UPTOWN — In September 2012 — on the third day of a bitter standoff between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Teachers Union — Micah Uetricht stood Downtown among a red-clad throng of picketing Chicago Public School teachers.
A friend turned to him during the strike, he remembers, and told the writer and labor activist, "This struggle needs a book, and you need to be the one to write it."
About a year and a half after that advice, the 26-year-old Uptown resident is the proud author of "Strike For America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity."
His book is a combination of Uetricht's analysis and on-the-ground reporting.
Wearing a red shirt, Uetricht said he was mistaken for a teacher and enjoyed free bus rides and coffee as he traveled throughout the city during the strike.
"Anybody who was on a picket line knows the streets were filled with supportive honks, and little animosity," he said. "Polls at the time showed Chicagoans backed the CTU over [Mayor Rahm] Emanuel."
Uetricht writes in the book that the strike showed unions across the country that rank-and-file public school teachers can wrestle control of their unions from "old guard" leadership, and rebuke education reform policies that the author describes as an "education privatization agenda." According to Uetricht, that includes the proliferation of charter schools, public education funding cuts and public school closings that disproportionately affect minority communities.
In 2010, the longstanding United Progressive Caucus succumbed to a takeover by the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), led by Karen Lewis and Jesse Sharkey, who were elected as the union's president and vice president.
The CORE takeover is an oft-overlooked aspect of the strike narrative — and a topic Uetricht's book examines in-depth so "people elsewhere can see that this wasn't any kind of magical event."
These are times, "when the American labor movement does not see a lot of victories," Uetricht said, citing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's successful but controversial efforts to restrict the collective bargaining rights of his state's public workers in 2011.
Much has been said about the decline of union power in the U.S., but Uetricht said the teacher's strike is a fresh example of how eulogies for the American labor movement are premature.
A lot of people think "there's no way a strike can be seen as anything other than a public temper tantrum," when it comes to teachers and other public workers, Uetricht said. The union's route around that obstacle was to "work alongside community groups and strongly make the case that the union is not just self interested."
Uetricht sees that approach as a winning strategy for other unions considering a strike.
The CTU strike lasted nine days before a deal was struck.
Teachers won double digit pay raises and assurances that laid off teachers would have preference to be rehired by CPS. But the mayor didn't walk away empty handed. The deal gave principals more authority to hire teachers, established a teacher evaluation system based in part on student standardized test performance, and extended the school day.
And clashes between the union, mayor and school district have continued since the standoff.
With the union deal set to expire in 2015 — an election year for the mayor — Uetricht sees another potential clash looming.
"We could be facing another strike in the next year, which is kind of crazy to think about," Uetricht said. "That could prove to be a political crisis for Rahm."
To buy Uetricht's book, click here.