United States: Chicago Teachers Union votes for independent political and electoral activity

Chicago Teachers Union members during their strike against Democratic Party mayor Rahm Emanuel's assault on public schools.

By Marilena Marchetti

January 14, 2014 -- Socialist Worker (USA) -- The Chicago Teachers Union wants to shake up the city and state political establishment. In a sweeping majority vote, representatives of the union's 23,000 members passed a resolution to launch an independent political organisation (IPO). The goal of the initiative is to unite progressive groups, non-profit organisations and trade unions around political campaigns that have the potential to sustain social movements and activism, rather than empowering Democratic Party candidates who have turned their back on teachers and public education.

The resolution concludes:

RESOLVED that the Chicago Teachers Union, along with key allies in the progressive labour movement and among progressive community organisations will launch an independent political organisation (IPO) that is capable of leading strong electoral and legislative campaigns to benefit working families, our active and retired members, and our communities, and be it further

RESOLVED that the IPO will enable a broad multitude of diverse organisations to establish a pipeline for candidate development to identify and train people who are part of our movements to become elected officials; and that such people are dedicated to our shared vision, will fully support campaigns that advocate for our needs, and will be held accountable to the people who helped put them in office, and be it finally

RESOLVED that the IPO will engage in year-round community outreach and campaign to build public support for our platform and political objectives, not just during the election season; and the IPO's goal is to develop, elect and support candidates to be advocates for those objectives, not just to become members of elective office.

The commitment to create an IPO is indicative of the gut-level feeling among teachers and others who want to see social justice that "politics as usual"--in a state dominated by the Democratic Party at every level--won't bring about the kind of change so clearly needed in our society, where access to jobs, housing, health care and education for ordinary people is going down the tubes while corporate profits shoot through the roof.

The initiative taken by the CTU can, with the support of its allies, have significant implications for how social justice movements in Chicago can channel their energies around electoral politics.

Whether the IPO will be a space that can cultivate truly independent candidates like Kshama Sawant--the Socialist Alternative candidate who won a seat on the Seattle City Council last November--remains to be seen. For certain, her campaign and the radical left proposals it put forward are the kind that the IPO would potentially support.

Traditional 'politics'

Traditional politicians are locked in a system in which hypocrisy and double-speak are a necessary feature for candidates who must appeal to both the 99% and the 1%, even though their interests are opposed.

US President Barack Obama is a case in point. At one time, he stood with unions and progressive advocacy groups like Physicians for a National Health Program in supporting a single-payer system, or Medicare for all, as the only way to solve the health care crisis. By the time he rose through the ranks of the Democratic Party to become the candidate for president, however, he was accepting campaign contributions from the hugely rich insurance industry.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA), Obama's signature health-care legislation, couldn't be further from the vision of health-care reform that won him votes among the 99%. But the legislation is a guarantee that the insurance industry will have millions of new customers and billions of dollars to line its pockets.

So long as a politician's constituents are both big business and working people, we aren't all going to be happy--and you can guess which side is more likely to have its interests served.

Kshama Sawant

Kshama Sawant's victory in Seattle shows the potential for candidates and campaigns committed to supporting labour and grassroots movements to operate by a different logic.

Sawant made the fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour the centerpiece of her campaign, and was able to build on activism by low-wage workers to expose the conservatism of her Democratic Party opponents. By the end of the campaign, she had forced both Democratic candidates for mayor to support a $15 an hour minimum wage, at least in words.

Now, as a member of the Seattle City Council, Sawant will be able to force other elected officials to engage with issues that typically don't find their way into the chambers of any legislative body. She is now afforded precious access to the airwaves of the mainstream media, which typically shield viewers from anti-capitalist politics.

When Sawant refers to the 99% or the Fight for 15 on MSNBC, it's clear she isn't borrowing slogans to build her own brand, as a politician of the two-party status quo might. She is using her access to television viewers to make political arguments for building campaigns around important struggles that matter for our quality of life. Sawant is demonstrating how social movements can occupy the space of electoral politics as a means toward a bigger end.


In Chicago, despite the rolling waves of demonstrations, intense organising and outreach canvassing that mobilised thousands, we were forced to swallow a bitter pill just eight months after the CTU's victory in its September 2012 strike.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel handed out millions from his tax revenue slush fund known as the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) system to some of the city's richest companies and institutions, such as Marriott Hotels and DePaul University--at the same time as he closed 50 public schools in one fell swoop because the education budget was in the red. Among those who want a different future for their families and communities--including people who voted for him--there is a lot of bitterness toward "Mayor 1%".

