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NUT looks to Chicago for inspiration on how to take on government

The NUT is using an American teaching union that took its members out on a landmark seven-day strike as the model for its campaign for better pay, pensions and working conditions, it emerged today.

The union – England’s largest –  is “now truly an organising union”, Christine Blower, general secretary, proudly told her members this morning. “We’ve learned from others, particularly perhaps the Chicago Teachers’ Union,” she said in her speech to the NUT annual conference in Brighton.

That comparison might alarm anyone who believes that industrial unrest in England’s schools during the run-up to next year’s general election should be avoided.

The NUT conference this week voted overwhelmingly for a national walkout in June. A one-day strike is the most likely option.

But that will be nothing compared to the industrial action in Chicago, which saw tens of thousands of teachers take to the streets of America’s third largest city and go on strike for seven continuous working days in September 2012.

Like the current NUT dispute, the Chicago Teachers’ Union’s disagreement with the city’s mayor, Democrat Rahm Emanuel, covered a multitude of issues, including class size, performance pay, healthcare and inadequate staffing.

The strike – the first in a quarter of a century in America’s third largest state school system – also had national, if not international, significance. It came in the run-up to the November 2012 US presidential election and was seen a challenge to key aspects of school reforms promoted by President Barack Obama. Until 2010 Mayor Emanuel had been Obama’s chief of staff.

But Ms Blower emphasises the ability of the CTU to organise in the community, rather than its strike, when explaining why the Windy City’s teachers have inspired the NUT.

“The Chicago Teachers Union which has successfully pushed back some of the worst aspects of Germ (Global Education Reform Movement) in a city that was in many ways the testing ground of neoliberal education policy,” the general secretary wrote today in The Morning Star, Britain’s communist national newspaper.

“Central to their success was a clear vision of an organising model based on membership participation, the renewal of democratic lay structures and the engagement of the community.”

She describes the approach as “social movement trade unionism” and says it involves the active participation of ordinary members and not just “a small layer of full-time officials lobbying government and policy-makers”.

While the Chicago link might concern those who would rather not see industrial disputes raging in England’s schools, it may not please some of the NUT’s activists either.

Left-wing critics in the US have described the decision by the CTU leadership to end the strike after reaching a deal with the mayor as a “sell-out” and a “betrayal” that paved the way for mass state school closures, not just in Chicago, but also in Philadelphia, Washington DC, New York and Detroit.

CTU president Karen Lewis claimed victories in seeing off performance pay, softening a teacher evaluation system and winning deals for teachers whose schools were closing.

But in England, some hard-left activists are openly sceptical about Ms Blower’s Chicago-inspired strategy. Last month, after hearing his general secretary explain the approach, Martin Thomas – a London NUT member – wrote: “Some of us came away worried that this new ‘social movement unionism’ talk might be code for a new NUT strategy which leaves industrial action on the shelf.”

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