The challenges facing the CTU

Lee Sustar looks at the history of the Chicago Teachers Union and its relevance today.

Demonstrating against school closings in Chicago on Martin Luther King Day in 2010 (Indymedia)Demonstrating against school closings in Chicago on Martin Luther King Day in 2010 (Indymedia)

WHEN CHICAGO Teachers Union (CTU) members vote in union elections June 11, they'll be choosing between incumbents who have produced a financially strapped, ineffective and factionalized organization--and reformers who have promised to rebuild a fighting union that can take on today's challenges.

Already reeling from the loss of some 6,000 members in the last decades--the result of both school closings and the expansion of charter schools--the CTU now faces the threat of nearly 3,000 more layoffs as the result of a budget crisis. Schools CEO Ron Huberman says that without a pay freeze--at least--to cover a claimed $600 million deficit, the jobs will go, and class sizes will rise to an average of 35 kids.

Current CTU President Marilyn Stewart of the United Progressive Caucus (UPC) has promised to dig in and refuse to reopen the teachers' contract, which contains 4 percent pay raises in each of the next two years.

Stewart, however, lacks credibility among rank-and-file teachers, owing to her UPC's failure to confront school closings before this, as well as membership loss due to the proliferation of charter schools and the overall erosion of union strength.

Moreover, the once-vaunted UPC machine, which has ruled the CTU for 37 of the last 40 years, fractured under Stewart. A faction fight inside her caucus led to the expulsion of a top officer and her close supporter.

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In a five-way race in the first round of union elections, Stewart won just under 32 percent of the vote. Right on her heels was Karen Lewis of the two-year-old Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), which gained about 30 percent of the vote. With the backing of two other slates, Lewis may well sweep out Stewart and her slate.

Whoever wins the election, a major confrontation lies ahead. Those who want to further shrink and weaken the CTU--local business interests, corporate-funded charter school operators and two-faced Democratic politicians who portray themselves as pro-labor--hope to use the union's internal divisions to press their privatizing agenda. The CTU--the single biggest union local in Chicago--is increasingly seen by anti-union forces as an easy kill.

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IT WASN'T always this way.

The CTU was, for decades, synonymous with the power of organized labor in the schools. A pioneer of teacher unionism--the CTU is Local 1 of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)--the union became a powerhouse in the 1960s after winning the right to collective bargaining.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the CTU waged nine strikes in 18 years, winning steady gains in pay and working conditions. It had enough clout in the local labor movement to install two officials as successive leaders of the Chicago Federation of Labor and, later, a president of the Illinois AFL-CIO.

What happened? The short answer is that CTU leaders, like officials in other public-sector unions, confused their close institutional and political relationships to government and the Democratic Party with union power. Now that supposedly pro-labor Democrats are escalating the long-running attacks on teachers unions, the CTU finds itself in its toughest fight since it was formed in the 1930s.

But by looking back at that history, CTU members can draw on important lessons as they attempt to rebuild their union.

Formed in 1937, the CTU was the culmination of four decades to organize Chicago teachers. Its predecessor, the Chicago Teachers Federation (CTF), formed in 1897 and launched the AFT in 1916.

The upswing in teachers' organizing was tied closely to the fortunes of the wider Chicago labor movement, which, under the influence of communists and radicals, attempted to organize industrial unions in the meatpacking and steel industries for the first time.

But when employers crushed those efforts amid an anti-union red scare in the wake of the Russian Revolution, Chicago school officials seized the opportunity to ban teachers' unions. As early as 1915, the head of the Chicago Board of Education barred teachers from joining unions, declaring that the CTF was a "curse to the school system. In a large municipality there is no need for lady labor sluggers."

Still, the organizing continued in the 1920s, with four separate union locals. Then came the shock of the 1929 stock market crash and the crippling of city finances. Teachers suddenly found themselves facing pay cuts, layoffs and worsening teaching conditions, while the schools filled to overflowing with impoverished students.

In his history of Chicago teachers' unions, John F. Lyons chronicles how the teachers suffered--and struggled--in the in the 1930s. They were paid months' late--and then in scrip rather than cash. Merchants often refused to accept the notes at face value.

When teachers protested, they were made scapegoats by politicians and business chiefs, who portrayed them as benefiting from the public purse, while taxpayers suffered from mass unemployment. Meanwhile, critical decisions in the schools were being made not by education professionals, but business executives and machine politicians--something Chicago teachers today will understand only too well.

The long economic and social crisis of the 1930s propelled the different Chicago teachers' unions toward unity with the formation of the CTU in 1937. The formation of the union was a reflection of the wider labor radicalism expressed by the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)--formed by breakaway unions and newly formed ones that broke with the craft-centered approach of the AFL to organize on industrial lines.