Reversing the prioritisation of real estate development at the expense of people is our battle. Those of us in Chicago who are fighting for the soul of public education or engaged in struggles for housing, fair wages, health care, immigrant rights, an end to mass incarceration and so on want more than to defeat Emanuel and his rubber-stamp city council. We want justice.

The first steps toward winning justice could mean taxing the rich to subsidise the public sector, not cut it; winning an elected, representative school board; creating an elected police review board with real powers; putting a moratorium on deportations; and getting rid of Emanuel's TIF slush fund; among other measures.

After losing the battle to save schools last spring, it became clear to many people that it will be necessary to participate in every space where social justice struggles can be waged. This is what led CTU members to consider how their union could engage in electoral politics--in a different way than the labour movement's longstanding support for Democratic Party politicians like Emanuel, who turn around and attack unions and workers.

Democratic Party

The union's IPO initiative would demand that political candidates whom it develops or supports agree to be held accountable for endorsing policies that improve the lives of working and poor people. But there is a question that needs to be taken up: the relationship of candidates who receive IPO support to the Democratic Party.

For example, the CTU voted to endorse two progressive Democratic candidates running for the Illinois General Assembly: Will Guzzardi and Jay Travis. Both have strong support in the communities they seek to represent because of their dedication to defending social investment against corporate interests. Travis is known for building a relationship between the CTU and the Kenwood Oakland Community Organisation, where she was executive director.

These two candidates are examples of how the Democratic Party can attract the best leaders of grassroots organisations. If they win, they may attempt to remain committed to the principles they struggled for previously. But they will do so in opposition to the mainstream of the Democratic Party in the governor's mansion and state legislature--which is committed to an agenda of austerity and defense of corporate privilege.

The experience of past attempts by progressives to fight for their priorities "on the inside" is that they have to go along with the party establishment--or get pushed out of playing any significant role, if not the office they won.

In Chicago, as in other cities, there are plenty of examples of progressive Democrats who, instead of changing the party from the inside, give a liberal veneer to its pro-corporate, anti-worker policies. Like US House of Representatives member Jan Schakowsky, who regularly spoke out for single-payer health care in the years before Barack Obama's election. She complained about administration concessions to the health-care industry, but ultimately voted for the ACA--and then came back to Chicago and held a celebration at the Chicago Temple, where she deceptively said the law was universal health care.

Even if Guzzardi and Travis attempt to use their political office to help unions and the community, the project of building an independent political alternative that can challenge the power of the Democratic Party establishment won't be advanced if they win election as Democrats.

Of course, election law and governmental structures in Chicago and Illinois, like the rest of the country, were set up by the two mainstream parties to serve their needs. Third parties and independent candidates face a host of obstacles to even getting on the ballot, much less winning--which is why it can seem more "realistic" to many progressives to run as a Democrat.

Challenges to the two-party monopoly

But there have been successful challenges to the two-party monopoly. During the 2000s, the Green Party organised to win ballot status for Ralph Nader as its 2000 presidential nominee and for candidates for statewide office, such as Rich Whitney, who ran for governor in 2006 and 2010. And of course, we just saw Kshama Sawant--over the course of several campaigns for state and city office--overcome the hostility of the Democratic Party establishment and win.

In Chicago, races for mayor and city council are officially non-partisan, which makes things murky in a different way.

Officially, anyone running for city office is viewed as an independent, regardless of their party affiliation. This allows candidates to declare independence from the Democrats without being shut out of the race by unfair rules. But it also allows candidates to fudge their "independence"--to be officially classified as independent while collaborating with the Democratic Party machine.

A left-wing candidate who genuinely aims to represent working and poor people must be genuinely independent. It is impossible to hold political representatives accountable to grassroots struggles and movements if they are accountable, formally or informally, to the Democratic Party.

The desire for an electoral alternative to the status quo in Chicago is obvious to see, and the teachers' union IPO initiative is clearly aimed at being a step toward that goal. The discussion has to continue among union members and activists in all progressive organisations and movements about what real independence means--and how we can participate in electoral politics in a way that makes our struggles for social justice stronger.