Will the CTU oust its leaders?

Nate Goldbaum, a member of the Chicago Teachers Union, looks at the background to a closely fought race for union office in elections to be held this week.

Members of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators at a protest against school closures (Garth Liebhaber)Members of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators at a protest against school closures (Garth Liebhaber)

ABOUT 26,000 teachers, school psychologists, teacher's aides and other educators will vote on Friday, May 21 to determine leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) for the next three years.

Like public-sector unions across the country, the CTU faces serious challenges from a Board of Education determined to balance its budget on the backs of teachers and students.

The Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE), a two-year-old group of CTU members that has led struggles in Chicago against school closings, is a serious contender in the elections. CORE hopes to return the CTU to the kind of militant, activist organizing from which the union first emerged decades ago.

Yet no matter the election's outcome, CORE is determined to fight the attacks on teachers coming from the Chicago Board of Education and Ron Huberman, newly appointed CEO of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

In April, Huberman released a PowerPoint presentation claiming that CPS faced a budget deficit of $600 million for fiscal year 2010. Although this figure represents about 8.7 percent of the $7 billion proposed budget, he concluded that the teaching force would need to be reduced by about 25 percent, by raising class sizes from 28 to 35 students per teacher.

Huberman also wanted the CTU to give up 4 percent pay raises in each the remaining two years of its contract negotiated three years ago. The school board is attempting to pressure the union to give up those pay increases in exchange for holding back on layoffs.

The proposed layoffs are striking fear throughout the public school system. At my own small school, at least four of our 20 teachers would lose their jobs under the proposed class size increase. A colleague of mine, who has devoted over 10 years of her life to teaching children in the Mexican-American community where our school is located, told me she was regretfully interviewing in another district for a job, citing the need to feed her family of four.

Many teachers feel paralyzed by this state of limbo, as the central office has repeatedly postponed the issuance of official school budgets that determine the number of teachers in each school.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

MANY PEOPLE believe that Huberman is playing the same old game with teachers' livelihoods that he played again and again when he was head of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).

By threatening a "doomsday" budget, Huberman hopes to wring more tax money from the state and put the squeeze on the union to gain concessions on pay and other issues. At the CTA, Huberman accomplished both goals through several emergency state spending measures and by imposing an inferior pension on new hires in Amalgamated Transit Union Local 241.

Now, Huberman is using this playbook against teachers. He got a lot of help from state lawmakers this April when they imposed a similar two-tier pension system on teachers, as well as a "holiday" on some $1.2 billion of pension payments over the next four years. Although the Illinois legislative process is notoriously slow, the bill that allowed this move was proposed and passed in less than 24 hours.

Meanwhile, a group calling itself "No to 37" (a reference to the proposed number of students per class) has begun campaigning that is aimed at pushing state lawmakers to increase budgeting for education. CTU and CORE members participated in the group's rallies organized at the end of April.

Unfortunately, the tax hike proposal that "No to 37" supports is a flat tax that would impact working-class people disproportionately. Yet even that regressive proposal has gotten little traction in the state legislature. At the same time, business leaders such as members of the Commercial Club of Chicago have pushed an "Illinois is Broke" campaign to make the argument for austerity measures, including education cuts.

All of this is a huge challenge to our union. Thus, at the May CTU House of Delegates meeting, CORE leaders proposed a citywide rally to demand that, instead of cutting funding for schools, CPS cut unnecessary bureaucracy. Huberman has budgeted $60 million for standardized testing, $315 million for charters, turnarounds and contract schools, and nearly $500 million to service debt collected by major banks.

CORE also insists that CPS tap a "reserve" fund estimated at about $400 million, and that the mayor cough up tax money siphoned off by Tax Increment Financing (TIF) "development" funds. Although these TIF funds are not transparent, experts estimate that they take about $250 million that would otherwise go toward public services, such as schools.

The motion to rally against the cuts carried the House of Delegates with cooperation from all caucuses of the union. The rally--which immediately follows the election and precedes the monthly board meeting--will take place at 4 p.m., on Tuesday, May 25 at CPS headquarters.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

AS THE union election campaign continues, CORE's momentum is building. A mood of anger at the do-nothing officers of the incumbent United Progressive Caucus (UPC) slate bodes well for CORE.

However, CORE is competing in a five-way race: against the UPC, two other caucuses that split from the UPC, and the ProActive Chicago Teachers (PACT) caucus of former CTU president Debbie Lynch. Although PACT members have promoted democracy in the union and Lynch moved the union towards greater transparency in her term in office, she delivered a concessionary contract. That allowed current CTU President Marilyn Stewart to lead the old guard to a narrow victory in the 2004 elections.

Stewart was re-elected in 2007, but her caucus was soon consumed in infighting and mutual allegations of corruption among top CTU officials. Stewart used her authority to have her former top strategist fired and expelled from the union for alleged financial wrongdoing.

While the union was in disarray, a fight was brewing over the board's closure of "failing" schools. It was in that struggle that CORE was formed. CORE has generated a great deal of good will among sections of the CTU membership by championing schools targeted for closure or "turnaround" (that is, the firing of the entire staff) for the last two years.

In leading these fights, CORE's strategy has emphasized public mobilizations and alliances with parent and community groups. CORE is also the only caucus to have chosen its candidates through an internal election.

However, the young caucus suffers from lack of name recognition throughout the CPS system. As the campaign gallops to a finish, CORE's activists hope to turn the tide by mobilizing to visit and connect with teachers throughout the city's more than 600 public schools.

The significance of this election goes well beyond Chicago. Today, teachers comprise about 30 percent of union members in this country. And of course, the architect of Chicago's anti-union "school reform" program, Arne Duncan, is U.S. Secretary of Education.

Winning a more militant leadership in one of the country's largest teacher union locals would be an important step towards turning back the anti-union tide. But no matter the election's outcome, CORE will continue to fight that fight. We're gearing up for a major battle.