A crisis for teachers union reformers?

Lee Sustar looks at the debate in the union reform movement following Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis' endorsement of anti-labor legislation.

Chicago teachers participate in the nationwide We Are One protests to defend public-sector workers in AprilChicago teachers participate in the nationwide We Are One protests to defend public-sector workers in April

TEACHERS UNION activists in Chicago are contending with their union president's decision to back legislation that all but bans them from striking and makes major concessions to the corporate education "reform" agenda.

Reform groups that lead teachers unions are also having debates in Los Angeles, where the election for the union presidency was recently won by a challenger to the incumbent reform caucus, and in Washington, D.C., where a newly elected officers offered to take a pay freeze to save jobs.

But the biggest controversy is in Chicago, where Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis shocked members of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), a reform group that was the backbone of her candidacy last year, by personally giving the union's endorsement for sweeping legislation that, among other things, severely restricts teachers' right to strike, undermines seniority protections for Illinois teachers outside Chicago, and increases the school day without a guaranteed increase in pay.

To make matters worse, Lewis, a founding member of CORE, failed to report that she had already signed off on the legislation when she spoke to union delegates in a videoconference April 13, the day after she agreed to the legislation.

In a letter to CTU members, Lewis portrayed the deal as a victory over billionaire-backed education "reform" forces that initially pushed legislation which would have gutted tenure and effectively banned teacher strikes. "We successfully made the case that the right to strike, seniority, due process and a solid evaluation system all play an integral role to make possible the promise of democracy, equity and quality in public education," she wrote to explain why she personally gave the CTU's endorsement to the legislation. The Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) and Illinois Education Association (IEA) also backed the legislation, known as SB 7.

But SB 7--which passed the Illinois Senate in a 59-0 vote, and still must be approved by the state's General Assembly--is also being hailed as a victory by the corporate education reform crowd because it undermines seniority as the basis of teacher job security in Illinois.

"For layoffs, which have been happening around the state, it's been last hired, first fired," said Robin Steans, the wealthy heiress who heads Advance Illinois, the corporate-driven reform group that negotiated SB 7 with the unions. "What this bill does is at every juncture it says, 'No, this shouldn't be about just who's been around the longest, it should be about how people are performing for kids, and who's doing the most effective job.'"

Chicago is exempted from this provision of SB 7 pending the outcome of litigation related to more than 1,000 layoffs last year that the union contends violated seniority rules. But it will now be much more difficult politically for the CTU to sustain that legal challenge.

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WHAT'S MORE, SB 7 singles out the CTU by placing overwhelming restrictions on the union's right to strike. Other school districts would be exempted from this provision--a replay of the state's 1995 education reform act that specifically barred Chicago teachers from striking for 18 months. Only this time, the restrictions on CTU strikes would be permanent.

If the measure becomes law, the CTU could only strike if 75 percent of the entire membership votes to do so. That's the entire membership, not just those voting--which means that anyone who abstains from voting is effectively counted as a "no" vote.

Further, SB 7 greatly delays strike action by the CTU in a variety of ways. It imposes 60 days of mandatory contract negotiations on the union, followed by an unspecified "reasonable period" of mediation. If no agreement is reached through that process, there's a further two-week delay following the publishing of the mediator's report.

In addition, SB 7 allows either party to initiate an additional fact-finding period that could last up to 75 days--which, in practice, would provide the school board with another stalling tactic. Then there's another obligatory 30-day waiting period following the publication of the fact-finder's report. The union must further provide a 10-day notice of its intention to strike.

In short, SB 7 would put at least six months between a CTU decision to strike and the union's ability to walk the picket line legally. And even then, the school board could try to bar the action by seeking a temporary restraining order or an injunction.

All this gives enormous leverage to the incoming school board and the person who will control it--Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama's former chief of staff and an avowed champion of anti-union school "reform" measures, who takes office as mayor of Chicago May 16.

According to journalist James Warren, Emanuel was closely involved in the negotiations over the legislation, which were overseen by State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Democrat. Lightford was seen by the unions as a more labor-friendly alternative to House Speaker Michael Madigan, another Democrat who pushed even harsher anti-teacher legislation.

But according to Warren, this was a legislative good-cop, bad-cop routine that resulted in "several tough provisions singling out the CTU":

Mr. Emanuel didn't get all he wanted, especially given teachers' remaining ability to strike. But he can unilaterally lengthen the school day and set up what may be Sisyphean hurdles for the union if it wants to strike, say, if he lengthens the day by an hour or more and declines to raise pay.

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ALONG WITH the controversy over giving her blessing to anti-union legislation, Lewis is also facing hard questions over why she acted alone making that agreement--and why she then withheld that information from the CTU House of Delegates.

