CTU moves to fight anti-union legislation

May 5, 2011

Lee Sustar looks at the implications of a May 4 vote by the Chicago Teachers Union's House of Delegates to withdraw support for anti-union legislation.

A MOVE by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) to oppose anti-union legislation sets the stage for a confrontation with incoming Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a possible replay of teachers' 1960s fight for collective bargaining and the right to strike.

A May 2 vote by the CTU executive board, confirmed by the union's House of Delegates two days later, reverses a decision by CTU President Karen Lewis to endorse the legislation, known as SB 7. Should it become law, SB 7 would effectively strip the union of its right to strike and gut much of the CTU's established collective bargaining rights.

Now the CTU is on record as refusing to surrender these rights.

The Illinois state legislature--under direct pressure from Emanuel--may well up the ante with even harsher anti-union legislation, including an outright ban on teachers' strikes in Chicago. But members of the CTU's Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) organized to pass a resolution at the union's executive board and delegates' meetings that withdrew the union's support for the bill.

Chicago teachers march with parents and supporters against the diversion of city tax dollars from public schools
Chicago teachers march with parents and supporters against the diversion of city tax dollars from public schools

Lewis, along with Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) President Dan Montgomery and Illinois Education Association (IEA) President Ken Swanson, agreed to SB 7 on April 12 after weeks of negotiations with anti-union forces led by two billionaire-funded school "reform" organizations, Stand for Children and Advance Illinois.

The union leaders defended their agreement to SB 7 by comparing it to even harsher legislation that had been proposed earlier. "IFT, IEA and CTU are proud to support Senate Bill 7, which contains the most significant, bold and comprehensive reforms in education in more than 40 years," the unions said in a written statement.

IN FACT, SB 7 gives the union-bashers an important victory, undermining tenure rights so that principals can more easily get rid of high-seniority teachers rated as ineffective under new and untested evaluation proceedings. "For layoffs, which have been happening around the state, it's been last hired, first fired," said Robin Steans of Advance Illinois. "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 exempt from that section of the law--for now--because of ongoing litigation. But politicians are certain to press the same standards on the CTU in the future.

Furthermore, SB 7 singles out the CTU by imposing a longer school day without a guaranteed increase in pay.

And if Chicago teachers don't like that, too bad--SB 7 would effectively eliminate the union's right to strike. It would impose a series of mediations, notification periods and fact-finding reports that would enforce a delay of at least six months before a union could strike for a better contract--or even resist contract terms imposed by the school board. The legislation would further require at least 75 percent of the entire CTU membership to vote to strike--which means that any member who fails to cast a ballot would be counted as a "no" vote.

SB 7 also attacks the heart of the CTU's collective bargaining power with language that is obscure, but sweeping in its impact: "A dispute or impasse over any Section 4.5 subject [i.e., the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Public Schools] shall not be resolved through the procedures set forth in this Act, and the Board, mediator, or fact-finder has no jurisdiction over any Section 4.5 subject."

In other words, the law essentially carves out the CTU from the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act and oversight from the five-member board that oversees it. That means the protections normally afforded by collective bargaining rights under that law, such as the right to file grievances, could be eliminated.

These anti-union measures sparked a debate inside CORE, the caucus that won control of the CTU less than a year ago on a platform of union democracy and a militant stand against concessions. After Lewis agreed to SB 7 in the Illinois capital of Springfield without knowledge of other union officers and members, CORE activists began pushing for the union to withdraw its name from support for the bill.

A CORE e-mail sent to caucus members stated:

Barring unforeseen amendments, CORE can't support a bill that would be so damaging.

One person cannot stop the powerful combination of money and power arrayed against us. Even our best efforts may not stop this bill, but it's important that we come together and face our challenges with clarity, honesty and unity.

The stage is being set for battle, and what we do now matters for the impending clash between the incoming mayor and the teachers who care for Chicago's children.

Ironically, the SB 7 does add new language stating that the CTU could initiate a strike vote if the contract is "terminated"--something that, under the CTU's current collective bargaining agreement, is possible if the Board of Education reneges on scheduled pay increases, such as the 4 percent increase set for July 1.

The apparent intent of the legislation's authors here isn't to provide a token recognition of the union's right to strike, but to free the hand of the Board of Education and the man who will soon control it--Rahm Emanuel--to impose his terms on the CTU.

