Union election: Karen Lewis vs. challenger, strike gains vs. contract losses

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Almost buried in the whirlwind of news on school closings is the Chicago Teachers Union election, in which challenger Tanya Saunders-Wolffe is seeking to oust current President Karen Lewis.

Voting kicked off today, and early results may be released as soon as this evening.

Saunders-Wolffe, a guidance counselor at Jesse Owens Elementary on the Far South Side, is waging an uphill battle to unseat Lewis, harnessing dissatisfaction among many teachers with the latest union contract.

Saunders-Wolffe has also criticized Lewis and the current leadership team for their tactics against the district and City Hall.

“We have to give [teachers] a voice from the table. We can’t just keep screaming from the streets,” Saunders-Wolffe told Catalyst Chicago in March. 

“We have done so many school visits. Teachers are really unhappy with the contract,” said Mary Ellen Sanchez, opposition candidate for recording secretary, who was outside Byrne Elementary in Garfield Ridge this morning. Sanchez teaches 3rd grade at Byrne.

Candidates on Saunders-Wolffe’s opposition slate, the Coalition to Save Our Union, are pledging to focus more on member services, which they charge have fallen by the wayside as Lewis’ team, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, focuses on organizing. Organizing is a major component of CORE’s strategy, as Lewis’ team led the CTU through a week-long teachers’ strike last fall, Chicago’s first in 25 years. Immediately after the strike, CORE switched gears to fight school closings through protests and partnerships forged with community and parent groups.

The Coalition also wants to rebuild the union’s bridges with district management, despite a relationship that has grown increasingly bitter in recent years.

At Byrne, teachers enumerated the issues that swayed them to support the Coalition, many of them boiling down to unhappiness with the contract: longer days and hours that the pay raise didn’t make up for, a cut to paid before-school prep time, and an agreement to drop litigation over the contractually promised 4 percent raises that teachers didn’t get during the 2011-2012 school year.

“People were getting scared [because] the strike was too long,” and thus gave in too much at the negotiating table, said librarian Mary Beth Corbin. She also complained that even though the contract ended up including incentives to participate in a wellness plan, and even teachers who are participating are being charged due to bureaucratic snafus.

Scott Worden, Byrne’s special education teacher, said he was undecided but also felt the contract left much to be desired. “With the strike, I don’t think we gained anything,” Worden said. “No matter who’s in charge, we always lose something as teachers. The board’s going to win, because they’re going to sneak something in.”

At Kenwood Academy High School in Hyde Park, many teachers said they supported CORE and cited Lewis’ handling of the strike.

 “I trust the leaders who led us through the strike to carry us through another year,” said science teacher Barbara Richter. Coreen Uhl, another staff member at the school, said Lewis “did a great job representing us during the strike, so I’ll be taking that into account.”

Added history teacher Shannon League: “I don’t think we could have asked for much more. In negotiations, you have to give a little.”