By Jackson Potter

Many people on the left celebrate the militancy of a democratized Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) as it shifted from a business model to an organizing model and led through the renowned strike of 2012 which successfully pushed back against years of school closings, charter expansion and mass layoffs. What is not as well known are the key contributions made by teacher union leaders in Los Angeles, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Canada in the development of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, the caucus to which president Karen Lewis’ belonged, which won union office in 2010. The 2012 CTU strike was inspired by teachers in the U.S., Canada and Mexico who started the Trinational Coalition In Defense of Public Education in 1993. The need for  knowing this history and developing transnational teacher union formations, along with robust alliances with other working class forces, is more critical now than ever as our adversaries continue their “global assault” upon public schools.

In 2008, two years before Lewis’ team would lead an upset victory of the incumbents in the third largest teachers union in the country, CORE held its first public event with keynote Jinny Sims, then president of the British Columbia Teachers Federation.
At the event, a motley crew of 100 people assembled who were part of a growing coalition of teachers and community organizations fighting school closings and turnarounds. We sat attentively as Sims asked, “Has anyone come out publically to say we are privatizing education? No, because it’s happening incrementally.” It was a watershed moment. One that president Lewis would later recall as critical to the development of the caucus: “One woman became the face of resistance for us in Chicago…..that illegal strike (BCTF led an illegal strike in 2005) set a real precedent for us," as Karen observed at the 2014 10th Annual Trinational Conference in Chicago.  

I had the privilege of meeting Sims at the eighth Trinational Conference in Los Angeles in 2008, just months before the CORE event. The Trinational was formed in 1993 by the BCTF in conjunction with radical teacher union leaders in the U.S and Mexico. It was pulled together largely in response to NAFTA, as Trinational participants presciently saw that the spread of free trade agreements would dilute the power of the working class and eventually contaminate education policy. 

At the time of the conference, I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago taking a break from the rough and tumble of teaching in the Chicago Public Schools.  My school had just been closed by then CEO of the schools, Arne Duncan. I was encouraged to attend the conference by Pauline Lipman, a professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, whose role as one of the key supporters of Core’s formation and its relationship to the Trinational is little known.  Also present at the conference was Lois Weiner, the scholar best known for coining the term social justice unionism and friend to the insurgent teacher movements now sprouting up everywhere.

The Trinational exposed me to the experience of the BCTF, which led an illegal strike in 2005 against a Liberal government that attempted to prohibit their ability to bargain over class size and virtually any issues outside of pay and benefits. I was also introduced to the CNTE, a rank and file led coalition of reformers within the government controlled teachers union, the SNTE (the National Union of Education Workers). The CNTE formed to oppose their collaborationist leadership who were beholden to the notoriously corrupt PRI governments of the late 70s and 80s. They are a key beacon of resistance and democratization, enduring state violence, surveillance and the criminalization of protest in their fight for public education within SNTE, the largest teachers union in the Americas with 1.2 million members.

Inside of the U.S., there were few examples of progressive forces challenging defunct or moribund teacher union leaderships. LA was an exception. I met Alex Caputo Pearl, then a leader within the caucus PEAC (Progressive Educators For Action) during the time of the 8th Trinational. PEAC represented a majority of the UTLA (Union Teachers of Los Angeles) executive board members and were instrumental in electing a new UTLA president at the time that was more receptive to an organizing model. 

Meeting Sims of the BCTF, Alex Caputo Pearl (now the president of the UTLA) and Maria de la Luz Arriaga, leader of the Mexican section of the Trinantional and a partisan of the CNTE, were critical contacts in the development and strategic orientation of CORE.
Sims taught us, that like the BCTF, we’d have to develop deep and broad coalitions with parent and community forces to take militant action against liberal governments who were locked into Faustian pacts with conservatives to undermine teacher unions and public schools. She exhorted us in her 2008 keynote at CORE’s first public event, “teachers you cannot do this work alone, parents trust their kids to your care for over 6 hours a day, so we invited them to our meetings…….we need to work within the union, with other unions and civil society groups if you want to build the kind of world we need for our children…..our fight wasn’t for a salary alone but a publicly funded public education system.”
It’s no accident that Karen has often repeated Sims’ demand for a “publicly funded public education system.”  

Arriaga and the CNTE showed us that we would have to seriously consider challenging our corrupt union leadership who had adopted the damaging policies of management, even if they weren’t our primary adversaries. They also greatly raised the bar of taking risks in the face of existential threats to our interests. Most recently in 2013, the CNTE occupied large swaths of Mexico City, blockaded airports, closed streets, took over offices of politicians and ministries to fight against test based evaluation of teachers. PEAC and the UTLA demonstrated that a new model was possible in U.S. teacher unions which sought to reassert a militant and left-wing member engagement strategy that would resonate with public school parents, the public and the rank and file. 

In Part 2 of his article, forthcoming on this website, Jackson Potter analyzes what occurred at the 11th annual Trinational conference, discussing implications for the future.