CN Sep 20, 2012

If you were following the CTU strike, you might have been dismayed by the union’s failure to suspend the strike last Sunday night. Some in the media, including columnists and editorialists who had been largely favorable, started to peel away, suggesting that the union was out of control or even suffering from dissension  in the ranks.

On this week’s Newsroom, we have an inside perspective from UIC Professor Steven Ashby, who helped organize the contract campaign. Here’s how he describes it:

“On Sunday, the big bargaining team, there are thirty members, met before the Delegates’ meeting. And they said we don’t have the contract language. And you know what? You the leadership have been telling us for two years the members run this union. Well, we’re not ready to vote yet. We want to see what the members think. They voted two to one to send it to the members, the delegates endorsed that, the 800 delegates, and actually it was a huge exercise in democracy. ”

That helps explain, at least in part, how the strike suspension vote the following Tuesday was close to unanimous. Ashby said the organizing started a long time ago, sometime after Karen Lewis’s election.

“Every school, a committee was organized,” he says. “Every member was in touch with that committee. If you weren’t wearing a red shirt on Friday, there are gonna be some conversations as to what are your concerns, let’s talk. Every member’s opinion was valued. And it just tansformed, step by step, it transformed this union. This is the most activist teachers’ union in the country.”

It’s probably no surprise that Ashby thinks this contract fight was a big victory for the CTU. “We’re seeing a beginning of an upsurge in this country. I know teachers across the country have watched this extremely closely because teacher union after teacher union have caved in, have not mobilized their membership, have given deep concessions, and they’re looking at Chicago and saying – why don’t we do what they did in Chicago?”

(If you’d like to hear Ashby’s complete list of what he considers the contract victories, click the link below and advance to about 09:30.)

But what about the contract details? Lorraine Forte is the Editor of Catalyst, and Sarah Karp is Deputy Editor. They both spent countless hours covering the strike.  Karp says the big deal was the contract length.

“I think the big win for the union is that the contract is only three years with a one year extension,” she explains. What if they don’t like what’s happening in year three? “… they say we’re not gonna accept the extension. It’s right in the middle – the precipice – of Emanuel’s next election campaign, if he decides to run again. So he’s gotta be nice to them. …  if the union signed a four year contract, it took them out of the conversation” about teacher evaluation methods and school closures in the fourth year.

Mayor Emanuel said repeatedly that he was fighting for principals’ autonomy. The right to develop their own staffs and to work for school-wide reform.

But Karp has written a well researched article in Catalyst showing that, since 2010 almost half of CPS principals have retired or quit “So it’s not as if we have all these experienced principals who are going to be making these decisions,” she says.

And Ashby, reacting to the term “autonomy”, had this reaction. “I think the word autonomy is understood by the teachers to mean either dictatorship or non-union. The charter drive as far as they’re concerned is ideologically driven to get rid of the union.”

School closings remain a thorny issue. With perhaps 130,000 surplus slots in the traditional CPS schools, some closings seem inevitable.  But as Karp explains, “It’s not a natural phenomenon. This has been caused by charter schools. There are some neighborhoods where there has been a decrease in enrollment, but the decrease in enrollment has been exacerbated by charter schools. We have more than 300 schools that have less than 300 kids in the school. ”

And Forte says the move to charters continues despite the thousands of vacant seats. “The school closings, while at the same time the district has said we’re gonna open 60 more charter schools, the two of them together is what has got the union revved up for another fight. And parents see their neighborhood school closed. And maybe it’s the last functioning institution in some poor community…”

And finally, the budget. Mayor Emanuel says the new contract will cost about $74 million extra in the first year. But Sarah Karp says the Board should be able to cope. They’ll probably wait a month, she says, then announce a revised budget.

“The CPS budget is kind of a crazy document,” she says. “But it can’t be hard for them to find $75 million. I mean, I’ve been covering the CPS for long enough to see 400 million dollar deficits disappear in, like a night. Because they decided they’e gonna turn off the lights at night or something like that. They’re gonna make a big deal over how they’re gonna find the money, but truthfully, it’s not gonna be that hard.”


About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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