Holding the line for teachers

May 15, 2013

Lee Sustar compares the record of the Chicago Teachers Union leadership, running for re-election in a May 17 vote, with its counterparts in other cities around the U.S.

THE CHALLENGERS in the Chicago Teachers Union's (CTU) May 17 elections accuse union President Karen Lewis and the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) leadership of "squandering" last September's strike and giving ground on pay, health care, pensions and seniority.

Lewis and other CTU officials never shied away from addressing the problems in the agreement that ended the nine-day strike. As Lewis often puts it, "It was the contract we could get."

But the truth is the Chicago teachers' strike successfully resisted the corporate education reform juggernaut on all the key issues--and strengthened the contract in other areas.

HERE'S A look at the key issues:

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared war on the CTU in 2011 when he cancelled a previously negotiated 4 percent annual raise, citing a provision in the contract negotiated by the previous union leadership that allowed the school board to revoke raises in the event of a financial crisis. (The new contract eliminates that loophole.)

In the contract talks that followed, Emmanuel was determined to eliminate raises based on experience (steps) and education (lanes), and replace them with merit pay, which teachers' unions have traditionally opposed because it undermine collaboration among educators. But in recent years, teachers' union locals in Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, New Haven, Conn., Baltimore and other cities have surrendered on this issue--all with the support of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the CTU's national affiliate.

The CORE slate for top offices in the CTU (left to right): Michael Brunson, Kristine Mayle, Karen Lewis and Jesse Sharkey
The CORE slate for top offices in the CTU (left to right): Michael Brunson, Kristine Mayle, Karen Lewis and Jesse Sharkey

But the CTU stopped Emanuel cold on merit pay, preserved step and lane salary increases and won a modest raise in base pay, despite the claimed $1 billion school budget deficit. While the base pay raises don't keep up with the longer school day imposed by the city, instructional time for individual teachers hasn't increased.

For another perspective, compare that outcome to the deals negotiated by other Chicago public employee unions.

Just weeks after the CTU strike, Chicago Transit Authority construction workers took pay cuts in a new contract through elimination of overtime and paid holidays and a reduction in health care. This was followed by new contracts for train and bus workers that also cut overtime pay, increased health care costs for workers and cut pay for trainee workers to 50 percent of top pay for as much as a year, further entrenching a two-tier workforce.

Job security
The CTU opposition group for this election, calling itself the Coalition to Save Our Union, claims that the CTU leadership folded when it agreed that laid-off teachers would receive full pay and benefits for five months instead of 10, as in the past.

What the opposition doesn't say is that Chicago Public Schools (CPS), citing a budget shortfall, had demanded the right to end all pay and benefits, immediately upon layoffs. Despite the pressure, the CTU was able to salvage a compromise on that provision, though a disappointing one to CTU leaders.

The opposition also attacks the CTU leadership for negotiating an agreement in which performance evaluations also play a role in determining which teachers can be laid off.

This, too, is a compromise, but one that stems from a state law, the Performance Evaluation Reform Act, that passed in early 2010, when the main force in the opposition, the United Progressive Caucus (UPC), held the union's top offices--and did nothing to oppose the law.

In the 2012 contract talks, the new CTU leadership was, in fact, able to limit the role of teacher evaluations in layoffs. As the Wall Street Journal noted at the time, this was a clear CTU victory: "Mayor Rahm Emanuel had to agree to conditions that make it hard to fire some teachers who receive weak evaluations, and to limit some of the power of school principals to choose their staff."

By contrast, in Baltimore, members of the teachers' union--under direct pressure from the AFT leadership--agreed in 2010 to an evaluation deal that eliminated pay raises for 60 percent of teachers and put them at risk of immediate termination on the grounds that they were "unsatisfactory."

It isn't hard to imagine the opposition agreeing to a Baltimore-style deal in Chicago. In 2008, former CTU President Marilyn Stewart launched a "Fresh Start" program that offered to collaborate with the school board to fire "failing" teachers in "failing" schools in exchange for keeping schools open. Joining Stewart at the press conference to announce her plan was the former president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, Dal Lawrence, who told the media that he'd helped fire more teachers than any school superintendent in Ohio.

The opposition slams the CTU leadership and CORE for failing to match the pension supplements negotiated in the two previous contracts. Those deals, though, were make-up payments for the state's long-term failure to make adequate contributions to public-sector pensions. This time, the CTU managed to come out ahead of other public-sector workers--like bus and train workers, who will have to make higher contributions to their pensions out of their own paychecks.

The opposition also bashes CTU negotiators for giving up the ability to bank up to 325 unused sick days for pension service and payout after 20 years. But the real news here is that, despite Illinois' $100 billion pension shortfall, the CTU managed to hold on to 40 unused sick days as the basis for pension credits.

