For the Record: Chicago Teachers Union strike votes

July 11, 2011

UPDATED information in italics-- In a talk at the Aspen Institute in which Stand for Children’s national director Jonah Edelman laid out his organization’s crafty strategy for winning the approval of Senate Bill 7, he says that the bill will effectively kill any chance of the teachers union ever striking again. The bill, which also makes it more difficult to get tenure and streamlines the process for firing bad teachers, requires that 75 percent of the Chicago Teacher Union’s eligible voting membership authorize a strike.

In a talk at the Aspen Institute in which Stand for Children’s national director Jonah Edelman laid out his organization’s crafty strategy for winning the approval of Senate Bill 7, he says that the bill will effectively kill any chance of the teachers union ever striking again. The bill, which also makes it more difficult to get tenure and streamlines the process for firing bad teachers, requires that 75 percent of the Chicago Teacher Union’s eligible voting membership authorize a strike.

Edelman describes CTU’s president Karen Lewis as a “militant and a diehard” who above all would not agree to forgo strike rights. But he called Lewis’ decision to allow the threshold for a strike to be raised as a “tactical miscalculation.” Stand for Children “did their homework” and concluded that if they could raise the threshold for approving a strike high enough, the CTU would be hard-pressed to get any strike approved.

(Stand for Children set up shop in Illinois last year, winning $3 million in backing to push legislators to adopt various education reforms.) 

In order to reach the 75 percent threshold, the union will need much higher participation in strike votes than in the past. Edelman said that the highest threshold reached on a vote was 48.3 percent.

“In effect they wouldn’t have the ability to strike, even though the right was maintained,” he said.

According to the source that provided the information to Edelman, in 2003, the last time the union had a strike vote, 15,965 out of 33,000, or 48 percent of eligible members, voted.

But CTU spokeswoman Liz Brown recently unearthed information that shows way more teachers participated in the vote. She says some 15,000 teachers voted to authorize the strike, but another 12,000 voted no. She adds that information from 1991 shows more than 80 percent of teachers participated in that strike vote. (This information was provided on July 13). 

In the 1980s, during which five strikes took place, the numbers of teachers who participated in the votes was low.  In 1987, about 15 percent voted and, in 1985, about 14 percent.  But in those years, more than 90 percent of teachers who participated voted to authorize a strike, and union leaders said they had overwhelming support, according to newspaper accounts.

Brown does not dispute figures from the strike votes in the 1980s, but points out that 97 percent of teachers did not show up for work, which is testimony to the fact that the strike was effective.

Still, union leaders dispute Edelman’s basic premise that they will never be able to get a strike authorized.

CTU spokeswoman Liz Brown says she was told by someone with historical knowledge that, in different years, CPS locked the schools to prevent voting from taking place, forcing teachers to go downtown to vote. This created artificially low participation, she adds.

Brown says that union leaders do not believe the 75 percent threshold will be impossible to reach. Under the law, teachers would understand that not voting would essentially mean a “no” vote.

“We would not have agreed with this if we did not believe that we had a viable option in collective bargaining,” she says.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS leadership should not count on the idea that the CTU could never muster enough votes for a strike, says Dave Comerford, spokesman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers. 

In the past, union leadership could make their own rules on when they would go on strike. Teachers understood that and, therefore, would not always show up to vote if they knew the decision was going their way.

But he says Edelman’s speech is the sort of thing that riles up union members and gets them to come out. 

“It is that kind of rhetoric that gets people to say, ‘I have had enough,’ ” Comerford says. “People do not like to be told that they can’t stand up for themselves.”