The Chicago Teachers Union and the Global Fight for Public Education

Rahm Emmauel. Yes, he is as evil as he looks. – Image from Front Page Mag

Last week, my friend Kyle and I chose to drive to Chicago for the one-day, “illegal” Chicago Teacher Union (CTU) strike on Friday, April 1. Although the absurdity of spending 15 hours in a car each way (yes, 30 hours!) with only one other driver and just over a day in the city was alluring (think of all the hilarious stories we would have!), the central reason Kyle and I chose to go to Chicago was for the magnitude of the strike.

The 25,000 member CTU has been at the forefront of the fight for public education since 2012, when the union participated in a 10 day strike for public schools. The teachers’ struggles come in response to neoliberal education agenda reforms driven by Chicago’s Democratic Mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, and Governor Bruce Rauner, in collusion with private enterprises and the banks.  The policies pushed forward by the two, and which I recognize as “neoliberal,” include privatization, commodification, and competition in public education. In other words, neoliberal reforms in the city attempt to bring the mass enterprise of public (i.e., publicly owned and managed) education into the market system. I’ll outline the policies below.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is currently in the midst of a $1.5 billion deficit. Although the deficit sounds dire, teachers claim, and rightly so, that the deficit is a manufactured crises; a result of the misused of tax funds, low tax rates on business and high income earners, predatory bank lending, and the complete disregard for the crises by city and state to resolve the issue (CTU 2015). But why has CPS and Rahm ignored such a devastating crises? Parents, students and teachers surely have raised a ruckus about the lack of funds. The goal is to create a CPS  “Shock Doctrine”. When a crises situation is created, Rahm and his appointed school board are able to label CPS as “failing” schools, and promote an alternative, private, “more efficient” model for public schools. This has played out primarily through the closing of public schools and the proliferation of charter schools, privately managed (i.e., undemocratic) and publicly funded schools. Schools closing and private schools openings have disproportionately taken place in low-income neighborhoods of color, and effected elementary schools. These schools also have the highest percentage of teachers of color (primarily black teachers) and women. Thus, school actions are clearly gendered, racialized, and drawn upon class lines (Caref et al 2012). Charters schools are often non-union, have no community accountability, increase school segregation, and often have curriculum focused on standardize testing.

Most recently, Rahm proposed the layoff of 5,000 CTU teachers in order to  push through an increase in teacher contributions to pension funds in the current CTU-CPS contract negotiations. The increase would equate to a 7 percent teacher pay cut (Colson 2015). Cuts in the pension make individual teachers solely responsible for retirement and reducing the state’s obligation to public sector workers. The pension cuts fall within the context of the Illinois state budget “crises”. The state has yet to pass a budget for 2016, due to the Governors refusal to remove mass cuts to public services, pensions, and restrictions of union rights. 

So Chicago teachers chose to strike in the midst of contract negotiations with CPS, to pressure the Governor to pass a budget which did not include mass cuts to public services, and the subsequent privatization of these services. Additionally, CTU encouraged every worker in Chicago to withhold their labor and pressure the Governor as well. Firstly, it is illegal for a union to strike during contract negotiations until impasse has been declared in bargaining, as it is illegal to strike to pressure state government or engage in a solidarity strike. This level of labor militancy is unprecedented in the United States and shows a new level of class militancy in Chicago as citizens strike and stand in solidarity with CTU for public services, which the 1 percent who wishes to privatize and profit off of. Chicago’s working class offensive became strikingly (no pun intended) clear with the number of unions and community organizations who expressed solidarity with CTU, and the tens-of-thousands of people who marched together in the rain on April 1.

But why are 25,000 striking teachers in Chicago relevant to international development? Besides that fact that the action is astounding and unprecedented (as if I haven’t expressed that enough. I’m a fan!), the Chicago strike is in the belly of the beast, not just the United States, but the city of Chicago where Milton Freeman and a number of other economists helped make popular neoliberal ideology. When Chicago teachers struggle over pensions, school privatizations and racial and class injustice, they directly challenge neoliberal ideology globally. Much of the knowledge production that informs the development policy of the World Bank, IMF, and many Western NGOs originates in the global North. Thus, when CTU strikes, neoliberal ideology which restructures developing countries is directly challenged in the home country of development agencies, as well as bodies like the IMF and World Bank which the U.S. holds considerable control.

Secondly, due to the prevalence of neoliberal ideology in development practice, there are a number of similarities between education in Chicago and abroad. Chile provides one of the starkest examples. Neoliberalism’s “testing ground” in the 1980s, Chile has more private (charter-esque) schools than public schools, emphasizes school competition like a business model, a distressing levels of school segregation (Cabalin 2012). Neoliberal ideology is also seen in the World Bank’s “Education Strategy for 2020”. The Strategy’s policy brief emphasizes the participation of the private sector in education, and suggests more community run education programs. The implications of community education is that the Bank disregards the responsibility of states to provide public education, and opens room for more private sector involvement to a public right.

The CTU strike represents not only a struggle over the immediate needs of Chicago students and teachers, but a struggle over the hegemonic ideology used in development policy. When neoliberal education reforms face strong resistance in the United States, it becomes more difficult to apply this ideology abroad. Secondly, the struggle of Chicago teachers shows the deepening of neoliberal policy in the United States which has devastated developing countries globally. The increase in struggle clearly shows that people globally are upset with neoliberal development. If teachers in Chicago can adopt an international outlook which connects neoliberal policies abroad with those in the states, linkages between these seemingly separate movements can begin to challenge and dismantle the ideology which has privatized and commodified public education, opening new opportunities for rebuilding our public systems.


Cabalin, Cristian. 2012. “Neoliberal Education and Student Movements in Chile: inequalities and malaise.” Policy Futures in Education 10(2).

Caref, Carole, Sarah Hainds, Kurt Hilgendorf, Pavlyn Jankov and Kevin Russell. 2012. “The Black and White of Education in Chicago’s Public Schools.” CTU, Novermber 30.

Colson, Nicole. 2015. “Rahm threatens mass teacher layoffs.” Socialist Worker, September 30.

CTU. 2015. “Broke On Purpose: Board of Ed continues to peddle budget myths to justify its starving classrooms.” CTU, May 5.

Dimaggio, Anthony. “Illinois’ Manufactured Budget Crises.” Counter Punch, February 11.

Robertson, Susan. 2007. ” ‘Remaking the World’: Neoliberalism and the Transformation of Education and Teachers’ Labour.” Center for Globalisation, Education and Societies. 

World Bank. 2011. “Learning for All: Investing in People’s Knowledge and Skills to Promote Development – World Bank Group Education Strategy 2020.” World Bank Group.