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Chicago election signals new direction for teacher unionism




The election of CORE, a social justice union slate, to lead the 30,000-member Chicago Teachers Union is reverberating across the labor movement and sending a signal that teachers are no longer willing to be the punching bag for corporate-inspired school reformers.

CTU President Elect Karen Lewis put it this way in her acceptance speech

“Today marks the beginning of the end of scapegoating educators for all the social ills that our children, families and schools struggle against every day.  Today marks the beginning of a fight for true transparency in our educational policy — how to accurately measure learning and teaching, how to truly improve our schools, and how to evaluate the wisdom behind our spending priorities.”

Lewis also laid out a critique of version of school reform practiced in Chicago and espoused by the White House:

“Corporate America sees K-12 public education as 380 billion dollars that, up until the last 10 or 15 years, they didn’t have a sizeable piece of. This so-called school reform is not an education plan.  It’s a business plan and mayoral control of our schools, and our Board of Education, is the linchpin of their operation.”

CORE comes to power at a particularly difficult time, with budget cuts, teacher firings, and increases in class size all on the table. While outgoing President Marilyn Stewart talked tough in the context of the election campaign, the record of passivity in the face of several years of attacks by former CEO Arne Duncan and current boss Ron Huberman doomed her slate. By way of contrast, CORE has actively organized against school closings and cuts from its inception. As a result, CTU members clearly have more confidence that a CORE-led union can lead an effective fightback against the coming wave of cuts.

While CORE is a new organization, it draws on the ranks of activists who were involved in PACT (ProActive Chicago Teachers), an earlier reform slate that elected Debbie Lynch CTU President in 2001, as well as a new generation of young teachers with little history in union politics. CORE benefited in the last election round from support from all three of the other slates challenging Stewart, perhaps because of the scorched-earth tactics used by the incumbents in the first round.

On its website CORE lays out a nine-point program for the CTU:

  1. Get members on board with a common strategy.
  2. Mobilize the union against the budget cuts.
  3. Fix the public image of teachers and teachers unions.
  4. Reach out to community groups, parents and students.
  5. Improve contract enforcement.
  6. Get information out to members in a timely manner.
  7. Develop a legal strategy.
  8. Develop a political strategy.
  9. Fight for our contract.

Three of these points separate CORE from the run-of-the-mill union opposition slates like those we have seen in Philadelphia over the years.

First, there is the understanding that without the unity and commitment of the broad rank-and-file membership, no strategy, however compelling, will be effective. Lewis demonstrated her commitment to this approach when she was pressed by a Fox News reporter if she would contemplate making wage concessions in order to forestall layoffs.

Second, there is the understanding that mobilizing the membership is where the real power of the union lies. Internal organizing focused on drawing the members into action can be expected from the new leadership. Within days of the election, CORE organized a demonstration at the Board of Education meeting to oppose layoffs and increased class size.

Membership involvement will extend to contract negotiations. According to Substance, a Chicago education website, Lewis, in a transitional meeting with the existing CTU staff, reported that "the current recording secretary asked how many will be at the bargaining table and I told her 60 people. She looked at me as if I was from Mars, and I said this is how unions do it across the country."

Third, there is the understanding that alliances with parents, students, and the community are an essential piece of a strategy for moving forward. Again CORE’s practice shows this is not empty rhetoric. In January of 2009 CORE helped organize a meeting of 500 parents, teachers, and students who founded GEM (Grassroots Education Movement). GEM went on to play a leading role in stopping school closings.

Taken together, these are the elements of a program to renew and build union power.

In Philadelphia, thanks to the Rendell administration and the efforts of all those who have fought for education funding, we do not face draconian cuts like Chicago schools are experiencing, but with stimulus money drying up and the state government up for grabs this November, there is no reason for complacency.  And, like Chicago, we face an aggressive “turnaround” initiative that is turning over schools to private management and eliminating union positions.

Teachers and all those committed to public education need a strong union prepared to fight back against the Duncan-Ackerman brand of school reform. CORE’s experience and perspective suggests some things that union members in Philadelphia could be doing to build a more effective PFT. More detail on that next time.

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