Deborah Lynch Credit: photo by John Booz

A political skirmish over a proposal to modestly increase union authority is shaping up to be a key factor in upcoming contract negotiations between the School Board and the Chicago Teachers Union.

In early September, the board and the union announced they had reached an agreement to restore some of the power unions lost in 1995, when Republican state lawmakers gave the mayor control of the school system. But the legislature must adopt the agreement.

At issue is the legislative prohibition against bargaining over class size, staffing, layoffs and other significant workplace decisions. The prohibition often is referred to as “4.5,” after the section where it is laid out in the 1995 school reform law.

In her campaign for CTU President, Deborah Lynch made restoring those bargaining rights a top priority. After she won, Lynch eventually persuaded the mayor to drop his opposition and then hashed out a compromise with board negotiators.

The compromise provides that the union may discuss the once-forbidden topics but cannot strike over them or take them to binding arbitration. The School Board would retain the final say.

Initially, Republican leaders publicly blasted the new deal. Sen. Dan Cronin (R-Elmhust), chair of the Senate Education Committee, called it “an outrage.” But then the board swung into action, making the rounds to sell its proposal to local business leaders, the press, labor unions and legislators from both parties.

Subsequently, Cronin toned down his rhetoric. In an interview with CATALYST, Cronin calls the proposal “disturbing” and argues that reducing the School Board’s power also renders it less accountable for student progress.

Still, Cronin says he won’t necessarily fight the bill if business leaders, like the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, support it. “I believe in local control,” he says. “If everybody in Chicago wants this, I’d listen. I’m open and receptive.”

At least one business-backed group looks favorably on the arrangement. Closing the deal would give Lynch “a bit of a victory, so she can look strong,” says John Ayers, executive director of Leadership for Quality Education, the Civic Committee’s school-reform arm. “We want [Lynch] to successfully negotiate a contract.”

“[Lynch] didn’t get everything she wanted, but the board was not crazy about modifying 4.5,” notes James Franczek, a private attorney who has long been the board’s chief labor negotiator.

For CEO Arne Duncan, the agreement could mend relationships that frayed when he abruptly closed three schools last spring. (CATALYST May 2002)

Agreement details

Under the proposal, the board would retain the right to make unilateral decisions to lay off workers, raise class sizes and the like, but it would be required to negotiate the impact of those decisions on union members. For a layoff, impact issues would include who gets laid off, how much notice they get and recall procedures. But even on questions of impact, the ultimate power would still rest with the board.

Details aside, the deal would give union leaders a set of guaranteed forums for making their case to the board and the public before the board proceeds with decisions that affect their members. “In the future, the board could not call us and say, ‘We’re closing three schools, and we’re having a press conference in an hour,” says Lynch.

If bargaining over 4.5 issues bogged down, the board and the union would go to a mediator. If the mediator favored the union’s position and the board went its own way, union leaders could go public with the mediator’s finding. “They get a voice, even though they may not end up getting the decision,” says Franczek.

The proposed legislation gives the union two other forums: a labor/management council that would meet monthly and a “partnership agreement” that would require the board and the union to work together to craft a plan for school system improvements. Monthly labor-management meetings have been routine since 1995.

Beyond the proposed legislation, Lynch also won agreement on a procedural change that would make it easier for some laid off school clerks and other paraprofessionals to get their jobs back.

The agreement is “one of the most positive things that’s happened in Chicago school reform for the last 15 years,” says Dorothy Shipps, a professor at New York’s Columbia University Teachers College who has written extensively about the Chicago public schools.

Shipps notes that reform legislation in both 1988 and 1995 targeted teachers and aimed to undercut their role in reform. “You can’t improve teaching and learning in really substantive ways unless you engage the teachers,” she says.

Civic Committee Vice President Dea Meyer says that the group is still figuring out what position to take. “In the best of worlds, we wouldn’t repeal 4.5, but we’re looking at how it fits into the entire reform spectrum,” she says.

Although getting the bill through the Republican-controlled state Senate this fall remains uncertain, it would probably sail through the legislature early next year when Democrats are widely expected to hold majorities in both houses.

“We’re hoping it’ll get through the veto session, but if not, we’ll ask that it be taken up immediately in January, which would leave us plenty of time to begin bargaining over the terms of a new contract,” says Lynch. The current contract expires next June.

Contract wish list

The deal on this non-economic issue comes at a time when the board is facing increasingly tight finances. Revenues from the state dropped this year, and new federal funds plugged only some of the holes.

Yet Lynch says union members tell her that after a long string of 2- and 3-percent raises in economic boom times, their top priority is larger pay increases.

Over the summer, the union posted a list of 100 or so proposed new contract items, suggested by its membership earlier last spring that range from radically decreased class size in primary grades to better health insurance coverage.

Without the proposed legislation, many of those proposals would be off the table entirely, just as teachers’ grievances over 4.5-related issues have hit a dead end since 1995. “Right now, they’re just sent back to us stamped ‘Grievance denied, 4.5,'” Lynch says.

Such dead ends “really undermined members’ confidence in the union,” Lynch adds. “Once any provision gets into the contract, it becomes enforceable through the grievance procedure all the way to arbitration.”

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