Health care
CTU negotiators agreed to a "wellness" program that costs union members money if they don't sign up for monitoring by health insurance providers for compliance with preventative measures.

The opposition is playing to CTU members' understandable discontent with this change. But CTU negotiators succeeded in their demand that members' contribution to health care insurance will be unchanged. That's a better deal than the transit workers got: They have both higher health care costs and the wellness program.

Union power in the schools
CPS wanted a "thin" contract to empower principals and administrators, based on the agreement in New Haven, Conn., that AFT President Randi Weingarten hailed as a "model or a template" for future teachers' union contract.

Rather than capitulate, the CTU dug in. Not only did union negotiators get the contract language won over decades restored, but they added important new provisions. Under the new contract, members can file grievances against principals for bullying. With principals under increasing pressure to drive out high-salaried teachers, that's a critical tool for union members--and according to CTU field representatives, this contract provision is already being widely used.

What's more, the contract gives the CTU new leverage in the school-based Professional Problems Committees. In monthly committee meetings, union delegates can negotiate with principals over issues to try to resolve them before grievances get filed.

BUT IF you really want to get a sense of what the Chicago teachers achieved in last year's strike, take a look at the new proposed contract negotiated by a different CTU.

That CTU, the Cleveland Teachers Union, recently announced a tentative agreement that guts tenure by abolishing job security based on seniority, imposes a merit pay system that will undermine union solidarity, implements an evaluation system that will expose large numbers of teachers to termination, and imposes higher health care costs.

A summary of the deal lists the breathtaking concessions that Cleveland union leaders made: a seven-year track to a weakened tenure status; a 40-minute addition to the school day that includes 100 additional minutes of student contact time per week; elimination of voluntary professional development days; elimination of standard schedules for high schools; layoffs, in a system modeled on the disastrous Baltimore contract, according to evaluation and skills, rather than seniority; and higher health care contributions from members.

The centerpiece of the proposed Cleveland agreement is the merit-pay system--known as differentiated compensation, in which teachers will earn "achievement credits" based on skill development. This is a recipe for favoritism and divide-and-conquer tactics by principals, and fractured union solidarity.

The Cleveland contract debacle isn't simply the result of corporate education reformers getting their way. The Cleveland Teachers Union and the AFT both hail the agreement as a product of labor-management partnership. Thus, AFT President Weingarten stated:

This agreement recognizes and values the voice and experience of educators in strengthening Cleveland's public schools and guaranteeing every child the education she needs and deserves. It is good for students, fair to teachers and was forged through a deep commitment to collaboration and shared respect, rather than conflict. This tentative agreement is yet another example of what is possible when both sides remain dedicated to the collective bargaining process to do what is best for children and teachers.

The proposed contract, which will be voted upon by Cleveland teachers in coming days, was written to conform to state legislation passed last year in cooperation with Republican Gov. John Kasich. The governor is notorious in the Ohio labor movement for his legislation that would have ended collective bargaining for public-sector workers in the state until it was overturned by a voter referendum.

The Cleveland teachers' collaboration with Kasich came at a high cost, not just for teachers, but public education. Under the Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools, tax money will be funneled directly to charter schools, thereby entrenching unaccountable and often substandard private operators.

Five officials at the Cleveland Academy of Scholarship Technology and Leadership Enterprise were among the 10 people recently indicted for allegedly stealing $2 million from that charter school. Not surprisingly, these people ran a lousy school: it's currently in "Academic emergency," the bottom ranking of the Ohio Department of Education.

The Cleveland plan will only increase the risk of such scandals. According the Cleveland plan's authors, by 2011, some 11,400 students in the district were enrolled in charter schools out of total enrollment that year of 43,202. In other words, in a city where one of every four children already attends a charter school, the Cleveland teachers' deal with Kasich will only accelerate the shift away from traditional public schools.

Cleveland, of course, is hardly alone. In New Orleans, Detroit and Philadelphia, rapid-fire school privatization through school closures and the proliferation of charters is ending public education as we know it.

Rahm Emanuel is determined to advance that agenda in Chicago, too--hence the announced closure of 54 neighborhood elementary schools, even as the number of charter schools expands.

But Emanuel ran into unexpected resistance from the CTU, which not only put tens of thousands of striking teachers into the streets for nine days, but also won widespread public support for the strike. Against all odds--and breaking with the strategy of its national leadership in the AFT--the CTU fought a defensive battle and won.

Any Chicago teacher who wants to see their union continue that fight should vote for Karen Lewis and the CORE slate on May 17.

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