Although union leaders and school reformers made their deal late on the night of April 12, Lewis failed to inform delegates of that fact the following day when she addressed the regular monthly meeting of that body via Skype. Other CTU elected officers and members only learned of SB 7 a few hours later when Sen. Lightford entered it into the legislative record. Lewis' first public statement on the bill came via a CTU press release the following morning.

Lewis' decision to treat the CTU's position on legislation as her personal decision and to keep union delegates in the dark is, unfortunately, all too typical of the functioning of U.S. union locals. But it isn't what CTU members voted for when they elected Lewis president less than a year ago. Lewis was chosen by CORE members to head the caucus' slate, which campaigned as a militant, rank-and-file-led alternative to the disastrous administration of former CTU President Marilyn Stewart.

In six years in office, Stewart's United Progressive Caucus (UPC) had failed to stand up to repeated attacks on teacher job security, the privatization of public education via charter schools, and arbitrary school closings that disrupted the lives of students and their communities in mostly African American and Latino areas of Chicago. At the same time, the UPC used the CTU to give insiders bloated salaries and expensive perks while ruling the union with an iron hand.

By contrast, CORE promised to stand up to corporate education reformers, hold the line on contract concessions and build a democratic, fighting union. In the CORE newsletter published shortly before last year's union elections, Lewis criticized then CTU president Marilyn Stewart for both her undemocratic methods and her inability to hold the line in negotiations:

We know Marilyn will make these concessions--despite her "tough talk"--because it is UPC's practice to make backroom deals and shrug off member input. They think these sellouts will keep them "at the table." Rank-and-file members have not been brought to the table. We want the dinner, not the crumbs.

Last summer, Lewis made good on that statement by refusing to budge on the school board's demands for teachers to give up wage increases to avoid layoffs. A big rank-and-file negotiating committee joined her and other CTU officers in the talks. But now it is Karen Lewis herself who has been drawn into a backroom agreement, without member involvement.

Certainly, the final education legislation could have been even worse had Lewis and the CTU stayed away from negotiations altogether. The union had every interest in pushing back. But instead of walking out when an anti-union bill was finalized and opposing it, Lewis praised it, thereby confusing and disarming CTU members. By endorsing a bill that virtually bans a Chicago teacher strike, Lewis was surrendering without firing a shot.

The question now is whether the CTU will continue to stand by Lewis' endorsement of SB 7 or reject it. The issue could be discussed and voted upon at the next scheduled executive board meeting May 2 and the House of Delegates meeting two days later.

A vote by either body to withdraw the CTU's endorsement of SB 7 is unlikely to derail the legislation. The bill may even be signed into law by then. Nevertheless, a vote to reject the legislation is important. It would state clearly to CTU members that SB 7 is a clear defeat for the union--and that it represents the first salvo from Rahm Emanuel and his incoming schools chief, Jean-Claude Brizard.

More importantly, a vote against the legislation by the executive board and the delegates would reaffirm the CTU leadership's commitment to union democracy, as opposed to presidential fiat.

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THE DEBATE in the CTU highlights a problem for teachers union reformers everywhere: Once they get into office, how can they mount an effective resistance against billionaire-driven education reform, budget austerity and international union leaderships that refuse to lead a fight?

Certainly, rank-and-file teachers are fed up with the attacks, and are willing to give union militants a chance at office. In Chicago, reformer Deborah Lynch won office in 2001 on the promise of better defense of jobs and working conditions. But in 2003, she brought back a concessionary contract that was voted down. The second agreement she negotiated, which also contained concessions, was ratified in a membership vote. But Lynch was then tossed out of office in 2004, allowing the old guard to return to power in the CTU.

Whatever positive changes Lynch had brought to the union in other respects, her failure to deliver on economic issues was her undoing.

In the midst of today's all-out assault on teachers unions, of course, it's even more difficult for reformers to hold the line, let alone make gains.

In United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), reformers who took office in 2005 and won reelection in 2008 were unable to resist the tide of concessions. This shaped the outcome of recent union elections in which a UTLA vice president, Julie Washington, lost her bid for the presidency in a March vote.

As the union's chief negotiator, Washington agreed to deals that included concessions on health care and a cut teachers' pay through furlough days in order to avoid layoffs. She also paid a political price for her connection to the sitting president, A.J. Duffy, who lost popularity among union activists as UTLA suffered a series of setbacks.

Certainly, the United Action group revived UTLA in many ways by encouraging member activism--most visibly, through a widely supported one-hour strike in June 2008 to protest state budget cuts. But when the union then set a one-day strike later that year to protest the threat of 2,000 layoffs, it was hit with a draconian temporary restraining order that threatened to bankrupt the union and fine individual teachers as well as strip them of their teaching credentials.

However, UTLA never mounted a serious political challenge to those threats and didn't prepare members to go forward despite them. About 1,000 layoffs went through.

