CTU fights cuts as runoff election heats up

Lee Sustar reports on a lively rally to oppose layoffs and cuts in Chicago schools.

Thousands of teachers, students and supporters flooded downtown Chicago to protest cuts to the public schools (Lee Sustar | SW)Thousands of teachers, students and supporters flooded downtown Chicago to protest cuts to the public schools (Lee Sustar | SW)

ABOUT 5,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and their supporters turned out May 25 to send a loud and clear message opposing budget cuts and layoffs.

But the protest also saw intrigue at the top of the union. Incumbent CTU President Marilyn Stewart reneged on a plan for a unity press conference with other candidates running in a hotly contested election, apparently to further her campaign for re-election.

The rally was initiated by the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), a two-year-old reform group that came in a close second behind Stewart's United Progressive Caucus (UPC), which has run the union for 37 of the last 40 years. Stewart will now face CORE co-chair Karen Lewis in a June 11 runoff election.

The election campaign set the stage for the CTU's biggest and most energetic rally in years. Large groups of teachers turned out from numerous schools--high school students, parents and community groups, too. Big contingents in red CTU T-shirts carried handmade signs and improvised chants. "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Ron Huberman has got to go"--a reference to the Chicago Public Schools CEO--was among the most popular.

In the run-up to the first round of voting May 21, CORE supporters proposed the demonstration at the union's House of Delegates meeting and got unanimous support. All five caucuses competing in the race were to participate in a press conference opposing Huberman's plan to cut $600 million out of the Chicago Public Schools.

Certainly there was a feeling of unity on the march--the sense that despite the hard-fought election, the CTU needs to come together for one of the toughest fights in its history. And in a pause while leading chants at the rally, CTU President Stewart said that she had put all electoral considerations aside at the rally.

"This is about unity," she said. "United we bargain. Divided we beg. The fight for the presidency of the union has everything to do with unity. It's like a family feud. You can't fight this battle divided."

But according to CORE co-chair Jackson Potter, Stewart dropped out of the unity press conference and even led the march to different location than had been agreed upon by the group planning the demonstration. And Stewart also presided over a rally--something that she had specifically rejected, according to Potter. As Stewart spoke to the crowd before TV cameras outside the State of Illinois building, Potter explained:

The Grassroots Education Movement, which is a coalition of 14 community or parent groups and CORE sat a table with the CTU and agreed upon certain logistics around this rally. We met two times in the last two weeks, and we struggled through some issues, but eventually, the union leadership pulled out of virtually all those agreements...

This is about them trying to take advantage of a rally that we mobilized and we proposed, and take all the credit and say how great they are at defending our jobs and defending our schools.

Look at the CORE signs people are carrying. Look at all the CORE stickers and buttons people are wearing. I think people are fed up and they want something different and they're going to vote for it in this election, and we're going to see that June 11.

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CORE IS putting forward a fundamentally different strategy than Stewart's UPC. CORE pledges to oppose both layoffs and a reopening of the contract to cut pay. Stewart has adapted her message to take up similar demands. But during her two terms in office, the union has stood by while dozens of schools have been shut down, nonunion charter schools have proliferated, and thousands of CTU members have lost their jobs.

CORE, despite its brief existence, has far more credibility on these issues. It has organized alongside community groups against school closings and challenged the corporate-driven shift towards charter schools.

For her part, Stewart has presided over a debilitating faction fight in her own caucus and a major budget crisis, even as she enjoys the perks and income of multiple union positions. By contrast, CORE, if it wins office, pledges to keep union leaders' pay at the same level they would get if they stayed in the classroom.

If CTU members oust Stewart and put Lewis into office, they'll also be sending a message to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who ran Chicago's schools before being tapped by Obama to take the Chicago plan national.

For all those reasons, there will be a lot of eyes on the Chicago Teachers Union vote on June 11.