Rank-and-File Teachers Caucus Unseats Incumbents on Pension Board in Chicago

When the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) endorsed two of our members as Teacher Trustees for the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund, we formulated a strategy that strayed far from the expected route. On October 30 our strategy yielded a big win for the rank-and-file movement within the 32,000-member Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). This was the first time that incumbents who were members of the ruling caucus in the CTU lost their seats to a reform group.

We knew that solely seeking the CTU’s endorsement would have been a fatal mistake, as the House of Delegates was under tight control by the ruling United Progressive Caucus (UPC). The incumbents would be shoo-ins for that endorsement. That route became tertiary to our strategy.

First, we sought out two candidates who would best represent the interests of pension contributors. Lois Ashford was displaced in 2008 when the Chicago Board of Education decided to “turn around” Copernicus Elementary, flippantly firing its entire staff. Ashford said that as a displaced teacher, she knew that the “pension was the only thing they could not take away.” She started researching the pension and the decisions made by the pension board. She knew it was time to take action.

English teacher Jay Rehak has been keeping an eye on both the pension and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) budget for many years. Last August he attended budget hearings to question the Board’s fiscal decision making. He noticed a footnote in the financial report: the Board had experienced losses due to derivatives investments, the same type of investments that have dealt a crucial blow to the nation’s economy. Rehak’s statements at the budget hearings made him the prime candidate for CORE’s second endorsement.

After receiving the CORE endorsement, Ashford and Rehak took a tour of the Chicago Public Schools (the “Jay-Lo (Jay and Lois) Pension Tour”), speaking to teachers about their concerns over the security of their pensions. Rehak attended multiple Board of Education meetings where he castigated CPS CEO Ron Huberman for suggesting that the pension is anything less than an obligation to teachers for their years of service.

Ashford and Rehak warned members that Huberman was sent to CPS to do what he did to the transit employees as head of the Chicago Transit Authority: put new workers on a second-tiered, defined-contribution pension. The duo warned about the looming “pension holiday” that the Board might take to unburden itself of the pension obligation.

The tour took them to schools throughout the city, north, west, and south, elementary and high schools. They distributed literature that listed facts about the pension that all contributors should know. It was more of an educational campaign than a political one.

New Book

Secrets of a successful organizer

A step-by-step guide to building power on the job. Buy Now. »

Many of these campaign stops were documented on CORE’s interactive website. Alongside the grassroots, face-to-face campaign, CORE’s communications team developed a web presence that kept teachers updated on Ashford and Rehak’s research, gave vital information to displaced teachers on where to vote, and gave new members opportunities to help with the campaign. CORE created a Facebook group called “Lois Ashford and Jay Rehak for Pension Trustees” and updates were made regularly on CORE’s Twitter page. Larry Duncan from Labor Beat produced a campaign public service announcement for Ashford and Rehak, on YouTube.

It is tradition in the CTU for the Pension Fund candidates to seek the endorsement of the union. The CTU pays for the campaign postcards for the candidates they choose to endorse. Candidates stump to the union’s executive board, the body that chooses which candidates the House of Delegates will vote for, up-or-down. Each year, the United Progressive Caucus chooses its own candidates and gets the House to endorse them. Knowing this, CORE did not rely on this endorsement to promote Rehak and Ashford.

However, after months of grassroots, face-to-face campaigning, CORE came up with a strategy that would allow equal voice in this part of the process. During the vote to endorse, CORE member Eric Skalinder made an amendment to the motion to endorse the incumbents—to instead endorse all six candidates. The motion passed narrowly, and all received the CTU endorsement, including Ashford and Rehak. The UPC, in a last-minute dirty trick, designed a postcard that listed their endorsed candidates twice, and listed Ashford and Rehak all the way at the bottom.

This minor setback did not stop CORE from canvassing hundreds of schools during a professional development day one week before the election. Ashford and Rehak spoke at the Board of Education’s monthly meeting again two days before the election.

I received the call from Lois Ashford while at a CORE fundraiser at a blues bar. She and Jay were the highest vote-getters and the two newest additions to the Pension Fund trustees.

CORE will be fielding candidates for officers and executive board of the local next May.


Kenzo Shibata is communications secretary of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators.