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Chicago election signals new direction for teacher unionism

By Ron Whitehorne on Jul 8, 2010 01:22 PM

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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Comments (23)

Submitted by Phillyteachertalks (not verified) on July 8, 2010 7:06 pm


Thanks for keeping us up to date on what is going on in Chicago, after all they are the trial run for many of the reforms Ackerman is no instituting here. I am not convinced in anyway that our Union leadership has any strong desire to stand up to some of the ludicrous reform strategies going on in Philadelphia. Where was Jerry Jordan when this contract to turnaround schools was signed? He was the one praising the contract and trying to rush the vote through on uninformed Union members. Arlene Ackerman said, "I could kiss him." Four months after the contract is signed Jerry Jordan is publicly criticizing Ackerman for doing exactly what it says she can do in our contract. I do realize that we negotiated this contract during an extremely difficult time period for Unions. That said, our Union Leadership seemed more concerned about tooting their own horn for all they stopped Ackerman from taking from us. Not once did anyone on their leadership mention the damage these reforms could have on our students. Nor did he acknowledge the fact that these turnarounds would play with the lives of thousands of Union members. I think we desperately need reform in our Union. I want a Leadership who is in touch with what is actually going on in our schools. I want a leadership who has taught in a school in the last fifteen years. I want a leadership that is honest and transparent with it's members. That is not the leadership we currently have. Ron I am interested to hear if you know of anyone who has any of these qualities that would challenge Jerry and his team?

Blog @

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 9, 2010 10:56 am

I absolutely agree. I say time and time again, "Where is Jordan?". I always thought highly of him over the years, however, I was deeply hurt by how quickly he pushed this contract through without letting its members really going over it and then make a sound vote.

Has any member in the media, The Public School Notebook, etc. ever ask him WHY???? Is this website afraid of asking the difficult questions to Jerry Jordan??? Only 1 positive came of this contract----No teacher can lose his/her job because of the Renaissance initiative. Good, but look how Ackerman fooled him---She told him only 5 schools would turn Renaissance, not 14. He took her word that no more than 5 would happen. You never take someones word during negotiations. You put it in writing!!! Jordan should take note and see what CORE is doing and how he needs to get on board and do what their doing in Chicago.

10,000 teachers in this District----Jordan needs to make a mandatory march/protest in front of 440. Let it last a couple of days---show some guts----And please, I do not want to hear that all 10,000 teachers will be fired for doing this (No way would that ever happen--couldn't replace that many and no way could certifications be taken---each individual teacher earned them).

Oh yeah, please keep in mind that because of this contract, it forced transferred 1,100 teachers trying to fill 600 teacher openings. The end result will be teacher layoffs------Philly also isn't going to receive the funding the SRC thought it would (30million dollars less). Jerry Jordan---where are you????

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on July 9, 2010 1:00 pm

 In terms of showing some guts how about identifying yourself and taking responsibility for your views?  

Militant posturing isn't going to get it done.   If you think a demonstration of 10,000 at 440 during school hours is something the membership will support then draw up a resolution and mobilize people to come to a union meeting to get it passed.     

My reading is that's not where people are at.   I do agree the PFT leadership needs to be more aggressive and should be mobilizing people to fight back.   But we should be pushing for this within the context of trying to build the  union.   That's one of the lesson's I draw from CORE's experience.   They did not set out to get rid of Marilyn Stewart and elect Karen Lewis   They wanted to see a fight back against the Chicago Board of Ed et. al. and pushed the union leadership and took  action themselves.   Only when the union leadership made clear their unwillingness to meet these challenges, did they morph into an election slate.

An  earlier comment asks who can lead the union forward.   To me this question can only be answered through struggle.   Who is going to show leadership in the face of  Imagine 2014?    It means taking risks, doing the hard work, having confidence in the rank and file and subordinating one's own ambitions to the needs of the movement    Maybe Jerry Jordan and the PFT leadership will rise to the challenge or maybe a fight back movement from below will throw up new leaders.  

In the interests of full disclosure I should mention that when I was active in the PFT (I'm now retired) I was a critical supporter of the CB team (the incumbents who in one iteration or another have been in power since the beginning with the exception of a brief time in the early 80s when John Murray and the Untied Slate held power.   I was part of SEA(School Employees Action Caucus), which over the years supported the United Slate, ran a slate of its own and then supported the CB team based on its willingness to support some of our demands.   

Currently I'm an active member of TAG which, while small and made up mostly of people with little union experience, gives me hope for the future.   TAG has had a principled relationship the the PFT leadership, making clear our differences but trying to build on common ground.  Right now TAG is planning a campaign around Renaissance Schools. We are moving on two fronts - trying to mobilize teachers and reaching out to build alliances with parents, students and community forces.   It is not going to be easy and its going to take work.   I would urge people who want to make a difference to get involved Go to:

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 9, 2010 3:32 pm

My reasons are the same as "F". And, I didn't see you complain about about why he chose to be anonymous. Also, it is simply my right to do so.