Within the revived AFT, there was a battle between the left, which looked toward the CIO, and the right wing aligned with the AFL. The CTU was a bastion of the left, and its leader was a candidate for AFT president at the 1940 national convention.

But the right won control of the AFT at the convention, and pressure from the AFL and anticommunist business leaders and politicians helped purge the AFT of the left in the 1940s and 1950s. Weakened teachers' unions were tolerated in Chicago, New York and a few other Northern cities, but they lacked formal bargaining rights.

The baby boom of the late 1940s and early 1950s gave teacher' unions new leverage. A teacher shortage and worsened conditions with overcrowded classrooms brought a renewed impetus to organize.

A de-radicalized, but still clout-heavy Chicago labor movement brought the CTU under its wing, and the local Democratic Party machine, honed by Mayor Richard J. Daley, extended longstanding patronage ties between the party and the public schools. By the early 1960s, the CTU was firmly established on the labor and political scene.

The civil rights and Black Power movements, however, created a crisis in those relationships. The big expansion of Chicago's African American population in the 1940s and 1950s meant that the schools became a focus for struggle.

After the civil rights movement won the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the attention of the movement shifted northward--and Chicago schools and neighborhoods were among the most racially segregated in the U.S. Politicized teachers and students alike demanded more resources and more relevant education.

These changes shook up the CTU. Throughout the 1960s, CTU leaders resisted efforts to desegregate schools, despite a strong challenge from Black teachers' caucuses and militant white teachers. The CTU did press for and win collective bargaining rights in 1966, and the union went on its first strike in 1969, which ended in victory.

By the early 1970s, shifts in popular attitudes and the changing composition of the workforce shifted the CTU in a more progressive direction on race and made it perhaps the most militant big-city teachers' union local in the U.S. By 1972, it had won the highest pay for teachers in any big city. The union would go on to strike in 1973, 1975, 1980, 1983, 1984, 1985 and 1987. Chicago's longtime political boss, Richard J. Daley, before his death in 1976, concluded that he had to make considerable concessions to the CTU.

In acutely clout-conscious Chicago, a measure of the CTU's growing influence was the ascension of CTU President Robert Healey to become president of the Chicago Federation of Labor in 1984.

His successor, Jacqueline Vaughn, the first African American woman to hold the post, epitomized the changes in the CTU. Vaughn was effective at voicing teachers' demands and was willing to use the strike as a weapon. She even put teachers on the picket line in 1987 under Mayor Harold Washington, the city's first African American mayor.

The months before Vaughn's death in 1994, however, revealed that the seemingly unstoppable CTU had become an increasingly hollow organization.

As journalist Maribeth Vander Weele noted in her book on Chicago schools, Vaughn, in the last few months of her life faced off against Richard M. Daley, who had won his father's old job in 1989. Daley and the Board of Education used the crisis to demand concessions from the CTU. The teachers, Daley said, "need to understand it's a new era."

The CTU caved. As Vander Weele reported, Vaughn argued that the teachers had to surrender $60 million in concessions. A union flyer asked members: "Remember PATCO?"--a reference to President Ronald Reagan's firing of 11,500 striking air traffic controllers in 1981. "The air traffic controllers rejected their leadership's recommendations and went on strike. Their union was destroyed, and they all lost their jobs. Don't let that happen to us."

While the CTU could still place one of its leaders at the head of the local labor movement--CTU Vice President Don Turner followed Healey in running the CFL from 1994 to 2002--the union was unprepared for the assault that came packaged under "school reform." While the 1994 givebacks seem minimal by today's standards--for example, forcing teachers to pay 1.5 percent of their salary for health care coverage--they established a precedent of union concessions, and set the stage for more.

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IRONICALLY, THE slogan of "school reform"--today associated with billionaires like Bill Gates and Eli Broad--originated in Chicago among grassroots networks of teachers and parents.

While business interests and politicians intervened to shape state legislation on school reform passed in 1988, some democratic elements were included--such as the creation of Local School Councils, which gave community groups, along with two teacher representatives, a say over budgets and the hiring of principals.

But in 1995, Daley and state legislators used the pressure of the school-funding crisis to push through a corporate-driven version of school reform that gave him direct control of the school system. Historian Lyons pointed out thrust of the new law:

The CTU could no longer bargain over charter schools, privatization of services, layoffs or reductions in force, class size, staffing and teaching assignments, class schedules, academic calendar, hours and places of instruction, pupil assignment policies, pilot programs and educational technologies.

To implement this program, Daley chose Paul Vallas, a businessman and political hack, as "schools CEO," despite Vallas' total lack of education experience. While pledging to rid the Board of Education of its stifling bureaucracy, Vallas targeted teachers instead.

