Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Earl Silbar on CTU and the limits of progressive unionism

by Jack Gerson

Long-time Chicago area militant Earl Silbar has written a thoughtful and provocative analysis of the Chicago Teacher Union  titled "The limits of progressive unionism: the politics of the Chicago Teachers Union's April 1, 2016 strike." I urge folks to check it out here:

As you'll see, Earl's article ranges far beyond that one-day strike to shine a light on the overall strengths and weaknesses of CTU.  Earl puts events in the broader context of labor struggles of recent years, especially the mass outpouring in Wisconsin five years ago. I think that the article is overall very well done. I do think that some points need clarification and further elaboration, and I passed along recommendations for these to Earl. He agreed with them and urged me to post them to this blog. Here they are:

Overall, the article is very well done and very illuminating. However, I do have some comments that I think could make it even stronger: 
First, I thought that the article -- particularly the first part -- is open to the interpretation that you're counterposing fighting for contractual economic demands with campaigning against the banks and billionaires. I think that both need to be raised: especially when combined with campaigning against school closures and to reopen closed schools (I agree with your criticism of CTU's failure to act effectively around the closed schools) and especially when aggressively seeking to build a united front with other public employees and with community. We need to do this to counter the pitting of one sector of the working class against another. And campaigning against the banks resonates -- it did for Occupy, and it does for Sanders.
Second, I thought that your initial references to "general strike" didn't emphasize that groundwork has to be laid before a real general strike can be carried out. Later in the article, you do a very good job of describing the kind of outreach, education and action needed to build broad working class support both at the workplace and in the community. Maybe some of that can be moved up earlier in the article to strengthen the initial references to "general strike".
Third, while I agree completely with your indictment of the labor bureaucrats for their role in actively collaborating with the Democrats and management to discourage and / or restrain struggle, I think it would be helpful to stress that this isn't simply a "crisis of leadership" that would be resolved if only the working class had better leaders. Why is the current leadership entrenched; why don't the rank and file throw them out? Why do so many reform caucuses and insurgent leaders degenerate into bureaucrats themselves after taking power? Maybe a brief discussion of the kind of process and struggle needed for workers to have the confidence to take matters into their own hands, to build the kind of institutions out of which will emerge the thousands of militant leaders needed to take on capital.

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