CTU President Karen Lewis Credit: Photo by Marc Monaghan

When members of the Chicago Teachers Union went to the union polls June 11, they chose the most aggressive leadership that this union has ever had.

CTU President Karen Lewis and her crew not only are talking and acting tough on traditional union issues such as job protection, they are also passionately pursuing a reform agenda of their own, and organizing like-minded parents and community members to support it, and by extension, them.

“Our members want a union that will protect teaching and learning,” says Lewis, a National Board Certified teacher who taught chemistry at King College Prep. She contends that current reforms are damaging to students. “We want to rebuild our relationships with local school councils, professional personnel advisory committees [at schools], parents and the community, who we believe are our natural allies.”

Clearly, the new mayor will have a tiger by the tail. To move schools forward and avoid the calamity of a strike, he or she will have to show it some respect. 

On paper, the Chicago Teachers Union is one of the weakest big-city locals. When a Republican-dominated state legislature and Republican governor gave the mayor of Chicago unfettered control of the school system in 1995, they made the job of running schools easier than it had been in the past.

With one hand, they freed up money that paved the way for the district’s first-ever four-year teachers contract, ending years of labor turbulence. With the other, they killed a half-dozen union bargaining rights, prohibiting negotiation over such issues as layoffs, class sizes and staffing. To help seal a subsequent multi-year contract, the legislature in 2003 opened the door to board-union discussions over these issues, but left the ultimate decisions with the board.

However, unlike the teacher unions in New York and Philadelphia, the CTU can wield the ultimate weapon: a walk-out. Already, some Chicago school watchers are asking: Will they? Given the state’s dire financial straits and the new union leadership’s fiery debut—a lawsuit over layoffs and more than 450 grievances—that’s not an unreasonable question.

The current contract between the CTU and the Board of Education does not expire until June 30, 2012. Before then, a strike would be possible only if the board cannot pay for the 4 percent raises teachers are due next July 1. A new mayor can be expected to do everything in his or her power to come up with the cash and buy another year of labor peace.

CEO Ron Huberman, with the support of Mayor Richard M. Daley, was willing to raise class sizes, siphon cash reserves and tap one-time tax increment financing district funds to pay for this year’s 4 percent raises.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in one-time revenue from the federal government and temporary pension relief from the state forestalled those actions, leaving them available to the next mayor’s School Board. Lewis would target money on testing and the district’s decentralized structure, which has 23 chief administrative officers overseeing groups of schools. 

Laurence Msall, president of The Civic Federation, a budget watchdog, would reduce pension benefits and insurance coverage for retirees, which he says are unsustainable at current levels.

“The future is a very challenging thing for the Chicago Public Schools because they anticipate flat or declining enrollment while the major costs—personnel—will continue to grow faster than foreseeable revenue,” Msall says. “Put that against the backdrop of a state that is basically bankrupt.” 

He adds that any state tax increase likely would be soaked up by overdue state bills.
Meanwhile, the new CTU leadership, which hails from the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), is amassing people power, something it has done well from the start.

CORE grew out of teacher opposition to the school closings and turnarounds of Renaissance 2010, the signature reform effort of Mayor Daley and former CEO Arne Duncan. Initially, these teachers simply wanted to pressure then-CTU President Marilyn Stewart to take a harder stand against these actions. When that didn’t happen to their satisfaction, CORE members began organizing. That was in summer 2008.

One of their first actions was to embrace the community organizations that had been members of a coalition that Stewart formed in 2005, but then disbanded when, according to CORE co-founder Jackson Potter, Stewart became uncomfortable with the synergy between the teachers and the community groups. Prominent among those groups were such frequent critics of the School Board as Parents United for Responsible Education, Designs for Change and the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization.

The new Grassroots Education Movement (GEM) began hosting conversations around the city about what teachers and parents viewed as the main problems in the school system and what to do about them. Coalition members also made sure that GEM was represented at School Board meetings and school-level hearings across the city.

In January 2009, more than 500 teachers, parents and community members turned out for a day of workshops and planning at Malcolm X College. 

By then, CORE was gearing up to challenge Stewart in the May 2010 election for CTU officers. With five slates running, neither Lewis nor Stewart won a majority; each got about 30 percent of the vote. In the June runoff, Lewis handily defeated Stewart, with 60 percent of the vote.

CORE now is taking a community organizing approach to developing teacher leadership and power inside schools. In what may be a first for a teachers union, it has hired community organizers to train teachers how to assert themselves—with their principal, through their local school councils and professional committees and in the broader community. The idea is for faculties to rely more on themselves to prevent and solve problems than wait for the union to send out field representatives, who handle formal contract grievances.

Norine Gutekanst, who heads up the union’s new, five-person organizing department, offers these examples: Teachers at a school may be afraid to challenge a domineering principal. In that case, an organizer would get them to talk through their problems and figure out a way to approach the principal. In the case of teachers who lost jobs in the School Board’s recent cost cutting, the union is encouraging them to contact aldermen and other elected officials.

The union also is looking to engage parents around the larger, policy issues of school improvement.

“Parents need to be concerned about these issues, too” says Gutekanst, who taught bilingual education at Whittier Elementary School for 23 years before joining the CTU staff. The union supported Whittier parents in their recent battle with the School Board to get a new library.

The Quest Center, the union’s professional development arm, now has a researcher who will develop position papers the union will take to the public. Already, union leadership has taken stands against some of the leading reforms of the day, including school closings, charters and increased student testing. It also has come out against mayoral control of schools, a reform that the late Jacqueline Vaughn, the union’s most revered president, supported.

Unbenownst to most union members, their leaders take inspiration from the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen, a union founded in 1897 that, through a series of mergers, wound up as today’s United Food and Commercial Workers.

While on a leave of absence from Englewood High School (which was phased out under Renaissance 2010), Jackson Potter became immersed in their story. The Meat Cutters union, he says, distinguished itself by its democratic approach to union operations and its activism around social issues. Leaders of the new CTU have signaled that they will follow in these footsteps.

Declaring there would be no “backroom deals,” Karen Lewis brought 40 union members to the first bargaining session with the School Board. And the words “social justice” are now part of the union’s vocabulary.

The documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’” suggested that there are teachers and then there are teacher unions. Chicago’s next mayor would do well to see them as one in the same. Many teachers are angry—about lost jobs and pressure to raise test scores. Many see policy initiatives like teacher evaluation and compensation reform, which union leaders support in some fashion, as an attack on teachers.

This discontent erupted recently at a decidedly nonpolitical event, the annual teacher conference of the Chicago Foundation for Education, a professional development organization that supports innovation in the classroom. More than 500 teachers gathered for a day of workshops lead by their colleagues.

Leslie Baldacci, one of more than 50 new-teacher coaches laid off in the budget cuts, was the keynote speaker. When she mentioned that a new mayor likely would appoint at new chief executive officer for CPS, the room burst into applause.  

And it is not just teachers who are angry. “Principals and teachers have been pushed to the point where everyone is so angry about the ‘corporatization’ of schools,” says Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.

Karen Lewis reached out to Berry to see where they might work together. “I found her reasonable,” says Berry. “I am happy to have someone of her caliber to work with.”

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