As far as being militant, nonsense. It's called you do what you need to do in order to fight for your beliefs and your job as an educator. Power in numbers and taking action speak volumes. If I was President of the PFT, I would certainly make it mandatory for all teachers to show and it would definitely open Ackermans eyes. They don't want a showdown with educators----please also read the NEA editorial that was brought up in this blog.

I know you know Jerry Jordan and that is great. However, you avoided my question when I asked if the Public School Notebook has ever asked Jordan questions about taking Ackermans words about her promising to only convert 5 Renaissance Schools and not 14. Has the Public School Notebook ever questioned Jordan on why the contract was rushed so swiftly??? Has the Public School Notebook ever questioned Jordan on what he thinks his members want???? That is what teachers want to know and it is never written in any of these blogs. I hope one day a reporter from this site would ask Jordan the hard, tough questions and not skirt around him.

As far as TAG, it is a good thing! I hope it helps the PFT and the teachers.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 9, 2010 3:36 pm

Also forgot Ron, you didn't mention the 1,100 forced transferred teachers trying to fill 600 openings (because of the many turned Renaissance Schools). Any thoughts on this??? Do you feel that layoffs will occur??? Do you think the SRC jumped too soon when coming up with a budget that now is going to be shorthanded (30 million dollars less from the State)??

And even if we disagree, as in my previous comments, I still respect your opinion and value your knowledge!!

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on July 9, 2010 4:16 pm

 Thanks for that.   I do fear their will be layoffs and agree that is a big issue.   Also the disruption of the site selection process resulting in the hiring freeze which means the loss of many new teachers, a blow to the District as whole and a consequence of the ill conceived Ren school project.   A good argument for why their should be a moratorium on any more Ren schools until this any the other problems with the process are fixed.   The reconstitution provision of the Ren school plan should be replaced with a less disruptive, fairer approach that better serves communities and teachers.   But with the Obama administration tying this policy to grant money this will be a tough sell.  


As for the budget the claim from Mike Masch is that they have a Plan B that accounts for possibile short falls.   I'm not very wonkish on these matters so can't offer much in the way of a comment but Paul probably can.   Also next issue of the Notebook is on the budget so that should address this question.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 9, 2010 5:31 pm

Thanks, Ron. Also, I don't know if you know, but there was an email sent out a few weeks ago to PFT members saying that Jordan has requested PFT lawyers to ask for expedited arbitration involving the site selection process. Apparently, Ackerman is in disagreement with the PFT over the process. She believes that only the principal makes the decision on whatever teacher gets hired, when in fact, it is both the principal and the site selection committee. Jordan made a valid point that it is in the contract and Ackerman is wrong. I haven't heard if anything came of it. Did you hear anything on this topic?

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on July 9, 2010 5:05 pm

 No.   Thanks for letting me know.   I'll raise this with the Teacher Effectiveness Campaign which promoted the idea of giving the site selection committee real power.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 11, 2010 3:24 pm

Hi Ron,

It's anonymous again. This is what I was referring to in our previous comment exchanges on the expedited arbitration and Ackerman disagreeing over the site selection process. Here is the entire email from Jordan to all PFT members:

District agrees to redo forced and voluntary transfers; PFT seeks expedited arbitration on remaining issues

I received a reply from Superintendent Ackerman today in which she acknowledged that the contract had not been followed and that the transfer process for forced and voluntary transfers for teachers must be redone. (NTAs, paraprofessionals and secretaries who have been called in to select assignments go to the District on the date they are called.)

"The District will agree to begin the Traditional forced transfer process anew. The sessions schedule for the remainder of this week and next Saturday will be pushed back one week and the teachers who selected on Saturday, June 5, 2010, will be invited in to reselect. We hope to have the Promise Academy selections for teachers who applied to remain at the promise Academies completed by this Friday. Therefore, there will not be a need for these teachers to select as a forced transfer, needlessly removing schools from the list of vacancies," she wrote.

The superintendent also agreed that vacancies on the list will have the appropriate grade-level designations, as provided in the new contract.

However, the superintendent disagreed about the staff selection process at Promise Academies, and this morning I directed the PFT's attorneys to prepare a request for an expedited arbitration. The contract language on site-based selection of teachers, which has been part of our collective bargaining agreement for 10 years, is explicit on the composition and responsibilities of site selection committees. The site-selection language lays out one process for all schools, including Renaissance schools.

After two years of difficult negotiations, the PFT and the District reached an agreement, and it's the responsibility of both parties to adhere to it.

