Communication Currents

The Chicago Teachers Union’s Labor Jujitsu

October 1, 2015
Political Communication

Teachers in the United States hear mixed messages about their profession from political leaders. On one hand, school reformers push a model of economic competition on teachers, arguing for policies such as merit pay and charter schools that pit educators against one another. On the other hand, the same reformers talk about teachers as public servants who are supposed to sacrifice for the good of society. This tension makes it difficult for educators to make arguments for benefits, working conditions, and autonomy. When they demand fair compensation, reformers chastise them for not being in the profession “for the right reasons.”

In my 2015 article in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, I argue that the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) skillfully navigated this tension before and during its 2012 strike. In 2010, members of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) gained control of the CTU, adopting a model of “Social Movement Unionism” to replace their predecessors’ unresponsive leadership. The revamped CTU distributed organizing responsibilities to leaders at school sites across the city. This change in structure allowed the union to be more nimble in avoiding the traps laid by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the leadership of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). With their newfound flexibility, the union practiced a form of labor jujitsu. 

What is “Labor Jujitsu”?

As a martial art, jujitsu involves turning the weight of larger or better-armed opponents against them. The CTU’s labor jujitsu mixed together two types of protest strategy to expose the contradictions in its opponents’ arguments. In the first strategy, workers take advantage of their clout as producers, just as when a union of factory workers goes on strike to halt an assembly line. In the second strategy, workers respond to employers who try to reduce their work to a rote, meaningless, measurable process. Stressing the symbolic aspects of their labor, this strategy strives to build a broader community around the value of a profession.

For teachers, neither of these strategies works by itself. Teachers do not build commercial products; they teach children. When they go on strike for better pay, they are accused of hurting those children. But when teachers argue their work has a deep importance for children and democracy, they reinforce the idea that the work should be “its own reward.” Just as the talented jujitsu fighter constantly adjusts in response to opponents’ movements, activists practicing labor jujitsu nimbly shift their weight to avoid getting stuck in reformers’ contradictions.

Challenging Reformers’ Contradictions

In 2010, Illinois enacted the Performance Evaluation Review Act (PERA). This legislation damaged teachers’ professional rights by tightening tenure requirements, lengthening the school day, and implementing stringent evaluations. By taking away job security and benefits, these reforms asked teachers to find value not in their paychecks, but in the work itself. The same reforms, however, eliminated the creative aspects of teachers’ work that make it meaningful.

Through labor jujitsu, the CTU’s 2012 strike called out this double standard in reformers’ expectations.Galvanized by a CPS proposal to slash teachers’ raises while extending annual teaching hours by 20 percent, the union members employed the traditional strategy of withholding their labor to place pressure on their bosses. With the historically high support of more than 90 percent of members, the CTU refused to work until a fair contract could be reached. To justify this decision, they pointed out the unfairness of their pay compared with their hours worked. As one CTU newsletter editorial asserted, the teachers put in almost as many unpaid hours outside the classroom as they spent in it.

But teachers knew too well these traditional approaches could quickly backfire. They needed parents’ support for their strike, and parents believe in teachers because of their transformative potential, not their hours. To defend the meaning of their profession, CTU members also confronted the district’s stifling teacher evaluation program. They attacked standardized testing by pointing to the countless factors that shape the educational process beyond what tests can capture. They described the hunger, poverty, and violence students faced—along with the care, passion, and empathy educators poured into their work. To strengthen the community’s support for the profession, teachers also tapped into Americans’ idealism about education. As CTU President Karen Lewis proclaimed to a rally of 4,000 CTU members, “We believe in a world with education for every child, regardless of their ZIP code.”

As nimble martial artists, the teachers recognized how these arguments could be turned against them. The more they valorized their profession, the more ammunition they gave CPS reformers to argue that the work should be intrinsically meaningful, or they were being selfish or playing children “as pawns” by being on strike. And so, it was essential that teachers tacked back and forth between these two approaches.

Building an Attitude

Just as jujitsu blends offense and defense into a seamless movement, the constant motion of labor jujitsu blurs into a unified theme. Set free by the flexible structure of Social Movement Unionism, the CTU activists could advance a variety of arguments in locations dispersed throughout Chicago. Some marched into communities to knock on doors and strengthen relationships with black and Latino/a parents. Some marched into Hyde Park to protest the undue influence of Hyatt Hotels in redirecting educational funds. Some teachers critiqued the system of “educational apartheid” that reproduced vast inequalities between white and minority students in the city. Others shared stories of how, despite this system, they still believed education could help students dream beyond their structural limitations.

On paper, these arguments sound contradictory. But during the strike, the constant movement between these positions created a unified attitude against educational injustice. Like the stanzas of a poem or the swirls of a dance, these approaches came together in a way that cohered—at least for nine days one September.

About the author (s)

Michael J. Steudeman

University of Memphis

Michael J. Steudeman (Ph.D., University of Maryland) is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Memphis. His teaching and research focus on the rhetoric of education and political identity.

Michael J. Steudeman