In keeping with the theme of “Building Strike Power,” the convention’s first guest speaker was a leader of one of the most important strikes of the 21st century so far, Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates.
“You will never feel more power than when you tell the boss to go to hell,” Davis Gates told the convention on Sunday morning. “In 2012, our union went on strike and we shut Chicago down.” That strike, over demands that the union developed in consultation with the community, “helped to organize Chicago to want more, to build an appetite for what they deserved,” Davis Gates said.
“People never felt more powerful in their life.”
She described how, leading up to the strike, then-CTU President Karen Lewis (who passed away in 2021) went all over Chicago asking teachers if they were tired of schools closing. “When you close schools, you foreclose on communities,” Davis Gates said. “You marginalize the people who live in that part of the city.” The schools that were closed were overwhelmingly in low-income communities of color.
President Lewis “put the city on notice,” holding Chicago responsible for “the harm and the pain” that its workers and working-class residents were experiencing. Lewis “knew that transformation only happens in the plural pronoun,” Davis Gates said, and, by organizing teachers and the community, built a contract campaign and strike that “changed the trajectory of the third largest city in the country, the fifth largest economy in the world.”
Following the 2012 strike, then-Mayor Rahm Emmanuel retaliated by closing 50 schools in 2013. In the ten years since then, Davis said, CTU went on strike three more times and built coalitions with working-class people across the city. “That’s not a PAC program, that’s building power,” said Davis, referring to many unions’ reliance on simply handing out cash from their political action committees (known as PACs). In 2023, that movement successfully elected former CTU organizer Brandon Johnson, “a Black man, a progressive, a labor organizer, a middle-school teacher,” as mayor of the city of Chicago. Johnson is “the leader for the city we are building,” Davis said.
Davis Gates also spoke about the connection between the labor movement and the Black freedom struggle. “Labor, if you want a better wage and better benefits, then you better believe in the liberation of Black people,” she said. Labor rights are “embedded in the liberation of Black people in this country because if we ain’t getting paid for it, you ain’t either.”
Davis Gates emphasized that workers need to understand who they are up against — “the billionaires [who] will have you believe that this is your fault” — and who their allies are — the working-class communities whose “quality of life” unions can fight for in their contract campaigns and strikes. “You have to name names, you have to define who you are first,” she said. “You have to connect the dots for people. You have to understand the interconnectedness of our society and the people who live in it.
“No one is going to give you power, no one is going to share power, which is why you strike — because you have to take power.”