I will keep you informed of further developments.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on July 11, 2010 6:04 pm

Thank you.  I can be reached at should you have information that you might not want to post publically.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 11, 2010 7:52 pm

Thanks, Ron. Also, this information is known to every teacher in this District and I am surprised that no one has brought attention to it in any blogs until now. Hopefully, this site selection situation gets resolved.

Submitted by Phillyteachertalks (not verified) on July 9, 2010 3:33 pm

Ron, I think that is some good advice and I like your idea of trying to work with the Union. Still, after what I have seen in the last five years I just don't believe they are interested in any type of grassroots movement. They seem like a very top down organization. I believe this even more so after our meeting to vote on our contract. The leadership did not want hear from the members and quickly dismissed any good points made that challenged the new contract. After watching the posted video it is clear that Karan Lewis believes that the voice of the membership matters, I don't think that is true of our leadership. It seems like they want to make the decisions without true input. But your right, a good faith effort should be made to work with the leadership. At the same time it is important to plan for inaction on their part.
I like the work that TAG is doing and look forward to joining TAG in the efforts to ensure school reform is done properly.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on July 9, 2010 4:13 pm

 Right On.

Submitted by lovetoteach (not verified) on July 9, 2010 12:45 am

I am so excited about what is happening in Chicago and I am holding out hope that it will trickle down to our city.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 9, 2010 11:09 am

What happened? When did teachers become America's punching-bags? I simply don't get it. It's humiliating and embarrassing at this point. I simply want to do my job, make a difference and feel like I am accomplishing something. The last few years have been zapping the passion I had for this profession. It's sobering and sad.

Submitted by Anonymous teacher (not verified) on July 9, 2010 1:23 pm

Amen. So sad. All I want now is "out". I'm tired of being constantly bashed by the public, micromanaged by the administration, and disrespected by students and parents. I keep wondering who will agree to do this job for a long term career, as many of us have. Why would they?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 9, 2010 1:40 pm

I feel that way at times, but sometimes you just have to look at the bigger picture as to "why" you got into the profession in the first place. It is disheartening though...

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on July 9, 2010 2:46 pm

A writer in NY Mag was wondering the same thing. Subhead: "teachers are the new lawyers."

The end of the article seems to sum things up pretty well: "The teachers are trapped. The more they defend themselves, the more recalcitrant they seem. It’s permanent detention."

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on July 9, 2010 5:00 pm

 Read this for some context on how we became punching bags...Diane Ravitch's speech to the NEA

Submitted by Herb (not verified) on July 11, 2010 2:02 pm

The movement to bash teachers gained a foothold during and after the New Jersey Gubernatorial race. The Republican governor pointed the finger at the NJEA and told everyone that they were the reason that taxes were high and they are to blame for your troubles. As a result, county school budgets were voted down en masse and the movement was on. The NJEA did not handle any of this well in the public's view and took a PR beating. The governor than told the teachers if you pay for more of your healthcare, he would send money to their districts....bypassing collective bargaining.
Never mind the fact that NJ school district administrators were making six figure salaries and took no cuts.
I have 2 1/2 years experience teaching 2nd grade in an empowerment elementary school in North Philadelphia. I love my job. Our school has had more walkthroughs from 444 than you can imagine. I have seen the teachers who were hired last year and received bonuses in October and March fail to even have an idea as to how to control a classroom. Several of them were force transferred at the end of the school year because they couldn't do the job effectively and really needed more training and mentoring. You can't throw new teachers into classrooms without training them on what to expect and in that respect, the PFT and the PSD fail miserably. They had good ideas and new the subject matter but could not handle the day-to-day stuff that happens in a classroom. Unfortunately, these teachers will probably be the first to go if there are layoffs because with time and training they could be the future of the teaching in Philadelphia.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 11, 2010 3:59 pm

I agree. As far as the PFT, look for Jerry Jordan to try and get in the good graces of all its members (PFT President election time will be near). After this crazy contract, look for the INDEPENDENT Team or a member of TAG to supply a challenger to Jordan. It will be difficult to run him out. He has more good points than bad. I just feel let down after this contract and so many teachers will not forget how he just rammed this contract through. I still believe that if the PFT membership were able to read all of the issues thoroughly, the contract would have been voted down. I also am disheartened that Ackerman and her followers and the SRC make so much money and no one is making a big stink of it. Next contract, teachers need to get their raises back every year (not every 18 months). And for those who say I am whining or crying, try teaching in this District---many wouldn't last a week in some of these schools. By the way, why should so much money come out of our pockets for school supplies??? Give us a $1000 stipend for school supplies for our classrooms like Plymouth-Whitemarsh School District does for their teachers.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 20, 2010 11:34 pm

So many teacher do want out. It is so frustrating. We all need to remember why we chose this profession. I know this year I am going to make sure that I don't spend money on additional classroom supplies and just start cutting back on the little things. In time, I hope things will turn around.

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