What Earl Kelly Prince would do Credit: Photo by Jason Reblando

Last October, Chicago teachers authorized a strike after rejecting a proposed five-year contract that was backed by their union’s leaders. Anger over the contract’s length and health care costs fueled the rejection.

In late November, they approved a revised package by just 2,503 votes (15,289 to 12,786), locking themselves into a four-year pact but winning 4 percent annual pay raises.

Dissatisfaction lingered, sparking a three-way challenge to union President Deborah Lynch in the upcoming May 21 election. If no candidate wins a majority, there will be a two-way runoff.

The challengers—Earl Kelly Prince, Marcia Williams and Marilyn Stewart—say the union should scrap Lynch’s reform-minded leadership for a back-to-basics approach focused on wages, benefits and contract enforcement. They contend Lynch is not tough enough to wrangle with the board over those issues.

“Everyone went backwards in the contract,” says Prince, a veteran field representative. “We don’t want a union that is all directors, that is all Quest Center.”

Lynch supporters applaud her for balancing traditional labor aims with professional development initiatives. They note that contract gains came alongside expansion of the Quest Center, the union’s training ground.

Julia Koppich, co-author of “United Mind Workers: Unions and Teaching in the Knowledge Society,” says that Chicago’s 4 percent annual raises were “excellent” relative to other urban districts, where most teachers won 2 and 3 percent raises—or in some cases, none at all.

Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association, says reformist leaders like Lynch are winning national prestige by emphasizing board-union collaboration to improve schools. He co-directs the Teacher Union Reform Network, a national collective of some 30 locals that promotes union leadership in school reform.

Local support, says Urbanski, hinges on whether teachers see their leaders as co-opted by management.

“[Teachers] want somebody who by way of reform can emphasize some basic things that are important to teachers, such as class sizes, student discipline and safe schools and teacher voice,” he says.

Urbanski says Lynch has gained ground on these issues and is viewed nationwide as a strong leader on equal footing with the board.

Highest raises in 16 years

But Williams, a teacher and union delegate at Wadsworth Elementary, expects a backlash vote to stun the leader. She says Lynch “rolled over and played dead” during contract negotiations, essentially doing the board’s bidding by pressuring members to vote for both proposals.

Theodore Dallas, Stewart’s pick for vice president, says teachers passed the second proposal only to avoid striking over the holidays.

But Lynch trumpets the contract as a hard-fought victory in harsh economic times, adding that it was the leadership’s request for a strike authorization that forced the board’s hand.

“We saw the highest pay raises in any 16-year-period over the last 20 years,” Lynch says, noting that provisions regarding step increases and extra sick days also boost the salary gains. “The Board of Education is now claiming they’re in a $200 million budget deficit, so anyone who thinks they would’ve gotten more out of negotiations doesn’t understand the budget.” (In late April, the board announced $100 million in cuts.)

Stewart counters that higher health care costs cut the 4 percent annual increases nearly in half. She says Lynch regularly dupes members by highlighting contract gains while obscuring the bad news in rhetoric, a complaint seconded by the other candidates.

To back the charge, they point to the delayed release of contract details, alleging the “tactic” keeps members uninformed to mute election unrest.

The union recently posted the full contract to its web site, a process delayed by printing and legal issues, says Lynch. She adds, “What our members voted on last November is exactly what is going to be in the final contract book.”

Lynch points to other gains, including $900 bonuses for paraprofessionals, a fourth preparation period for elementary teachers and a strategy to enforce rules on class sizes.

She also heralds efforts to democratize union leadership; for instance, elections are now certified by the American Arbitration Association, and results are published online. Plus, Lynch says, committee participation was opened to the full membership, and union leaders regularly poll members to identify needs.

But Lynch says her team’s real coup was the restoration of bargaining rights lost in Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 1995 school board takeover, including the right to bargain over class size, academic calendar and staffing issues.

Chicago teachers lost their bargaining rights and saw flat wages before Lynch took charge, Urbanski notes. “Some expected more ground could have been made up.”

He says Lynch knew her re-election would hinge on the contract, but there is more for teachers to consider.

“Lynch is a good example of the teacher leader of the future,” he says, adding that her real legacy may be the deal she struck last year forging a board-union partnership to try shared intervention in struggling schools before shutting them down. If the schools don’t show academic improvement within a year, the board can close them.

The deal puts teacher professionalism to the test, essentially giving the union equal responsibility for the schools’ success or failure, says Urbanski. “[It’s] uncharted waters … and she had the guts to do it.”

Lynch’s challengers say the deal is dangerous. “Everyone knows it takes more than a year to turn a school around,” says Prince.

Closing partnership schools could fuel teacher resentment, a condition that author Koppich says is growing as teachers deal with mounting accountability pressures. She says “besieged” teachers have bolstered “old guard” unionism in some environments.

In areas like Chicago, Koppich notes, there is a base of older teachers who cherish a union history that emphasized traditional union aims. Alongside them are newer teachers who typically want a union that emphasizes professional development and teacher enterprise. And, says Koppich, it’s tough for a reformist like Lynch to satisfy both parties.

To contact John Myers, call (312) 673-3874 or send an e-mail to myers@catalyst-chicago.org.

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