Voting on the future of teacher unionism

Lee Sustar looks at the issues surrounding votes in the three biggest teachers locals.

Chicago teachers on the march during their nine-day strike

UNION LEADERSHIP elections in Chicago and New York City and a member referendum in Los Angeles are highlighting debates over the direction of teacher unionism.

The choice is whether the strategy of militancy and social movement unionism that won a teachers' strike in Chicago will point the way forward--or teachers unions will keep retreating in the face of the ever-escalating assault by corporate-driven school "reformers."

At an April 14 kickoff event for her slate's re-election campaign, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis told a crowd of 100 members and supporters of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE): "What I am so humbled by is the hard work that people, not only in this room, but around the city, do on a daily basis to stop the madness of corporate school reform."

The record of the CTU under CORE in Chicago contrasts sharply with other locals of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). For the past several years, AFT President Randi Weingarten has been directly involved in negotiations in New Haven, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, in which teachers abandoned their longstanding opposition to merit pay and accepted the weakening of teacher job security.

By contrast, the CTU struck for nine days last September--and forced Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to abandon his demands for similar concessions.

Now, teachers in other cities are considering a new direction. Members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA)--which is affiliated with both the AFT and the National Education Association--weighed in April 12 with an overwhelming vote of no confidence in Los Angeles School Superintendent John Deasy.

Inspired in part by the CTU strike, UTLA members also voted for the "Initiative for the Schools LA Students Deserve," an action plan for the union to fight for smaller class sizes and the rehiring of laid-off nurses, counselors and librarians. The vote called for "a series of escalating actions, including preparing to strike if necessary, to fight for the demands of the campaign."

The outcome was also an implicit criticism of UTLA President Warren Fletcher, whose strategy of piecemeal negotiations without mobilizing the membership has led to repeated concessions. The militant union caucus Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC) initiated the referendum on Deasy, forcing Fletcher to back the effort, according to David Rapkin, a PEAC activist and former member of the union's board of directors.

"While Fletcher scrambled to jump on board with the initiative, members who voted overwhelmingly for it were sending a clear message: the union leadership is taking us in the wrong direction," Rapkin said. The referendum likely presages an electoral challenge to Fletcher in UTLA elections a year from now, he added.

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THE NEXT big teachers' union vote will come in April 25, when the nearly 200,000-member United Federation of Teachers (UFT), representing public school teachers in New York City, announces the results of an election by mail ballot.

On the ballot this time is a new caucus, the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), which named itself after the CTU's Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators.

Karen Lewis' recent visit to New York City coincided with the start of the UFT election campaign, inevitably inviting comparisons between the policies of the UFT and the CTU, the two biggest locals in the AFT. As the keynote speaker at the New York Collective of Radical Educators conference on curriculum and education policy on March 16, Lewis spoke to an audience of hundreds of progressive teachers potentially sympathetic to the MORE program.

Lewis described the origins of CORE in a study group that read two pieces: a study of education and gentrification, and Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine, about how neoliberal capitalism uses economic crisis to advance its free-market agenda. "If you do not know how your enemy thinks, you have no way to outthink them," Lewis said.

The message was no doubt heartening for MORE members, who, like CORE a few years back, are starting with modest numbers as they take on the UFT's ruling Unity caucus, which has run the union since its founding half a century ago.

Lewis did not endorse MORE. In fact, she's a member of the national AFT's Progressive Caucus, which is controlled by Unity.

However, the differences between the UFT and the CTU were highlighted at a separate meeting during Lewis' New York trip, in which the CTU president appeared alongside her New York counterpart, Michael Mulgrew. The expansive and well-paid UFT officialdom must have been uncomfortable when Lewis recalled how CORE officers cut their pay and perks upon taking office. Lewis also blasted charter schools, highlighting another CTU difference with the UFT, which operates its own unionized charter schools.

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BLOATED SALARIES and a bad position on charter schools are far from the only weaknesses of the UFT under Unity, however. The new caucus, MORE, which emerged last year out of several other formations, is making its criticisms known on a range of issues.

Chief among them is the UFT's unwillingness to mobilize its membership to fight for a new contract, after the old one expired in 2009, resulting in a freeze in base pay. While public-sector strikes are illegal in New York state, MORE activists argue that the Mulgrew administration has used this as an excuse to avoid any serious organizing. The MORE side points out that the UFT would have never become established without its early strikes in defiance of the law.

MORE is also challenging the UFT's failure to mobilize against school closures or to resist a new punitive evaluation system for teachers, as well as its continued support for mayoral control of the schools--despite billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg's teacher-bashing and aggressive closure plans. While the UFT calls for an end to the "mayoral dictatorship," the union's proposals would leave centralized control in the hands of City Hall, rather than an elected school board.

Unity also follows the lead of the AFT's Weingarten--who used to be president of the UFT herself--in trying to establish a partnership with the "liberal" wing of business-driven education reformers.

Thus, AFT official Leo Casey, a former UFT vice president and longtime Unity strategist, could write recently that there's really no such thing as a corporate education reform lobby--a difficult position to maintain with billionaires like Bill Gates and the Walton family pushing privatization, and big companies like Pearson and News Corp. scheming to get their hands on the half-trillion-dollar education market.

