A new day in the Chicago Teachers Union

June 14, 2010

Lee Sustar looks at the far-reaching impact of the reform victory in the CTU.

KAREN LEWIS didn't waste any time laying out her vision for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU)--and challenging the political and business interests driving corporate school reform.

"Today marks the beginning of the end of scapegoating educators for the social ills that all of our children, families and schools struggle against every day," she said at a press conference the morning after the slate of rank-and-file reformers she led won a decisive union election victory, taking just over 59 percent of the vote. She continued:

Today marks the beginning of a fight for true transparency in our education policy--how to accurately measure teaching and learning, and how to truly improve our schools and how to evaluate the wisdom behind our spending priorities. This election shows the unity of 30,000 educators standing strong to put business in its place--out of our schools.

Corporate America sees K-12 public education as a $380 billion trust that--up until the last 15 years--they haven't had a sizeable piece of. So this so-called school reform is not an education plan. It's a business plan, and mayoral control of our schools and our Board Of Education is the linchpin of their operation.

Fifteen years ago, this city purposely began starving our lowest-income neighborhood schools of greatly needed resources and personnel. Class sizes rose, schools were closed. Then standardized tests, which in this town alone is a $60 million business, measured that slow death by starvation. These tests labeled our students, families and educators failures, because standardized tests reveal more about a student's zip code than it does about academic growth.

And that, in turn--that perceived school failure--fed parent demand for charters, turnarounds and contract schools. People thought, "it must be true, I read it in the papers. It must be the teachers' fault." Because they read about it, every single week. And our union, which has been controlled by the same faction for the last 40 years--37 out of 40--didn't point out this simple reality.

What drives school reform is a single focus on profit. Profit. Not teaching, not learning, profit.

Karen Lewis, president-elect of the Chicago Teachers Union, speaks after the CORE victory was announced
Karen Lewis, president-elect of the Chicago Teachers Union, speaks after the CORE victory was announced (Labor Beat)

Lewis' statement left the Chicago press corps literally speechless. Only one reporter managed a couple of questions. The local media simply isn't used to an assertive teachers' union leader--certainly not one who declares that she's standing up to the politicians and business interests that have made Chicago a laboratory for "school reform" for the last 15 years.

And with Chicago Schools CEO Ron Huberman demanding union concessions to cover what he says is a $600 million budget deficit, Lewis and other CTU officers will have to go into battle the moment they take office July 1.

LEWIS IS co-chair of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), a group that formed a little more than two years ago to fight school closures when the CTU incumbent officers failed to do so. CORE was able to build on the experience of a previous reform group, the ProActive Chicago Teachers (PACT), which ran the CTU for one term between 2001-2004.

While several PACT veterans helped found CORE, much of its support came from younger teachers new to union activism. Yet despite its short history, CORE was able to unseat the incumbent United Progressive Caucus (UPC), which has controlled the union for 37 of the last 40 years.

The UPC was ousted after it failed to resist attacks that have included 70 school closings and the loss of 6,000 CTU members over the last decade. African American women have lost their jobs in disproportionate numbers, Lewis noted on election night.

CORE won by bringing attention to such problems. "We've broken apart this mantra of reform that charter schools and firing so-called bad teachers is the solution to our education woes," said Jackson Potter, who co-chairs CORE with Lewis, and who was elected to the union's executive board as trustee. "I think this whole thing is coming off the rails, and this [election result] is a sign of that."

Indeed, the significance of CORE's victory is national. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who dramatically accelerated school closings and privatization as boss of Chicago schools, no doubt got a case of heartburn upon hearing the election results.

Duncan's supposed success in Chicago was part of the motivation for Race to the Top, the federal program that allowed budget-strapped school districts and states to compete for a share of $4.3 billion in federal funds--as long as they agreed to impose merit pay on teachers and accelerate the creation of charter schools.

Now, however, Chicago teachers have said loud and clear that corporate-driven "school reform" doesn't work--in President Barack Obama's hometown, no less.

The CORE victory will also turn heads in the Washington headquarters of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the CTU's parent union.

AFT President Randi Weingarten has collaborated with Race to the Top and other White House education initiatives, even at the cost of retreating from the union's opposition to merit pay and defense of tenure as the basis for teacher job security. But the election in the CTU--the third largest teachers' union local in the U.S.--is a clear signal that rank-and-file teachers have different priorities.

CORE's decisive win comes after the caucus stunned UPC incumbents in the first round of the elections held May 21. The upstarts won just 500 fewer votes than the UPC in a five-way race.

A big, noisy union rally to save jobs, held four days later, shed light on the reason for CORE's strong showing. CORE's victory isn't simply the result of a throw-the-bums-out sentiment by a sullen and resentful membership: Teachers are furious, and they're looking for a way to fight back.

