Why is the Chicago Teachers Union broke?

By Jesse Sharkey

CHICAGO--The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) leadership announced to a packed House of Delegates meeting May 7 that the union was $2 million in debt. Just four years ago, the CTU boasted $5.6 million in reserve.

CTU President Marilyn Stewart brought a CPA from the Illinois Federation of Teachers to tell delegates the bad news. Over the past several years, membership has shrunk due to falling enrollment and loss of jobs to charter schools. At the same time, the union has increased expenses most notably on salaries and perks for a 60-person office staff.

After the presentation, dozens of angry teachers peppered Stewart with questions and demands. One teacher asked if Stewart would cut her own salary. Others wanted to know how the union could have missed the fact that it was spending nearly $2 million a year more than it was taking in--and never mentioned this to the membership.

In fact, many details of the union's financial operations remain secret. For example, this year, the union spent $420,000 on consultants, but has refused to identify who the consultants are, how much they make or even what jobs they perform! The CTU also refuses to file financial disclosure documents under the Landrum-Griffin Act, known as LM-2's.

The financial details that have come to light paint a picture of a union bureaucracy that is spending lavishly on itself, while ignoring the growing problems facing rank-and-file teachers.

For example, the union's 14 field reps are paid an average base salary of $112,000 a year, but pick up an extra 22 percent annuity (a tax-free payment released at the end of the year), as well as car and cell phone allowances, and holiday bonuses. These perks, all of which are pensionable, add up to a total compensation package of more than $150,000 a year.

The financial mess helps explain the split in the ruling United Progressive Caucus (UPC). Stewart has attempted to pin the blame on Vice President Ted Dallas and Treasurer Linda Porter, who in turn have formed their own group and have been leaking damaging internal documents on the Internet.

Though they hold elected office and cannot be fired, both Porter and Dallas were conspicuously absent from the stage at the House meeting.

Porter and Dallas' new caucus, called Coalition for a Strong Union, reportedly controls the UPC bank account and has been loudly critical of Stewart. But it remains to be seen if Dallas and Co. can convince the rank and file that they are true reformers--after all, Dallas ran the UPC, and Porter was the treasurer who oversaw raiding the union's reserves to pay UPC cronies.

The internal fight among Stewart's officers has loosened the iron grip the UPC has held over the union for years. Stewart found herself unable to completely shut down debate at the House meeting, though there were still many of her loyalists blocking the mikes. On the second extension of the "question period," Stewart finally succeeded in shutting down the meeting, by a 120-to-119 vote.

Rank-and-filers are angry that the union has been almost completely unsuccessful at stopping school closings, slowing down the city's anti-union Renaissance 2010 plan, containing charter schools or negotiating a good contract. This anger has produced a new opposition caucus, Caucus of Rank and file Educators (CORE), which is holding its first public meeting on June 7 at 5:30 p.m. at Casa Aztlan (1831 S. Racine).