By contrast, MORE stresses opposition to the education reform agenda, advocating an alliance between teachers and the community on issues ranging from standardized testing to demanding adequate funding for public education. As MORE's candidate for the UFT presidency, Julie Cavanagh, said:

Teacher unions are in the best position to lead the fight for racial, social and economic justice. Schools are a reflection of our society. In order to make education "the great equalizer," which was public education's promise, we must not only believe all children can learn, we must provide the resources and conditions so that they can. We must also work to improve the living and working conditions of their parents and neighbors, because they matter.

Despite its failure to take the union forward, Unity will almost certainly retain its grip on the UFT. Besides the advantages of a 50-year incumbency, the ruling caucus augments its electoral support through union rules that allot retirees up to 23,500 votes, up from 18,000 in the past.

Since only about a quarter of the active membership votes in union elections, the retirees have a disproportionate impact. Unity cultivates the retiree vote by offering services to members who now live in Florida and other cities--and in Israel, too.

Unity has another electoral advantage: the New Action caucus, a one-time opposition group that has become a satellite of the UFT leadership. In exchange for New Action endorsing UFT President Mulgrew for re-election, Unity has agreed not to contest New Action candidates for several executive board seats. New Action does criticizes Mulgrew on some issues, but its overall effect is to provide Unity with a progressive façade.

For these reasons, MORE activists are under no illusion that they are about to replicate CORE's success in sweeping the CTU elections in 2010.

Peter Lamphere, a candidate for the UFT's high school vice president on the MORE slate, explained that the caucus' aim is "to build a grassroots network of educators that can help put the focus of our union back where it should be: on rebuilding strong school based chapters, constructing genuine alliances with parents around issues like fighting the testing onslaught and lowering class size, and mobilizing the membership to fight for a new contract without givebacks."

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BACK IN Chicago, CORE is facing an election in the coming months. An alliance of the old-guard United Progressive Caucus (UPC), which dominated the CTU since the early 1970s, and the Pro-Active Chicago Teachers (PACT), which ousted UPC for a single-term from 2001-04, is opposing CORE.

Back in the early 2000s, PACT slammed the UPC for its lack of transparency, high salaries and dysfunctional machine, but it was turned out of office after only one term. The UPC, once back in power, later split, opening the way for CORE to win office in June 2010. Now, however, the once bitter foes in PACT and the UPC have formed the Coalition to Save Our Union, in an effort to oust CORE.

The coalition is careful not to disown last fall's strike. "The strike was good because it showed that we could get together," Mark Ochoa, a candidate for CTU vice president, said in an interview following a recent CTU delegates' meeting. "I think it was pretty much easy--the way teachers were beaten by their employer and their mayor--to walk out and go on strike. But we didn't get enough out of the strike."

Tanya Saunders-Wolffe, who is challenging Karen Lewis for CTU president, points to concessions in the contract, such as a shorter time during which laid-off teachers receive full pay, and small raises despite a longer school day. "We aren't being paid for that longer day," Saunders-Wolffe said. "We've lost. They [the CTU leaders] think the discipline [contract language] is a win. It's not a win, once you look at it. It's easier for principals to get rid of teachers."

CTU leaders and CORE members dispute the opposition's claim over discipline, pointing to anti-bullying language in the new contract that gives teachers leverage to stand up to principals, along with a revitalized Professional Problems Committee that obligates principals to meet with CTU delegates and representatives to settle issues before they become formal grievances.

Moreover, CTU leaders have never shied away from discussing the concessions contained in the contract. But by blocking Mayor Emanuel's demands for merit pay and a thin contract that would have eliminated decades of language protecting working conditions, the CTU held the line on issues critical to teachers where other AFT locals have retreated without a fight.

"The strike stopped the momentum of the corporate education reformers," said Jerry Skinner, a CORE activist and former union delegate at Kelvyn Park High School. Indeed, a Wall Street Journal analysis of the strike reached the same conclusion: Rahm Emanuel failed to get what he wanted.

Now, Emanuel is pushing his education agenda by announcing the closure of 54 schools--in an attempt to exact revenge on the CTU in the process. But the union and its allies haven't quit fighting. Rather than focusing solely on internal local elections, CTU officers and organizers are continuing meetings across the city. Plans are in the works for a 40-mile march among schools targeted for closure.

At the CORE election kickoff meeting, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey told activists that there was no other way forward but to keep fighting:

It's obvious that what's happening to schools. It's incredibly difficult work. It's the management by stress. It's the piling on. It's the narrative that all the failures in the inner city can be laid at the feet of teachers and PSRPs [clerical staff] and clinicians. And if you work in that environment for long enough, it produces bitterness, resentment--just fatigue. It's exhausting...

What that means is that our members are frustrated and angered by their conditions. And as CORE, we say they have a right to be frustrated and angry with their conditions. We're frustrated and angry, too.

But what our movement represents--the reason we fought, and the reason we advocated, and, frankly, the reason we struck for the first time in 25 years--is because we are committed to the fight to bring the schools forward, of making our organization stronger. And we are not going to turn that around.

When the CTU elections are held May 17, union members will have the opportunity to once again vote for CORE and show that they're still determined to defend public education and prepared to stand with parents and the community in the battles ahead.