Union election nears in a time of instability

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Facing a gauntlet of threats – from layoffs to performance based evaluations – Chicago teachers will go to the polls May 21 to elect a union president for the next three years.

Facing a gauntlet of threats – from layoffs to performance based evaluations – Chicago teachers will go to the polls May 21 to elect a union president for the next three years.

With five candidates in the ring – an unprecedented number – there likely will be a runoff. Union rules require a president to garner more than 50 percent of the vote.  

Perhaps the biggest immediate threat facing union leadership is the possibility that CEO Ron Huberman could declare a fiscal emergency and force the teachers union back to the bargaining table to renegotiate next year’s raises – raising the possibility of a strike if the two parties do not agree on a solution.

Two of the new caucuses grew out of a dispute over ratification of the union’s 2007 contract (they claim union president Marilyn Stewart did not  count the number of votes against the contract) and the lengthy ouster, a year later, of then-Vice President Ted Dallas. All say there has not been enough push-back against the CPS administration.

Many of the candidates are offering up alternatives to turnarounds and closings.

Ted Hajiharis of the School Employees Alliance (SEA) wants the union to back performance schools as a unionized alternative to charters, but strengthen job protections for teachers displaced when the schools open. Performance schools are Renaissance 2010 schools that get increased autonomy from district rules. “Performance schools get upgraded buildings, they have young and energetic staff; the only difference is they follow the union contract and employ CTU members,” Hajiharis says.

He says they are a win-win proposal; the union gets to keep jobs, and the Board gets to open new and innovative schools.

ProActive Chicago Teachers and School Employees (PACT) candidate Deborah Lynch, a past union president, also takes a strong stance against Renaissance 2010. But her alternative is to have the union to take over more failing schools.

The Coalition for a Strong Democratic Union (CSDU) emphasizes improving job protections and serving members; caucus leaders have put in long hours assisting members of the group DARTS (Displaced And Reassigned Teachers) in filing grievances.

President Marilyn Stewart says the suggestion that she hasn’t fought turnarounds and closings hard enough is wrong. She says she has spent hours in “behind the scenes” meetings with Board of Education chairs and CEOs Arne Duncan and Ron Huberman, and she counts several district concessions as CTU victories.  

She notes that for the first time this year, the Board of Education has publicly defined the criteria that determine whether a school is eligible for intervention. It happened after the union lobbied legislators, who passed a bill a year ago mandating the change.

She says the accusations distract from the “real issues” like charter expansion, school closings, and pension protection.

Marilyn Stewart, United Progressive Caucus

Stewart, who was first elected in 2004, also touts her efforts to collaborate with the district on school reform initiatives like the Teacher Advancement Program, which lets schools opt into merit pay, and the Fresh Start program, a union-run school improvement effort.

But, she says, turnover among top leadership has made continued collaboration a problem, and finding money to expand the program has been a challenge. She says that while some schools have improved, it’s been harder for the union to demonstrate Fresh Start’s effectiveness elsewhere because of highly mobile student populations.

Deborah Lynch, ProActive Chicago Teachers and School Employees (PACT)

Lynch highlights her experience. She served as president of the Chicago Teachers Union from 2001 to 2004 and ran for office in both 2004 and 2007. She negotiated an end to closures and turnarounds during her term and has continued her hard-line stance since leaving office, describing Huberman’s administration as a “reign of terror.”

Lynch founded the CTU Quest Center, which provides professional development for teachers. If elected, she plans to expand the center’s work into new teacher mentoring, and provide more classroom management guidance for teachers. She also advocates implementing a longer school day at struggling schools, as long as teachers would earn more per hour.

Ted Hajiharis, School Employee Alliance (SEA)

Hajiharis says he is a realist. He is the only candidate that is open to renegotiating the union’s raises, but he has pledged to drive a hard bargain and press the board to make other concessions in return. That move could free up CPS cash to avoid class size increases and maintain student services. “At this point, I don’t think the majority of CPS teachers are ready for us to put in our 30-day notice that we’re going on strike – especially in the summer months,” he says.

A contract enforcer and union mediator, he says he has filed more than 250 grievances for teachers– more, he says, than all of the other opposition candidates combined.

Karen Lewis, Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE)

Two-year-old caucus CORE has quickly made a name for itself with its vocal and visible protests against CPS closures and turnarounds and its alliances with anti-Renaissance 2010 community organizations. Lewis says the group’s emphasis on democratic decision-making (members held elections to determine the group’s slate) and grassroots organizing would continue in office.

A CORE-led union would take on more than just turnarounds. With a more active, unified, informed membership, Lewis says, teachers would be able to take action every day against CPS policies they disagreed with – even if that meant openly defying mandates from Central Office, area offices and principals.

The group may have one more wild card left to play before the election: a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charging that teacher firings under CPS turnaround policies have a disproportionate effect on minority teachers. A decision is expected soon, perhaps just days before the election, on whether the federal government will take up CORE’s complaint.

Linda Porter, Coalition for a Strong Democratic Union (CSDU)

Currently CTU treasurer  Porter is a veteran teacher who has been on every union strike since 1977. “Everything we’ve got, we’ve had to work for,” she said at a forum in April.

Like other caucuses, CSDU is opposed to charter schools, and has positioned itself as a staunch defender of bread-and-butter contract issues. But the group’s emphasis on service to members has set it apart. One advantage in that arena is the political know-how and reputation of ousted union Vice President Ted Dallas, a union delegate since 1981, who is now the CSDU’s chair.