"When We Fight, We Win": Analyzing the Chicago Teachers Union's Practice of Social Movement Unionism from 2010-2020



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In 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) took to the streets for their first strike in decades, some scholars hailed their practice as an example for unions across the country to follow in order to combat the threat of privatization and defunding. At rallies with thousands of rank-and-file teachers and allies, CTU leadership delivered a message that rejected the city government’s neoliberal policies that prioritized free-market principles over public services, framing their demands as a “fight for the soul of public education.” This rejection of traditional, business, and elite-oriented trade unionism in favor of a grassroots-oriented, militant coalition of activist and community organizations is known as social movement unionism. This project looks at CTU's practice over the past decade, analyzing the period’s three contract negotiations through the lens of social movement unionism. To operationalize social movement unionism for this case study, I propose three criteria for analysis. First, union leadership is accountable to an energized base with new opportunities for engagement and learning. Second, that grassroots-oriented leadership rejects traditional ties with corporate and political elites, instead building political capital by joining forces with activists and community organizations. Third, unions use that capital to demand more than just wages and fair working conditions, instead articulating the connection between the contract fights and a broader political agenda. The culmination of this work adds to existing literature on social movement unionism by providing critical analysis of this case study over a longer period with an updated framework for the twenty-first century.



union, education, teachers union, social movement unionism, Chicago, neoliberalism