Branding a Teacher’s Strike

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As society changes, so do the type and strength of the social programs to better fit the needs of the people. In early 20th century, there was a need to protect children from forced labor, so the National Child Labor Committee was formed to offer societal awareness as well as legal protection for this cause. For programs that span across many years, such as education, reform has been a process that moves to change as much as the society that uses it. While changes in education are inevitable, educational reform must be an ongoing positioning process to maintain the public’s support.

In a business sense, branding a product or business is often the reason for success or failure and the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) positioned their opinion in such a way that it could only find success. In the same way that Apple has branded their products as being a “lifestyle,” the CTU has created a focus that made people reach out to their cause even though it may not directly impact them. The background of the Chicago strike of the 2012 is that the school district began to close schools and privatize others into charter schools, which promise success, but really cause more issues and equivalent success. The district began removing the strengths of the CTU, removing teacher pay increases, teacher seniority, benefits, and job protections (Gutstein and Lipman) and the CTU responded by calling on the teachers to strike. While the strike was considered a success because the teachers were able to regain some of their job benefits, one of the bigger successes was that the strike drew the attention and support of more than just teachers.

In Chicago, the positioning approach is to appeal to as many involved parties as possible; reaching out to paraprofessionals, parents, students, and other groups in the city that can place pressure on the school Board and administration. In the article “Beating the Neoliberal Blame Game” Gutierrez explains activist Lois Weiner’s argument that, “it is the solidarity of the teachers, communities, and social justice teachers’ unions that pose the greatest challenge” that support the cause against privatizing education. While the teachers have a voice and power that is funneled through the unions, there also needs to be a strong connection with others who can support it. Historically, strikes have usually just been about a single group working to get fair treatment and professional pay while the rest of the community supports the union in a minimal way. However, the branding of education strikes has changed, reaching out more to the community.

This branding of the education system as “the schools are at the heart of the community” helped fill out the ranks of the 2012 strike and in Gutierrez’s article, "Beating the Neoliberal Blame Game: Teacher and Parent Solidarity and the 2012 Chicago Teachers' Strike,” she noted how many non-teachers were visible at the strike. While the people who are most directly benefitted by the improvements in the school are the teachers, the strike had been branded to include the students and, therefore, piqued the interest of the parents in a way that supports the union. In the article, the Gutierrez distinguishes a very important part of the strike, the parents recognized the fact that more financial support in the schools would improve the quality of teacher that their students have. This domino effect of greater financial support of schools leads to better teachers, which leads to a better education for the children, is one that seemed to surprise the reporters at the strike who were expecting to see lines of angry parents. Instead of seeing parents who were upset by the fact that their children were missing school, the reporters were disappointed to see the parents rallying alongside the teachers as their allies. In fact, there was such camaraderie that teachers took turns thanking parents for their hard work and parents thanking the teachers for theirs. While previous strikes may not have had such a cheery alliance, this strike was likely successful because of this fact. This also led to a partnership with the communities surrounding the schools who also benefit from well-educated members.

Beyond the people who are directly related to the students, such as teachers and parents, there are also people in the community who benefit from members of the society who are well educated. When children attend school regularly, there are fewer issues with petty crimes and leads to lower crime rates if the children continue their education. This also means that there is an educated workforce in the community and that businesses can depend on the residents for skilled labor or specialized training. While this may sound similar to corporate funded education, it is much less intensive, working to keep the community a community and avoiding the privatization of the schools. For the most part, the communities in the 2012 Chicago strike were supportive of the actions of the teachers and also have a desire to promote education that is both fair and equal. However, the group that may support the teachers the most is probably the most surprising; the students.

While the students may revel in the fact that school is cancelled because of the strike, students have also been included in the brand positioning; including students as a part of the positive movement to support their educators. They are also a powerful part of the voice of the strike, the students know that if their teachers are paid and treated fairly that the rewards of this will be apparent for all involved. What helped this mindset is that there is an understanding that “Teachers and other public-sector workers are ultimately responsible to the families and communities they serve, and their working conditions are tied to the funding and quality of public institutions” (Gutstein and Lipman). The students, who are in the classroom daily with the teachers, are likely to understand the teacher’s level of responsibility for the students and for their educations. With the support of all parties involved in education, either directly or indirectly, it is likely the issues that the CTU addressed were issues that everyone agreed upon.

