The Battle Before the War | Politics | Chicago Reader

The Battle Before the War 

Before the teachers' union can fight layoffs and pay cuts, it has to resolve an internal struggle.

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In the last four decades, leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union have been at war with one another more often than not. But now they say they've decided to come together to fight for their jobs.

That is, just as soon as they resolve one more internal battle.

And you wonder how Mayor Daley rules this town so easily. It's called divide and conquer.

On June 11 union members will chose a president in a runoff election between two candidates with distinct ideas for fending off the massive job cuts threatened by schools CEO Ron Huberman.

The first is Marilyn Stewart, the two-term incumbent. She's the latest in a long line of union accommodationists. "You don't have to be aggressive with people—you don't have to call them names," she says. "You need to know how to be a professional."

The other is Karen Lewis, a chemistry teacher at King College Prep. She wants to scrutinize CPS spending to see how much can be cut from the central office before any teachers are fired. "You have to be independent minded," says Lewis. "You have to conduct your own research."

click to enlarge Marilyn Stewart
  • Marilyn Stewart

Stewart and Lewis agree on at least one thing: this is a pivotal moment for teachers, not just in Chicago but nationwide as districts across the country grapple with crippling budget shortfalls. In New York City, for instance, Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently asked teachers to forgo a raise written into their contracts if they don't want to face layoffs. In Chicago, Huberman has declared that a budget deficit of at least $600 million could force him to pink-slip hundreds of teachers, hike maximum class size from 30 to as high as 37, call back a 4 percent raise in teacher salaries, and cut their pension benefits.

"Anyway you look at it our profession is under siege," says Lewis. "People are scared—we're facing thousands of job cuts. This is not an abstraction—this is very real. These are tough times to be a teacher."

At stake in this election is who gets to lead the 31,000-member union in a delicate game of chicken with Huberman and—more to the point—Mayor Daley, who picked Huberman to run the schools. On the one hand, the union needs to form a solid front with the mayor and Huberman to demand more aid from the General Assembly. On the other hand it doesn't want to look subservient or make job, pension, and tenure concessions it doesn't have to—at least not without a fight.

Stewart was elected in 2004 as part of the so-called United Progressive Caucus, whose roots go back to Robert Healey, Jacqueline Vaughn, Thomas Reece, and other union powerhouses of the 1970s, '80s, and '90s.

Traditionally this faction has looked the other way from central office shenanigans. Its leaders rarely, if ever, get involved in policy debates, allowing administrators to sail from one boneheaded policy to the next without a peep. (Remember Paul Vallas's bid to add his own standardized test to the mix?) Their primary purpose has been to win the rank and file higher salaries and get reelected, and in these pursuits they've been pretty successful. Over the last 20 years Chicago teachers have received near-annual pay raises without going on strike, and the UPC has only lost one election.

That was in 2001, when teachers voted out Reece in favor of Debbie Lynch, a language-arts teacher from Gage Park High School. Lynch had argued that teachers should be treated like education professionals and given a hand in shaping the district's curriculum and testing policies.

Three years of feuding followed. Reece's old allies launched a countercampaign against Lynch from the union floor. They mocked her for calling for a greater hand in curriculum, saying if she wanted to get into debates about education theory she should go into academia, and predicted that she would never have the street smarts to handle the board's wily contract negotiators.

It was sort of entertaining—if watching red-faced teachers bellowing at each other is your cup of tea. But it was also sort of embarrassing to think these were the grown-ups in charge of educating our children.

Anyway, in 2004 the old Reece crowd got its revenge, drafting Stewart, a special-ed teacher from Kinzie Elementary, to challenge Lynch. The year before Lynch had negotiated a contract that wasn't that different from what had been in place, but she touted it as a great deal, and Stewart's caucus did a masterful job of winning over teachers annoyed that it locked them in for five years.

In 2007 Lynch ran again, but Stewart easily defended her seat and went on to negotiate a contract with the board that guaranteed teachers a 4 percent raise every year for the next five years.

In the aftermath of that election, Lewis and her allies formed CORE (Caucus of Rank and File Educators). She says they felt Stewart had grown too cozy with the central office.

Lewis contends that her opponent hasn't protested the spread of charter schools, which undercut union membership. By state law charter-school teachers are not permitted to join, though they can organize a separate union.

CORE also criticizes Stewart for not being more vigilant about monitoring CPS contributions to the pension fund. CPS has not contributed the full amount it owes in more than three years, leaving the fund with about 70 percent of the money it's obligated to pay out. In fact, CORE first flexed its muscles last October when two of its members—Jay Rehak and Lois Ashford—were elected to the pension fund oversight board in part by criticizing Stewart's lack of leadership on the issue.

In the last year or so CORE has also joined forces with community groups like the Pilsen Alliance and Blocks Together to protest school closings, which, of course, cost teachers their jobs.

But in this election, Huberman's proposed cuts are the primary issue. Huberman says that without more state aid he has no choice but to fire teachers since he's already pared central office staff to the bone.

Lewis contends that at the very least Huberman should first rescind the pay increases that he and scores of other central office staffers have received (which I wrote about in an April cover story).

"We need to be honest about our budget," says Lewis. "If you're asking people to make serious sacrifices."

In the last few weeks Stewart's been trying to play catch-up by showing teachers she's willing to be just as tough with Huberman. On May 25, when CORE called for a march on City Hall, Stewart joined it—and got her supporters to show up wearing red, her campaign color. All told about 5,000 teachers marched from the Board of Education offices at 125 S. Clark Street to City Hall.

There were five candidates running for president in the May 28 election, including Lynch. Stewart, the top vote-getter, drew only 35 percent, short of the majority she needed to win. Lewis finished second with about 34 percent.

Lewis isn't calling for strikes. Instead, she wants the union to search the board's books for waste—in vendor contracts as well as central office salaries. CORE has even threatened to take on tax increment financing, Mayor Daley's chief economic development program, which siphons off tens of millions of dollars a year that would otherwise go to the schools. Jackson Potter, a member of CORE, sued CPS in Cook County Circuit Court in May because the board ignored his Freedom of Information Act request for "any information" showing how TIFs have impacted school funding.

Stewart says there's no point in scrutinizing the books—because most information that comes from the central office is misinformation or fabrication anyway. While I'd never agree it's pointless to go over those records, I can sort of see where she's coming from, having recently pored over the CPS budget for a Reader cover story, only to be told by officials that it's not accurate and that what I really should look at was the official payroll—which by the way I'd need to file a FOIA to see.

"Our labor lawyers have told us: when the board shows us their numbers, those numbers are lies," says Stewart.

Finally there's the matter of Stewart's salary. As union president, Stewart makes about $144,000 and another $68,000 in benefits. She also makes $83,000 a year as the secretary-treasurer of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the CTU's parent organization.

Lewis notes that these salaries come out of membership dues—Chicago teachers don't have to belong to the CTU but have to contribute about $930 each per year, a share of which goes to the IFT. She says she won't make more than the highest-paid teacher, which is just under $120,000 a year. "How can you criticize Huberman for making $230,000 a year during these hard times if you're making so much more than your members?" she says.

Stewart says she earns every nickel she makes because she works around the clock at the two jobs. "I don't even want to talk about my salary—it's not an issue," Stewart says. "The issue of this election is not about what I make—it's about protecting the contract. Most of our members realize that."   

Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.

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