“Bottom up not top down”

Submitted by AWL on 13 October, 2015 - 5:48 Author: Liam Conway

La Villita (Little Village), West Side Chicago, 2001. Parents demand that a school is built on vacant land. Nineteen go on hunger strike to achieve this goal.

They pledge not to back down until there is justice on the south side of town. Many local people turn out to show solidarity with the hunger strikers. Not only do they win the demand for a school but also a role for teachers, parents and students in the design of the new building.

So begins Banner Theatre’s musical account of the inspiring story of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and their supporters, in taking on and mostly defeating the privatisers of City Hall and their attempts to make teachers and others pay for massive cuts.

Notts National Union of Teachers and the local Trades Council sponsored two showings of Banner Theatre’s performance at a local further education college. The songs are uplifting and emphasise a movement that was motivated from below, initially against corrupt and useless leaders of the CTU who said nothing could be done to stop the GERM (Global Education Reform Movement) and believed “the role of the union was to protect the union”.

Using video footage alongside the music, Banner Theatre show how new leaders of the union emerged from the classroom to challenge the inertia of the bureaucracy. They began as a small group organising bold resistance like camping in the snow to resist school closures. It wasn’t long before the Caucus for Rank and File Educators (CORE) emerged to challenge and defeat the old leadership with a commitment to organise a programme of strike action alongside community campaigning.

First the new leaders organised civil disobedience leading to a hundred arrests and they called on the people of Chicago to join the teachers in fighting back against the privatisers.

In one school a day of silence was organised in which students, fed up with a Gradgrind curriculum, said nothing at all during lessons.

”Bottom up, not bottom down is what makes the union strong” is a line repeated in one of the main songs of the performance. And when the strike came in 2012, 29,000 members of the CTU were engaged, not as a stage army, but as an agent for change in Chicago’s schools. Alongside the teachers, thousands of parents, students and Chicago citizens helped reverse school closures, gain huge concessions on the curriculum, force the reinstatement of sacked staff and, most of all showed what can happens when workers act decisively with a strategy that goes way beyond one-day protest strikes.

Nationally the NUT has helped to fund this production and this is good. Now what our union needs to do is stop pretending the NUT is some kind of social movement equivalent of the Chicago Teachers Union and begin to respond to rank-and-file demands for serious resistance to the major attacks to come from the Tories. This is particularly important given the defeats we have suffered over pay and pensions since 2010.

Our UK teachers rank and file group, Local Associations National Action Campaign (LANAC), is as yet small but growing. We should aim to become the new CORE. Who knows? In few years time Banner Theatre may be touring Chicago with a new production showing how LANAC turned the NUT into a “bottom up, not top down” fighting force.

In the meantime I recommend every trade unionist to see this excellent production. You will entertained and educated in equal measure.