Monday, May 21, 2007

Chicago, Chicago...

George Schmidt provides a preliminary analysis of the Chicago Teacher union election. There will be more to come.

May 21, 2007

The Chicago Teachers Union will be holding a press conference at 10:00 a.m. today, but the results of Friday's election have been widely publicized (both in the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times), so it's possible to begin a commentary.

I'm going to focus here for the most part on the past three years (roughly from Debbie Lynch's only contract through last Friday). There needs to be a separate analysis of the errors made in interpreting the 2001 election victory (and some widespread misinterpretations of what happened in 2001 in Chicago) if anyone is going to learn from these things. And I personally believe that a great deal can be learned, both by people who feel they are in the "opposition" to the leadership in the major AFT locals, and by those in power. (This is important because the leadership now running the Chicago Teachers Union is in as much danger as anybody. They framed the issues as narrowly as possible and "won" on that basis, but they are probably missing the fact that their base is a mile wide, and inch thick, and under major assault -- and not from the inside),

Just to clarify one other thing. I've been a member of the Chicago Teachers Union continuously since 1969 (except for two years when I was organizing full-time within the "G.I. Movement" against the Vietnam War -- see Dave Cortright's "Soldiers in Revolt" for some details). I ran three times for CTU president and got 40 percent of the vote in 1988 against Jacqueline Vaughn and the United Progressive Caucus. My last run was in 1994 against Tom Reece four months after Vaughn's death.

I have served at every level of the union from local school delegate (several schools during my 28 years in the classroom) to executive board (high school vice president) and staff (director of security and safety under Deborah Lynch). I was fired from teaching by Paul Vallas in 2000 (for the publication of the CASE tests in Substance) and have been blacklisted from teaching since, both city and suburb. I was denied the right to remain a union member by the UPC leadership from 1999 to 2001, reinstated (after paying full back dues) by Debbie Lynch in 2001, then denied the right to pay union dues and retain membership after Lynch lost in 2004. I'm currently a member of the Chicago Teachers Union (now, a retiree member) again, as well as a member of SEIU (Local 73) and SESU (the Service Employees Staff Union, which represents those who work for SEIU).

I'm also a persistent critic of privatization and other attacks on unions and public schools. In these things, my record goes back decades. I only offer this summary because some people -- here in Chicago and in New York -- always try to make disagreements within the union into union busting attacks on the union. Also, given the fact that our histories are always being rewritten by the (temporary) victors, it's important for us to share as much information about realities (as opposed to hagiographies) as possible.

This is relatively important for us both in New York and Chicago. Consider the following question: Who are the last five presidents of the National Education Association, and who are the leaders of the largest locals of the NEA?


What we just learned from that simple question (and our inability to answer it) is that in the AFT, we have suffered from a lot of the cult of personality. This has been most true in Chicago and New York, but also in other major locals. Whether these choices (to have our leaders portrayed as larger than life people, from Al Shanker on) have been good for the union is another question. I suspect (but can't be sure yet) that Deborah Lynch may be the last leader of the Chicago Teachers Union to have taken on that kind of role as spokesman and media arbiter. (Note that she repeated for years that her most important mentor was Al Shanker).


That was just a couple of prefatory thoughts.

Although I'll be writing several news articles and at least one major analysis over the next two weeks (between now and the publication of the June 2007 Substance), the immediate facts that need to be known are the following:

1. For the past six years (literally, since May 18, 2001, when Debbie Lynch unseated the UPC and ended nearly 30 years of uninterrupted rule over the Chicago Teachers Union by that caucus), the United Progressive Caucus of the Chicago Teachers Union has run against Debbie Lynch. During the three years Lynch was President of the Chicago Teachers Union, the UPC did everything it could to sabotage Lynch's presidency, both from inside the union and in the schools.

There are dozens of examples of this kind of sabotage, which I'll be adding to my analysis in the coming week.

