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The Mechanics
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Education Wed May 19 2010

The Vote of the Hunted: The Chicago Teachers Union Election and City Politics

At some point in the 1980s, attacking public school teachers became the best way to prove your "independence" as a politician and make you seem serious as a reformer. Public educators have been at the receiving end of a now decade-old onslaught of privatization; tens of thousands of experienced teachers have been fired and replaced by neophytes given to the "charter churn", or exceedingly high burn-out rates. But while the profession has been under assault, teachers unions have done little to effectively partner with parents to push back against privatization that both groups see as a threat to community control and equality of access. In fact, teachers unions have often been frighteningly narrow-minded in their focus on working conditions, ignoring the larger context in which they operate and the core mission of their profession.

Now, here in Chicago, rank-and-file teachers are fed up and are fighting back, and could end up radically changing Chicago's political climate.

This week, nearly 30,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) will go to the ballot box to elect a leadership slate. Several slates are vying to replace current President Marilyn Stewart and her United Progressive Caucus. The various slates have all jockeyed to define themselves in various ways: some as nuts-and-bolts contract enforcers, as expert negotiators, as dedicated reformers. Because the CTU's elections require a majority to win, it is very likely that the election this week will result in a run-off election two weeks later. Of the groups taking on the UPC, three--the CSDU, PACT, and CORE--are the most high-profile contenders. Conversations with supporters of each of these three indicate that should any of them force a run-off, there could well be a concerted effort to ensure that UPC doesn't stay in power.

From the vantage of your typical Chicagoan, why should an internal union election matter?

Karen Lewis, a science teacher with decades of experience in the system--and the Presidential nominee of CORE--doesn't see this as a merely internal issue. To the contrary: it has everything to do with the survival of the civic ideal of equal education for all children.

"This election has a lot to say about what's going to happen to the future of publicly funded public education," Lewis told Mechanics. "That's what CORE's all about and has been about since day one. We are aware that there is a whole political aspect to this that has nothing to do with what we do in our classroom--but it does effect what we do in our classroom."

CORE has emphasized its role as part of a coalition of parents, students, and community groups that effectively took on the Board of Education to stop the onslaught of school closures mandated by Renaissance 2010. The quality of the teaching profession can't be protected so long as teachers unions behave as though they negotiate in a vacuum.

Public school teachers rely on a public trust damaged by decades of well-funded attacks by privatizers. Before they can hope to bargain on an equal footing with school boards, they need to rehabilitate that trust. They need to make the case to a public besieged by decades of right-wing attacks that democracy and opportunity rely on an equitable public education system. As we've discussed here in Mechanics before, the fact that Chicago's model of school privatization is going national will make any serious change in teacher leadership in Chicago a national issue. Big city teachers and parents organizations will adapt the methods used to fight privatization here, and this could culminate in a de facto revolt against President Obama's Department of Education.

Lewis emphasizes this dimension of the election: "The mission of the union is to serve teachers and staff. there's no doubt about that. But how we do that has to change. The way it's been done is not working. It's moribund. The way we serve teachers and staff is to bring parents, students, and communities in."

PACT, among the opposition front-runners, and led by former President Deborah Lynch, are not strangers to the type of adversarial posture that will be required for the union to stay a relevant and meaningful partner to parents and communities. Lynch and her associates successfully sued the Board in federal court to protect the right of teachers to organize and campaign for union office.

Whichever group wins on Friday (or, more likely, in the subsequent run-off), the energy unleashed by this years-long election and reform campaign is unlikely to just disappear. The CTU will at least be pressured by membership to take a more adversarial posture to the Board of Education's unceasing efforts to privatize the school system. And in Chicago, as we all know, resisting the Board of Education means resisting Mayor Daley, at a point in his mayoralty where genuine political opposition seems more viable than it ever has.

Teachers are in a unique position as an advocacy force: they have natural ties to literally every neighborhood in the city and belong to a community of interest that includes parents, youth, academics, and neighborhood activists--particularly those concerned with the usage of TIF money. An adversarial, mobilized, and community focused teachers union represents a direct threat to the political coalitions that preserve the status quo.

What's more, a positive working relationship with the community is not a nice frill but a necessary component for a teachers union to survive and thrive. The public trust upon which public education is built has to be maintained and cultivated for the profession to meet its mission. With a Board of Education aligned to privatize as much of the system as it can, this requires a community-integrated and adversarial union.

"Ron Huberman knows who CORE is," Lewis emphasized. "They don't want us to win this election. And I think that when the boss is afraid of someone in a union election--that should tell you something."

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Martha Zeprun / May 19, 2010 5:03 PM

It is interesting how much effort goes into the Teacher's union, elections and the things that these groups want for their members. There is very little mention of how they are going to improve education in Chicago. While I understand self-interest, the CTU (whichever group) is 100% inward looking and fails to see the bigger picture. No wonder the schools are failing so.

Joe from CORE / May 19, 2010 8:31 PM

Martha, the CTU has to be somewhat inward looking. Union members are paying $1000 in union dues every year and they need to know that their needs are being taken care of. Teachers are under assault and thousands of us may not have jobs next year. With that said, CORE has worked with over a dozen community groups to fight school closings and we believe that reaching out to the community is vital for our common interests. It was teachers unions who first fought for smaller class sizes and art teachers and music teachers in the school--teachers and parents have a lot of similar wants and needs. We need to work together.

orion / May 21, 2010 3:06 PM

these old union folks don't care about Chicago kids getting an education. most of them live and pay taxes in the suburbs, being grandfathered in before the residency law went into effect.

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