM is the Global Education Reform Movement. It’s defined around competition between schools. It’s defined around privatisation and marketisation of education. It’s also defined around standardisation.”  Jon Hegerty, NUT Official


In spring 2014 we produced and toured Lies, Damn Lies and Academies, a 40-minute show which critiqued the neo-liberal education agenda of the then coalition government through the story of the brilliant campaign fought by parents and teachers against the imposition of academy status on Downhills Primary School in Haringey. The show was funded by the NUT and Banner (who contributed a significant amount of voluntary labour to the production). Later in the year we added another short section on the attacks on the pay and conditions of teachers working in Academy chains. The show was performed at NUT young teachers’ training courses and other community and trade union venues for the rest of the year.


In November 2014 the NUT funded Banner to visit Chicago to collect stories from the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) and their allies, and document their resistance to the neo-liberal education agenda following their very successful strike in 2012. Despite not having raised the total research, development and production costs for the project, we jumped at the opportunity to produce a show on the basis that, as with most things ‘neo-liberal’, what happens in the US today is often a harbinger of what will happen in the UK tomorrow.


In December 2014 we sent a team to Chicago and conducted over 20 interviews with teachers, union activists, education academics, parents, community activists and students. The interviews were powerful and inspiring with, we feel, many lessons for our own struggles in the UK. The main themes that emerged were:

  • The CTU is facing a neo-liberal attack on state-funded primary and secondary education that is more advanced than in the UK at present, with rapid moves towards a privatised education system, concerted attacks on trade unions, and the elimination of any pretence that education is and should be democratically controlled.
  • In response to this attack, the CTU has developed the capacity to organise effective resistance, with a firm commitment to building, in part, an alternative narrative for an education system based on ‘students’ needs, not private greed’.
  • The CTU’s success in also building strong links between the union, parents and community groups.
  • The CTU’s success in additionally building an effective and democratic organising model.


What we found most inspirational was the immensely successful bottom-up, grassroots organising strategy that the union utilised in its structures and processes. This empowered its individual members to become the prime organisers, with the union full-timers taking a supporting role. Equally impressive was their remarkable success in building a grassroots community organising coalition, committed to fighting for an education system that challenges racism and sexism, and seeking to teach children to think, create and challenge (and not provide human ‘capital’ for big business to exploit).


‘What do you see when you see a baby? What do you see? Do you see a future inmate? Do you see somebody that can be the next Daniel Hill Williams?  To me education is not about what you put in, it’s about what you unlock. The best teachers understand that. What if that child is an artist? There are dozens of schools where there’s no art. What if that child is an orator and they have the gift to communicate, but there’s no debate team. There’s no speech, there’s no creative writing, because it’s all about drilling kids.’


The 70-minute multimedia show will enable us to further develop our critique of neo-liberal education policies and provide concrete examples of how unions, students, parents and the wider community in the UK can fight against these policies.


The Show

The story of the strike is seen through the eyes of teachers, parents and local community members at the Social Justice High School (SoJo) in Little Village, Chicago. SoJo was established in 2001 when parents went on hunger strike demanding a decent school in their area that reflected the needs of the local community.


Why? Why, in a time when we are literally building stadiums downtown Chicago with taxpayer money, do people still have to starve to get a basic school for their children?’


The campaign was successful and SoJo was built after community members canvassed the opinions and views of local residents as to the kind of school they wanted their children to attend.


‘That’s what an ideal school system will look like, where you actually have a school system where parents, teachers and students have a say in the curriculum and the direction of that building, of that school.’

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