Outgoing CTU President Marilyn Stewart tried to use the powers of incumbency to head off the insurgents, monopolizing the microphone at the May 25 protest rally and sending union mailings and holding conference calls in the days before the vote. Stewart's campaign also got some last-minute help from the Chicago Sun-Times, which published a front-page photo and headline about the union's lawsuit opposing increased class sizes.

But Stewart also stooped to gutter politics, Chicago-style. That wasn't unexpected: In 2008, Stewart removed her onetime closest ally from union office and expelled him from the CTU.

In an attempt to fend off CORE, Stewart sought to whip up fears about the "radical" caucus and accused Lewis of being a militant--as if that were an insult. George Schmidt, the retired teacher who covers the CTU exhaustively as editor of the Substance newspaper and Web site, wrote that it was the dirtiest CTU election campaign he had ever seen.

CORE activist Jim Vail, an elementary school teacher, agreed. The incumbent UPC, he said, "ran on calling us the socialists, communists, radicals. They tried to divide our union--'elementary school teachers, come on, you've got to support the union leadership, because these militant high school and CORE people want to run everything into the ground.' And that was rejected. Because everyone knows this is our last stand to fight this whole disaster."

The fear campaign flopped. With the backing of three other caucuses following the first round of elections, CORE won a sweeping victory in the second round of voting. The caucus gained control not only of all the high school vice presidential slots, but also all of the vice presidents representing elementary schools, the historic base of the UPC. That's the vast majority of seats on the new executive board.

CORE COMES into office having already developed many of the alliances that are necessary for a fight against budget cuts, school closures and the proliferation of charter schools.

In January 2008 and 2009, CORE initiated meetings that attracted hundreds of teachers, parents and community activists fighting school closures. It also pushed for a more responsive and effective union, working with displaced teachers and other union members on grievances and issues neglected by Stewart's UPC operatives.

Now, as it pledges to take power, CORE promises to make the CTU democratic and accountable. Officer salaries will be cut to standard teacher pay, and resources will be poured into organizing and defending union members. Lewis said that she hopes teachers will return to school this fall feeling "protected and empowered," adding, "We're going to tell the truth all the time."

The truth won't always be pleasant. The union machinery is dysfunctional and its treasury depleted, in part because of high salaries like Stewart's $272,000 combined income from multiple union salaries and the expense account scandal that surfaced in the UPC's internal faction fight.

And, thanks to a sneak attack in the Illinois state legislature earlier this year, the Chicago teachers' pensions funds were drained of $1.2 billion to cover current state operating costs. The new law will also require newly hired teachers to have to work until they're 67 to qualify for a pension--and teachers aren't eligible for Social Security.

"Currently, teachers work 34 years, and they're out the door," said Jay Rehak, who, along with another CORE candidate, earlier won election to the CTU's seats on the pension board.

Rehak, who was also elected as a union trustee on the new executive board, says that the legislature's repeated raids on the fund could destroy it in 10 or 15 years. "It's going to run out unless something is done to replenish it," he said. And given Illinois' severe budget crisis, legislators may try to reduce the teachers' already modest $39,000 annual pension.

But all this has led not to despair, but anger. "Teachers are fed up with being victims," said Kenzo Shibata, a member of the CORE steering committee. "We're fed up with having to take this abuse from the central office and the lack of protection of the union."

CORE will also reach out to young teachers, many of whom were fed anti-union propaganda as part of their training, and who have been alienated by an unresponsive and ineffective CTU.

"A lot of our younger teachers don't understand the importance of unions, and this will give us an opportunity to teach them--and that will make our union stronger," said Kristine Mayle, who was elected financial secretary on the CORE slate. "I think all teachers' unions in the country are looking to us right now, and I think this will make everybody a bit stronger."

Those changes can't come soon enough for Patricia Breckenridge. Despite having 15 years teaching in the Chicago Public Schools, she's now displaced--for a second time--because of a weakness in the CTU contract and the unwillingness of the old union leadership to enforce her rights under state law. Many others were displaced for similar reasons.

Breckenridge became active in CORE, she said, because no other union caucus took her struggle seriously. "There was no other caucus that was standing up for teachers and their state rights more than CORE was," she said after the June 12 press conference, which she attended to support the new leadership. "They [union officials] clearly knew that our state rights were being violated, but nobody would stand up. Nobody at the [Board of Education] meetings, nobody personally, nobody at our grievance hearings."

Responding to the needs of teachers like Breckenridge will be a central task for CORE as it readies for a showdown over layoffs and budget cuts. But the new CTU leaders knew that when they launched their campaign. If they're successful, they could point a new direction for teachers unions across the country as they face their greatest challenge in decades.

Further Reading

From the archives