That isn't just speculation. Consider Emanuel's remarks to the Chicago Sun-Times in January, headlined, "Emanuel backs crackdown on teachers": "As we have [rules against strikes] for police and firefighters, I would have it for teachers because they provide an essential service," Emanuel said.

AS EMANUEL readies his assault on the CTU, it's important to remember how teachers won collective bargaining rights in the first place--by being prepared to strike, whether or not they had the legal right to do so.

David Selden, who was an organizer for, and then president of, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in the 1960s, wrote in his memoir, The Teacher Rebellion:

Because teachers, like other public employees, were excluded from the scope of the National Labor Relations Act, they would have to "shoot their way" to collective bargaining...That is, teachers would have to depend on their collective strength, as did autoworkers in the 1930s. School boards had the power to hold representation elections. Teachers would have to force them to act.

The strike weapon was central to the establishment of collective bargaining. In 1960, in New York City, the United Federation of Teachers held a one-day strike that forced the city's school board to meet several key union demands. The breakthrough came nearly two years later in a strike that won decisively, despite anti-strike laws. Had it been enforced, the law would have cost striking teachers their jobs--and if such teachers were rehired, it would have stripped them of tenure rights for five years and all pay increases for six.

But the size and militancy of the strike won collective bargaining for the New York teachers without such penalties, and subsequent New York laws banning public-sector strikes didn't prevent additional teacher walkouts.

The New York strike was the spark for a national teacher upsurge to win collective bargaining--a goal spurned by the National Education Association, which had long been dominated by administrators. The AFT, while far smaller, won representation rights and collective bargaining in most big-city school districts because its members were willing to fight to win their rights.

In 1966, there were 30 teachers' strikes, prompting the Detroit Free Press to observe, "Strikes and threats of strikes by public employees, particularly schoolteachers, are proving a virulent fever, and the fever spreads." The following year there were 105 strikes, and in 1968, some 2.2 million teaching days were lost to strikes.

In Chicago, the CTU won collective bargaining rights in 1966--some 30 years after the union was founded. Previously, the CTU had relied on handshake agreements and lobbying the Democratic political machine for wage increases and improvements in working conditions. But by threatening a strike, the CTU won collective bargaining rights, and had its first official strike three years later.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the CTU was perhaps the most militant of the big-city teachers union locals in the U.S., striking nine times in 18 years. That's why politicians hostile to the teachers union got the Illinois legislature to include an 18-month strike ban on the CTU in the 1995 law that put the schools under the direct control of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Mayoral control of schools ushered in more than a decade of unending corporate "reform" that has involved dozens of school closures, the loss of CTU jobs through the proliferation of charter schools, and the severe weakening of teachers' job security.

For nearly all that time, the union was run by the United Progressive Caucus, which led the CTU during its militant era, but which did almost nothing to mobilize teacher resistance.

By contrast, CORE got its start organizing against school closures with community allies and won office on a campaign to build union power. That's why Emanuel and his allies in the Illinois legislature want to accelerate corporate-style education reform by shackling the CTU once again with anti-strike legislation--this time, permanently. With Republicans like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker out to eviscerate public sector bargaining, Democrats in Illinois can push their own anti-union legislation and appear reasonable.

Thus, some form of legislation restricting the CTU's right to strike is likely to pass the Illinois legislature at the insistence of Rahm Emanuel, who takes over as mayor May 16. The incoming mayor will try to make an example of the CTU, not only to further the agenda of corporate school reform, but also to intimidate members of other public-sector unions, whose pensions Emanuel wants to cut.

And if there's anyone who doubts that Emanuel is out to get the CTU, consider the incoming mayor's choice of schools CEO, Jean-Claude Brizard, who got a 95 percent no-confidence vote by Rochester, N.Y., teachers when he ran the schools in that city.

All this makes the CTU's position on the Emanuel-approved SB 7 critically important. If the union had stood by endorsement of the legislation, it would have demoralized union members, encouraged the corporate education reformers to push for further attacks, and made it vastly more difficult to challenge the anti-strike provisions with job actions in the future.

By clearly opposing SB 7, the CTU's executive board and delegates have taken an important first step in preparing their members for the inevitable showdown with the next mayor.

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