Wake up, Chicago Teachers Union 

Mayor Emanuel has changed the rules—and you need to get in the game

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In 2001, though, members of the Chicago Teachers Union staged an insurrection and elected a new president: Debbie Lynch, a self-proclaimed advocate of teachers taking charge over curriculum and policy.

Then, for the next three years, the rival faction in the CTU fought Lynch every step of the way, doing what they could to make sure she was a one-term president.

They succeeded. In 2004, the teachers replaced Lynch with Marilyn Stewart, one of the leaders of the anti-Lynch faction. The union returned to its old go-along-to-get-along ways.

In 2007, Mayor Daley—looking to win over the unions as he pushed for the Olympics—agreed to a contract that gave the teachers a 20 percent raise over five years, while preserving seniority rights and tenure protection.

Of course, in 2009 the games were awarded to Brazil. And so went peace with the union. Over his last two years in office, Daley tried to take away tenure and seniority rights and cut back the pay hike. He also handed out more charters, which are nonunion.

Union members responded last year by throwing out the old guard and bringing in Karen Lewis, who I remember as one of the rank-and-file reformers when she was a high school science teacher at Lane Tech.

Meanwhile, in his first few months on the job, Mayor Emanuel has intensified Daley's crusade, taking away the last year of the pay raise, handing out more charters, and pushing for the longer school day. And now he's basically calling them selfish ingrates who don't care half as much about the kids as they do about their paychecks—even though for years everyone from Mayor Daley to union leaders told them that money is the only thing they should care about.

And now they have to get involved with policy, if only to look good in the larger public relations campaign.

That brings me to the subject of John Kugler, a field rep for the union. I spent an entertaining couple of days hanging around with him as he made his rounds.

He's a wisecracking, F-bomb-dropping, tell-it-like-it-is, former high school shop teacher who wears his union allegiance on a button ("Proud to be a union thug") attached to the collar of his wrinkled shirt.

"I'm just joking about that button," he says with a big smile. "I'm not really a thug. I love everybody—even Mayor Emanuel."

Man, I'd love to get him in a room with the mayor and watch them go at it.

In the course of a day he sits through hours of grievance hearings initiated by teachers who claim they were unfairly fired, demoted, or otherwise mistreated by a principal or other board employee. One case involves a social worker with multiple sclerosis who was reassigned from a school with an elevator to a school without any even though she can barely make it up the stairs.

"Can you believe this shit?" Kugler says. "I don't make this shit up. You can't make this shit up."

After a break in the hearings one day, he headed over to Lake View High School for an after-school meeting with about 35 of his rank and file. For more than an hour he sat in a classroom with about 30 teachers as they peppered him with questions, complaints, and concerns: What's going on with the fight over the longer day? Why are we the bad guys in the media? Don't people realize how many hours we work? Why haven't we gone on a public relations offensive to tell our side of the story?

Then Kugler gave it right back to them.

"You're up against a powerful mayor," he said. "You want people to know about your longer day, tell your parents, put it on your Facebook, spread the word anyway you got. Get involved. You got to be active."

His message should be heeded by all the others who've closed their eyes for all these years.

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