Challengers emerge for union election

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In the coming weeks, the field of candidates for May’s Chicago Teachers Union election will begin to take shape.

Nominating petitions are due today. Opposition candidate Tanya Saunders-Wolffe, a counselor at Jesse Owens Elementary on the far South Side, has already announced that she intends to challenge current CTU leader Karen Lewis as part of a new union faction, Coalition to Save Our Union.  

The coalition includes members of the United Progressive Caucus (UPC) and ProActive Chicago Teachers (PACT), which were longtime foes of each other before Karen Lewis’ group, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), took power.

Members of the coalition charge that current CTU President Karen Lewis has failed to prevent school closings and damaged relationships with CPS by relying too much on protests. They also complain that the union has asked delegates to file grievances instead of union staff (a move they say could put delegates’ jobs at risk and lead to intimidation) and shifted its focus to organizing, meaning that teachers aren’t getting enough support in exchange for their dues.

 “What we have had for years, which has been criticized (by CORE), is labor peace. We had a seat at the table to create policy. That bridge has been destroyed. They won’t talk to the union,” Saunders-Wolffe says.  “We have to give (teachers) a voice from the table; we can’t just keep screaming from the streets.”

To get on the ballot, Saunders-Wolffe must collect signatures from at least 5 percent of union members. She says well over 50 people are collecting signatures on behalf of the coalition. If she should be elected this summer, she says she will focus on making sure teachers in closed schools are able to follow their students, and on ongoing “strategic bargaining” over the effects of CPS policies.

Some unhappy with strike results

Both sides declared victory after the strike this fall, but Coalition to Save Our Union charges that teachers ended up getting a bad deal – particularly since they never got back the 4 percent raises that CPS said it couldn’t afford to pay in school year 2011-12.

The group is also slamming Lewis for failing to put the brakes on school closings and allowing the passage of Senate Bill 7, which puts tight restrictions on the Chicago Teachers Union and unions around the state and allowed the district to impose a longer day.

Mary Ellen Sanchez, who is running for recording secretary, says that elementary teachers’ loss of a half-hour morning prep period has resulted in less time to meet with administrators and parents, even work with small groups of students before school. (Saunders-Wolffe says her group would like to see the prep period restored, and students’ days shortened by 30 minutes.) “Without that half-hour prep, we don’t have that time to communicate with each other,” Sanchez says.

Frank MacDonald, a delegate at George Washington High School, complains that some aspects of the new contract – such as the new employee discipline system – were glossed over in debate about the contract. After four warnings for any one issue within three years, a teacher can be terminated.

MacDonald adds that teachers’ wage increases feel paltry to some, because paychecks are being stretched out over a longer time period with the longer year. “Some people are looking at a $14 increase” per paycheck, he notes.

Debbie Lynch, a former CPS teacher and past CTU president who ran against Lewis in the last election but then endorsed her in a run-off, has come out in support of the new caucus as well.

“It is not strikes so much as the contracts that are deciding factors in union elections — whether or not the members are happy with the contract that the leaders are negotiated,” Lynch says. “(Teachers) feel this leadership got headlines but no protection for the members. With a strike, you have that raising of expectations that there is going to be something beneficial as a result.”

She says CORE has promoted its own political agenda – “an agenda of confrontation, protests and rallies, and the question has to be, what has it gotten the membership?”

“When they were stopping traffic in the streets they had the opportunity to come back with a contract that had moratorium language for stopping school closings,” Lynch adds. “When I was in office, I had a memorandum of understanding with Arne Duncan to stop school closings. It’s been done before.”