As a result, UTLA officials were forced to bargain from a defensive posture. In 2010, union negotiators, led by Washington, agreed to seven unpaid furlough days to avert further layoffs. While members voted overwhelmingly to approve that agreement, the concessions had an impact on internal union politics. As David Rapkin, a member of Washington's slate, wrote, "People were eager to save jobs, but the necessity of taking concessions to do so hurt the members and weakened confidence in the leadership."

More recently, UTLA did succeed in mobilizing community support to partially turn back a so-called "school choice" initiative that would have handed over dozens of schools to charter operators in one fell swoop. That victory, however, may be short-lived, as the school board is proceeding with its charter push anyway. And on economic issues, teachers in Los Angeles went backward as a result of the furloughs and concessions on health care.

That was a major factor in the defeat of Washington at the hands of Warren Fletcher in the recent presidential election. While Fletcher's platform wasn't conservative--indeed, he has identified with the union's reform wing--he highlighted the United Action team's failure to deliver on key economic questions. In terms of pay, benefits and working conditions, LA teachers are worse off than they were six years ago--and so in a low-turnout (24 percent), mail-ballot election, teachers voted for a change.

Now the recently elected teachers union reformers in the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) face the same challenges. WTU President Nathan Saunders has, like Julie Washington, offered to forego a scheduled 5 percent pay increase to try to avoid layoffs in the next school year. But the new mayor, Vincent Gray, turned him down.

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WHY THE retreat by leaders of feisty rank-and-file teacher groups once they take office? The problems can't be reduced to the shortcomings of individuals. They are the result of the enormous pressure placed on teachers unions by the corporate reformers and the bipartisan attack on public-sector labor, with austerity measures thrown in for good measure.

Simply put, breaking teachers' unions is at the top of the capitalist agenda in the U.S. If that statement sounds like an exaggeration, consider the sweeping terms of the injunction placed on the UTLA when it threatened just a one-day strike; the mass firing of teachers in Central Falls, R.I.; the recent issuing of layoff notices to all teachers in Providence, R.I., and Detroit; and, of course, the anti-strike legislation aimed at the CTU.

At the same time, the full-time union officialdom operates at one remove from the rank and file, insulated from the effects of any cutbacks. That makes union officials vulnerable to entreaties and arm-twisting from politicians, usually Democrats. Unless they're constantly engaged by an active rank and file, union officials will be under enormous pressure to accept the logic that they must accept the least bad of the options placed before them by employers, rather than mobilize their members to oppose all concessions.

Most important of all, most union reform groups, while dynamic, are still too small and weak to be a counterweight to the pressure from capital and a driving force in their own right.

In the 1970s, which saw an upsurge in strikes, many of them illegal wildcat walkouts, sizeable rank-and-file organizations existed in the Teamsters, Steelworkers, Autoworkers and Mineworkers, and the teachers unions as well. These rank-and-file organizations were able to press ahead with action--including strikes--when their union leaders refused to do so.

Such organizations will need to be revived if the teachers' union reformers are to carry out the fight, whether or not they are in office. In this political climate, union reformers who win office on the basis of a "throw the bums out" sentiment, but who don't build a politically solid and active rank-and-file movement are almost certain to fail.

That's because employers and politicians have made it absolutely clear that they will continue their effort to gut union power--and they won't stop until workers are organized and powerful enough to stop them. In this environment, even the most militant reform union leader with the strongest commitment to union democracy can't deliver without a mobilized and politically prepared rank and file.

The effort to build fighting unions can't begin with campaigning for union office. It has to start with building an organization in the rank and file that can make the union effective on the job--and with developing networks that can mobilize the membership. It is this kind of workplace organizing that can make the strike into a credible threat once again.

Indeed, the strike weapon has to be revived--no matter what the law says--if teachers and other public-sector workers are going to be able to resist the onslaught against them. The mass mobilization in Wisconsin over three weeks in February showed that unions have the capacity to resist anti-labor forces. But when union leaders refused to take the only step that could have stopped anti-union legislation--strike action--they surrendered in that battle.

There's no guarantee, of course, that strike action will win. But without strikes, public-sector unions--especially teachers unions--would never have won the right to collective bargaining in the first place. In the 1960s, illegal teachers strikes were commonplace, and union leaders--most of them by no means radical--often went to jail as a result.

Without strike action today, public-sector unions will surely keep losing ground. That's the reason Rahm Emanuel and his allies in the Illinois legislature went to such extraordinary lengths to make it almost impossible for Chicago teachers to strike. They are all too aware of the unions' potential power to mobilize the community behind them, and they're determined to prevent that from happening. If they succeed, it will undermine the struggles of teachers and public-sector workers everywhere.

That's why it's so important for the Chicago Teachers Union to take a stand against the legislative restrictions on the right to strike--and prepare for the inevitable showdown that will shape the future of teachers union reform efforts across the U.S.