Perhaps one of the reasons that the Chicago Teachers’ Union was so different from previous strikes is that they attacked the real issues in education, not pay, not better healthcare, but “more equitable funding, more services, [and] smaller class sizes” (Featherstone and Henwood). This change brought the attention of many; the parents, the community, the students, and the country- teachers were actually using the strike to get something for the students. The teachers may benefit from the reforms as well, but the focus was on the students. With this in mind, this kind of thinking is how revolutions begin, standing up for the otherwise voiceless students. When budget cuts are discussed in the news, the general attitude is that good teachers are losing their jobs and less focus is put on the fact that students will have to sit in overcrowded classrooms struggling to get the help they need, not because the teacher is a bad teacher but because handling thirty-five fourth grade students can be an extremely difficult challenge for any teacher. When the focus of the strike is the students and the teachers are putting the students first, people want to help, especially when children are the ones impacted by it.

In the article “Chicago Rising,” Rick Perlstein notes a supporter who seemed to be an obvious outsider in the crowd, a supporter who was likely drawn to the case that the CTU presented to the people. The woman, “A white, middle-class mother with two kids in the system” (in a crowd of mainly poor, African-Americans) who considers herself a Republican said that she was attending the strike because she didn’t like people “being pushed around by overbearing government” (Perlstein) took great lengths to show support for the CTU. Considering that this woman actually had no community ties with the people involved shows that the CTU has evolved the educational reform movement by reaching out further than many strikes had reached out before. The woman in Perlstein’s article wanted to be a part of this “brand” of strike, one that stood up for the students and for equity in education. In effect, the CTU made an unpopular action (regardless of the cause, striking employees seems to draw out the criticisms of society) popular, so much so that people and groups from many different backgrounds attended the rallies in support of the teachers.

Educational reform and the strikes that ensue have been portrayed negatively in the past, comments about the greed, unions protecting bad teachers, and other issues have arisen in the news when unions have rallied together. In the 2012 strike of the Chicago Teacher’s Union, they were able to garner the support of everyone from teachers, students, parents, community members, churches, and other groups; even some who were not directly impacted by the cuts and inequity. The way they lead a successful strike is that the union presented the strike as a cause for authentic reform; attacking both typical topics like budget cuts and low pay, but also fighting against the privatization of schools in the area and the problems that grow from this. The union seems to have found support by approaching the strike as a “David versus Goliath” which appeals to most Americans who root for the underdog. When pitted against a common enemy- in this case, the school district- the people find a way to put aside political and social differences and fight for a common goal. And in 2012, the people of Chicago did just this, branding their efforts in a way that evoked the passions of the people.

Works Cited

Featherstone, Liza, and Doug Henwood. "Marketizing Schools ." Monthly Review, An Independent Socialist Magazine. N.p., 1 June 2013. http://monthlyreview.org/2013/06/01/marketizing-schools.

Gutierrez, Rhonda. "Beating the Neoliberal Blame Game: Teacher and Parent Solidarity and the 2012 Chicago Teachers' Strike." Monthly Review, An Independent Socialist Magazine. N.p., 1 June 2013.. http://monthlyreview.org/2013/06/01/beating-the-neoliberal-blame-game.

Gutstein, Eric, and Pauline Lipman. "The Rebirth of the Chicago Teachers Union and Possibilities for a Counter-Hegemonic Education Movement ." Monthly Review, An Independent Socialist Magazine. N.p., 1 June 2013. http://monthlyreview.org/2013/06/01/the-rebirth-of-the-chicago-teachers-union-and-possibilities-for-a-counter-hegemonic-education-movement.

Perlstein, Rick. "Chicago Rising!" The Nation. N.p., 2 July 2013. http://www.thenation.com/article/175085/chicago-rising#.