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Sunday, July 21

Gapers Block

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The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) displayed its version of Chicago-style democracy at its House of Delegates meeting at the Plumbers Union Hall June 7. The focus of this particular meeting included a crucial vote for the upcoming budget, one that takes on the Herculean task of rectifying a deficit of $2 million. Delegates, who are elected by the faculty and staffs of their respective schools to vote on union matters, were inundated with fliers assigning blame for the debacle, handed out by potential political appointees.

The most notable flier, issued by CTU President Marilyn Stewart's faction of the union, the United Progressive Caucus, which was emblazoned with the pornographic allusion, "Debbie Does... Dallas Does..." insinuated that the blame lies in the hands of past CTU president, Deborah Lynch for "overspending by $2.5 million in her last year," according to the flier. It may be interesting to note that regardless of this figure, which was credited to the independent auditing board currently reviewing the CTU's finances, Lynch left office with a $5.6 million surplus. In the April edition of CTU's newspaper, the Union Teacher, it was noted that another contribution to the current deficit was the Lynch administration's mistake of reducing member dues (which was a "problem" promptly "fixed" by the UPC when they took the reigns in 2004).

This is understandable. This is Chicago. Elected officials are always campaigning for the next election, and feel the need to continuously smear potential future opponents. Lynch is a member of an opposition caucus, the Proactive Chicago Teachers.

This is not the same case for the "Dallas" referred to on the flier. Ted Dallas is the current Vice President of the CTU. Ted Dallas is not only a member of the UPC, he built the organization that campaigned for the UPC slate in when it first took power in 2004 and again when it was reelected in 2007. The flier accuses him of thousands of dollars in questionable spending over the course of his term as vice president. Dallas found out quickly that there are no friends when it comes to the "not-meism" of Chicago-style democracy.

The flier ends with the cautionary question, "Do you trust the two of them to give you accurate information on the 2008-2009 budget???" The UPC was anticipating the two other camps doling out information to the delegates prior to the budget vote.

The action on the floor of the House of Delegates was distinctly Chicago-style democracy; one delegate, quoted by the Sun-Times, likened it to the "Jerry Springer Show." Stewart chairs the meetings, and questions by delegates regarding budget transparency were shot down as "being out of order" by Stewart and verified by the CTU's parliamentarian. A few innocuous questions were answered. Those questions were read from crib sheets. One question in particular ("How is this budget different from last year's budget?") was asked by two different members. This led to jeers from delegates throughout the crowd. One vote, regarding extending debate, was called by a stand-up sit down vote, tallied by sergeants-at-arms (who are political appointees of the UPC) was recounted multiple times, confusing delegates. A number of observers in the balcony used this chaos as an opportunity to count the votes themselves to verify accuracy, were promptly told to stop by a sergeant-at-arms, and then removed from the Plumbers Hall by the police.

The final vote was made by physically dividing the delegates to a "yea" side and a "nay" side on the floor and the vote was tallied. The budget passed. There are disputes as to the actual vote count, but regardless; the vote was a clear example of Chicago-style democracy.

The floor was filled with field representatives, union staffers and sergeants-at-arms, all of whom are political appointees of the CTU, and under the current administration, members of the UPC faction. This places delegates in a sticky situation. If they are opposed to the budget (or at least would like to see it before voting on it) and want to vote their conscience, they immediately become dissenters in the eyes of the UPC. Staffers, et al, see the faces attributed to the votes, and know who could be potential appointees and who will be dealt sticks.

Field Representatives are the liaison between the school site and the union leadership. Each delegate is the representative of his or her school. If a delegate is seen as a dissident, he may find calls unreturned or grievances delayed, making him look inept in the eyes of his constituents, who then have the option of not reelecting him. They may then choose to elect a more politically feasible representative. Clout oozes its way from City Hall to the Plumbers Hall.

This drama will continue as attempts are being made to oust Dallas from his position as vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union. The charges were brought on by two UPC members of the CTU, accusing Dallas of bringing the union into disrepute. A trial by CTU executive committee was scheduled for June 12, but it has been postponed. Dallas is in the process of organizing his own faction of the UPC, who have been blogging tirelessly about making the spending records of the rest of the union officers public. This begs the question to "Stewart's UPC," "Is the goal to bring Dallas to justice, or are you using Chicago-style democracy as a vessel to smear a political opponent?" School may be out for the rank-and-file of the teaching community, but it's going to be a long, hot summer for the union leadership.

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Carla / June 20, 2008 11:29 AM

What's really sad about all this is that the original Chicago teachers' union was a very progressive model of change and led the way for better working conditions and pay for teachers back when they worked at the whim of industrialists and the like.

Kenzo / June 21, 2008 6:35 PM

You bring up an important point. The problem with representative organizations is that over time they take on a life of their own and no longer work as a vessel for member democracy. When this occurs, leadership change and reorganization is necessary to ensure that the organization is operating at the pleasure of its members. Keep your eyes open as this story develops. There is definitely more to come.


About the Author(s)

Kenzo Shibata is a full-time educator who moonlights as a graduate student of public policy at Northwestern University. He writes about education, labor, and prison policy. Most importantly, he's a North Side White Sox fan who won't stop believing. You can reach him at

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