2. During the three years she was in power as President of the Chicago Teachers Union, Lynch failed to develop a coherent political organization in Chicago's more than 600 public schools and other work locations. In Chicago, there is no substitute for organized "precinct" level work, either in the public schools or in city politics. The inability (or failure) to organize a coherent political organization independent of the incumbency from 2001 to 2004 was a major problem that Lynch faced every step of the way. The reasons for this will require some energy on the part of people to discuss and analyze, and I'm not sure how many people will want to do this candidly.

3. During the three years after her defeat in the 2004 general union election and her ultimate removal from office after the heated battle that erupted over the question of the integrity of the 2004 election, Debbie Lynch and the main members of her leadership team returned to teaching in the schools. From those positions, they remained active in the union. However, their methods for broadening their base were not adequate to the task before them.

4. During those same three years, the UPC focused on a couple of narrow issues and handled them very well. The three main ones were (a) Debbie herself; (b) the contract provision that allowed principals to get rid of untenured teachers without cause; and (c) the relative cost of the health benefits in relation to the wage increase of four percent per year for the four years of the Lynch contract. (The Lynch contract wasn't signed until late 2003, but was effective -- thanks to retroactive -- from July 1, 2003 to June 30, 2007).

5. Instead of establishing her own broader agenda, Lynch spent a great deal of time and energy defending everything she did in that contract, including those aspects of it that were viewed by the majority of the membership as less than adequate. Placed on the defensive, she remained on the defensive by choice. This took place both in the media and in the union's daily affairs.

6. Early on in the Stewart administration, Stewart wiped out most of the major structural changes that Lynch had begun, including several committees that had been functioning to the benefit of the membership. Three of these I was directly involved in -- Delegate Leadership and Training; School Violence and Security; and Testing. Stewart simply abolished these committees. In other things, she simply purged any of Lynch's supporters from existing union committees and made every effort to return to the earlier status quo. Had PACT challenged each of these at the time and persistently from the beginning, it would have brought into focus what Stewart was doing. Instead, as noted above, PACT spent most of its time and energy focused on defending the record on the weakest things it had achieved.

7. Election rules. One of the most astounding things that the UPC was able to do was to return the Chicago Teachers Union to (almost) the place where elections had been prior to Lynch. Paper ballots cast in the schools. Although the election count is now done by the American Arbitration Association, the ballots are cast in the schools and are in the possession of the school delegate for several days during the election cycle.

8. Control of the union mechanisms. Throughout her three years in office, Marilyn Stewart was able to utilize an organization, which was clumsy but effective in many ways, to expand her base in the schools. This she did by emphasizing the contract and the issues, and downplaying personalities. Every month during the three years she was in office, Stewart (or her people) reached out to former supporters on Debbie Lynch, often bringing them into her caucus first through social events and later in marginal jobs (like committee service and a couple of other small things).

9. Stewart was also able to capitalize on one of Lynch's greatest weaknesses, the internal divisions in PACT. Former Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Howard Heath appeared on Stewart's ticket. That alone cost Lynch thousands of votes. Even though Heath had expressed reservations about Stewart, he agreed to run for union convention delegate, and his name was both a repudiation of Lynch and an affirmation of Stewart. This was especially true in the city's 300 black schools (out of a total of 600 public schools in Chicago, 300 are all-black -- among the students -- and majority black -- among staff, including teachers and administrators; this is not New York City style segregated; this is Brooklyn writ large).

10. From 2004 on, Stewart effectively cultivated African Americans, both in the schools and more generally across the city. During the 2004 election campaign, Stewart not only put her base in the schools, but also in the churches in those communities. She portrayed much of PACT's appeal as tokenism.

Now that the election is behind everyone, the challenge, articulated all along by Stewart and the UPC, is to get the strongest contract ever and re-unify the Chicago Teachers Union.

I don't know what opposition group(s) will present their platforms and people to the union's membership in the months ahead, but with a June 30 deadline for the current contract's expiration, the Chicago Teachers Union has its work cut out for it.

As I said, there will need to be more analysis in the coming months, and from many perspectives. I'm hoping to generate letters to Substance from many points of view, and we'll see what else comes forward.

George N. Schmidt
Editor, Substance

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