The Chicago Teachers Union: One Year of Reform

In May 2001 a reform caucus called PACT (Proactive Chicago Teachers and School Employees) won a surprising election victory in the 35,000-member Chicago Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. Here’s a balance sheet of PACT’s first year in power.

Deborah Lynch, the new CTU president, presents an assertive public face for the union. She has a clear point of view on every education-related issue and has become a regular feature in the Chicago media. This image contrasts sharply with that of the previous president, Tom Reece of the long-established United Progressive Caucus. The UPC’s “collaborative” approach often made the union virtually invisible. The union is now perceived by its members, the media, and political, business, and community groups as a force to be reckoned with.

At the same time, the new leadership has found that making change is much harder than it anticipated, and it is especially hard when the membership is demobilized and passive. Although the caucus won by a 14% margin, its vote largely reflected the membership’s dissatisfaction with the previous regime rather than a real commitment to the issues PACT stood for.

In general, members still tend to see themselves as beneficiaries of the union’s services rather than as participants in the struggle to improve their working conditions and benefits.

CAMPAIGN PROMISES

In its campaign, PACT pledged to lower dues, reduce officers’ salaries and benefits, hold open and democratic meetings at all levels of the CTU, and actively promote quality education for all children. On these issues, the new leaders have delivered.

Dues were immediately cut by five percent. Officers’ salaries were reduced; Lynch makes no more than the salary for the highest-paid teacher, pro-rated over a 52-week year and 8-hour day.

Special pensions that benefited only CTU staff were eliminated for all those already covered by school and municipal pensions. Expense accounts were trimmed and accountability procedures were introduced. An in-house legal department was established, to improve services at less cost.

At the CTU officers’ request, the AFT national office conducted a financial review, and, following an agreement, over $300,000 was returned to CTU coffers by the former leadership team.

Membership in union committees was opened up to everyone, and new committees were established in response to member interest. An attempt was made to allow open discussion in the monthly House of Delegates meetings. (“Delegates” are the union’s over 800 stewards.)

This was initially very difficult due to the vociferous opposition and underhanded tactics employed by supporters of the ousted caucus who remained in the House, since their election takes place on a different cycle. PACT finds itself employing “floor management” tactics not dissimilar to some employed by the old guard caucus, in an effort to get business done. The desire to have open and democratic meetings has not yet become a reality.

To increase member involvement, the leadership has:

* Held high-quality delegates’ training weekends, to learn contract enforcement and provide direct feedback to the new officers.

* Reinstituted a long-dormant process to solicit contract demands from every constituent group in the union, including often ignored and badly underpaid paraprofessionals. The current contract will expire June 30, 2003, and the number one job for the new leadership will be to negotiate a good contract.

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* Visited 200 schools (out of 600) to hear members’ concerns.

GET BACK BARGAINING RIGHTS

The union took the lead to re-establish a coalition of unions in the Chicago Public Schools. This coalition began negotiations with the mayor’s office to try to restore certain key topics that were removed from the scope of bargaining by a 1995 “reform” law that gave the mayor much more direct control of the schools. The previous team had failed to mobilize members to oppose the law.

The new CTU leadership launched a year-long campaign to regain these key rights, which include the right to negotiate over such important issues as class size, scheduling, school year, assignment of work, and privatization. At the end of August a tentative agreement was reached: bargaining rights will be partially restored, the discipline code will be revised, paraprofessionals will have systemwide seniority, and the coalition unions and the school board will by law establish a labor/management council to discuss school operation, school improvement, and labor relations.

The agreement must now pass the Illinois legislature. The campaign to regain bargaining rights is tying the union closely to the fortunes of the Democratic candidate for governor, Rod Blagoyavich, who supports the restoration, and to Democratic legislators. Political neutrality is virtually impossible, since the only legislators who support teachers’ bargaining rights are Democrats.

CLOSING BLACK SCHOOLS

The union faced a challenge in April when the Board of Education announced it was closing three schools in the African-American community for “chronic poor performance.” CTU leaders spoke out publicly, rallied members to protest at the next Board meeting, attempted to gather support from various community groups and politicians, presented the anti-closings case at special hearings, and offered to “partner” with the staffs at the threatened schools to help them in their struggle to improve. This offer was rejected by the Board.

The union contended that these and other low-performing schools have never been allowed to unleash the potential power of teacher-led reforms-from the bottom up. Leaders accused the Board of closing the three schools not primarily to help the children who currently attend them but to revamp them in a format that would appeal to the populations that city leaders are trying to attract to their newly gentrifying neighborhoods.

Despite the union’s efforts, very few community or education groups were willing to stand up to the mayor and his Board, making coalition-building virtually impossible. Only a few hundred union members turned out for the protest rally. The union is in court seeking a stay of the closings.

Did the union do enough? Most members at the affected schools are pleased with the union’s response, but some employees faced with finding new jobs are dissatisfied. Despite the energetic response, it’s likely that the closings could not have been stopped, and that the three schools were closed in part to punish the CTU for its unwillingness to go along with the mayor and the Board as the previous leadership had.

YET TO FULFILL

Among PACTs as-yet-unfulfilled campaign issues are: job security, an abusive discipline policy, improved salary and health benefits, privatization, lower class size, less reliance on standardized tests, and improved conditions for special ed students.

Traditionally, teacher unions have focused on the bread and butter and sidestepped educational issues. Some members are, in fact, unsure about what role unions should play in the struggle for improved education and greater equity in the school system.

Lynch, who has a strong pedagogical background, is deeply committed to a strong voice for teachers on these subjects. She initially sought to build a partnership with the Board on these issues, but the Board continued its business-as-usual practice of announcing its plans to the CTU rather than discussing and planning with the union.

What is called for now is old-fashioned organizing to get members prepared to exert their collective muscle. PACT’s commitment to democratic principles and power for school workers is genuine. PACT needs to sustain its energy and commitment, improve its organizing to increase member involvement, and maintain democratic structures, if it hopes to build a lasting democratic renovation within the Teachers Union.

Norine Gutekanst is a bilingual teacher and a member of the CTU Executive Board.