His program boiled down to blaming teachers for poor results on test scores and graduation rates, rather than poverty and insufficient resources. He closed "failing" schools under various schemes, such as "reconstitution," forcing teachers to reapply for their jobs or find work at another school. Nonunion charter schools--some run by business-backed foundations, others by community groups plugged into City Hall--proliferated, eating away at CPS enrollment and CTU jobs.

The CTU's response to these attacks wavered between paralysis and capitulation. Vaughn's successor, Tom Reece, was a "barely engaged 'go-along' guy," wrote journalist Linda Lenz. "When Vallas abruptly reconstituted seven high schools in 1997, removing some teachers and scaring away others, the union protest was barely audible. In essence, the CTU went underground."

Like most other unions over the past 30 years, CTU leaders believed they could preserve their organizations by trading away gains won over decades. Members might lose out on pay increases and benefits, but the union machine provided a way out for a lucky few. (For example, Marilyn Stewart's combined income from multiple union positions is more than $272,000, according to the CTU reform newspaper and Web site Substance.)

CTU leaders wanted to maintain their supposed partnership with Daley, and if concessions were the price, so be it.

Fed up, CTU members ousted the old guard in 2001, electing Deborah Lynch, a longtime union activist and reformer. Lynch and her team reduced union officers' salaries and introduced transparency in the workings of the union.

But when it came time to negotiate a contract, Lynch brought back a deal that contained major concessions on health care--and it was voted down. The rank and file subsequently approved an improved contract, but ousted Lynch in the 2004 union elections a few months later.

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MEANWHILE, CHICAGO "school reform" advocates were back. Vallas' successor as Chicago Schools CEO, Arne Duncan--now the U.S. Education Secretary--took that effort to new levels with his Renaissance 2010 plan, an effort closely coordinated with Chicago's business elite.

The branding changed from time to time--from "reconstitution" to "turnarounds," for example. But the underlying plan remained the same. Schools in gentrifying areas would be targeted for innovative programs and resources; school closures took place disproportionately in Black and Latino areas. CTU job losses mounted and job security eroded as charter schools siphoned off enrollment.

Lynch's more assertive unionism had slowed school closings to a trickle. But under Stewart, Duncan and his successor, Huberman, were able to accelerate their efforts.

Under Stewart's administration, from 2004 through 2009, the Chicago Public Schools closed 60 schools, while opening 67 non-union charter schools and seven non-union "contract schools." Although Stewart did win reelection overwhelmingly in 2007 by talking tough during contract talks, the five-year deal she ultimately negotiated won approval from union delegates only through parliamentary maneuvers. Next came the implosion within her UPC regime itself, even as the union faced a financial crisis.

With the union adrift, a new reform caucus, CORE, emerged to take on school closings. Some 500 parents, students and teachers braved a snowstorm in January 2009 to protest Renaissance 2010 and school closures. Marilyn Stewart felt obliged to accept an invitation to speak at the event, but it was CORE activists who had revived the community-teacher alliances ignored by the CTU for decades. The pressure forced the Board of Education to retreat on six school closings.

CORE also succeeded in creating a bridge between veteran trade unionists like Karen Lewis, a 25-year veteran of CPS, and younger teachers. At a time when school officials hire young people from anti-union programs like Teach for America and pit them against longstanding teachers, CORE has put forward a program that defends the pay, pensions and job security of veterans, while relating to untenured young teachers, who are often fired at the school principal's whim.

CORE's approach--outreach to the community combined with a vigorous defense of teachers' union rights--will be essential to preserving teacher unionism in Chicago against the two-pronged attack of budget cuts and privatization via charter schools.

And there are strong signs that Chicago teachers will respond to that approach. CORE supporters won unanimous approval at the union's delegate meeting to call for a May 25 rally to defend the schools. More than 5,000 teachers and supporters showed up in the biggest and liveliest Chicago teachers protest in decades.

At the CTU delegates' meeting following the rally, Lewis promised a new direction if she's elected president:

On June 11th, we have a chance to end this business-as-usual, top-down unionism.

The most important thing union leaders do is build consensus and organize members to speak and act as one. But who has heard our voice in the past six years? Who has seen a real fight against privatizing Chicago's schools? Big business sees K-12 public education as $350 billion they weren't getting a piece of. Why haven't we heard our leadership attack that profit motive--and prove it? Why has our union seemed complicit in its silence?

In that June 11 vote, Chicago teachers will have the chance to turn the slogans they chanted on that protest into official union policy. If they do, school bureaucrats and politicians from Chicago to Washington will have a fight on their hands.