Teachers Union Facing Crucial Decisions

The newly seated Chicago Board of Education may have won the first battle with Chicago teachers this week when it rescinded a 4 percent pay raise, but it may also have ended a relatively peaceful era in labor relations and created a more pugnacious adversary.

The Chicago Teachers Union has absorbed a number of recent setbacks. On Monday, a sweeping education bill that reformed teacher tenure and limited teachers' ability to strike was signed into law. And on Wednesday, the board unanimously nullified raises that would have cost nearly $100 million.

Some teachers and observers say that backing the union into a corner on wages and other key issues could be the spark to reinvigorate the membership.

"If you act in a confrontational way, you're poking your finger in the eye of those teachers, and very typically you generate unintended negative consequences," said Robert Bruno, director of the labor education program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Karen Lewis, president of the union, had a succinct reaction to the board's vote. "Thank you, because we'll be organizing all summer," she said Thursday. "It will be a very interesting, wonderful summer."

Teachers face crucial tasks. They need to rally their membership and public support to strengthen their leverage at the bargaining table. And they must decide whether to try to muster the votes to call the union's first strike since 1987 or choose a less confrontational tactic.

The union has already notified the board that it wants to reopen the section of the contract regarding salaries, something it has the right to do. That could lead to compromise solutions or to reopening the entire agreement for negotiations.

Andrew W. Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, recognized the role that the new legislation could play in the changing dynamic between the district and the union.

"It's unusual to carve out a group of teachers in a local and treat them, in state statute, very differently in terms of right to strike," Broy said. "You've got the kind of nuclear option of the strike, but what's short of that, I think, is the question."

The board's vote on raises came after it revealed that the CPS budget deficit — which it said is now $712 million — includes millions of dollars in previously undisclosed costs. Some teachers say they are open to cost-saving alternatives, like furlough days.

If the board and union reopen negotiations and those talks stall, the new state legislation dictates that the two enter a fact-finding process with a third-party arbitrator. Then 75 percent of the voting union membership would be required to authorize a strike. Many teachers say that threshold is attainable.

"We think there could be a possible strike," said Anna Moraitis, a 16-year veteran teacher who works at Sullivan High School. "At some point, enough is enough. We gotta draw the line somewhere. We feel like there's no stability anymore. If you can't honor a contract and an agreement, what leverage are you going to have in the future?"

The Chicago Teachers Union has long been a powerful and combative institution, with strikes virtually a perennial threat. There were five teachers' strikes in the 1980s alone. But there has been relative labor peace since Richard M. Daley, then the mayor, took control of the schools in 1995. The rescinded raises were specified for the last year of the current five-year contract.

"The union is weak, and it used to be strong," said Sherrily Bivens, a teacher for 27 years, currently at Agassiz Elementary School. "People paid us attention. It's a joke now."

"We have to come out and show that we're a viable institution," Bivens added.

The union cannot strike over some issues, but it can over wages. Asked if a strike is possible, Lewis said: "Yes, yes and yes again. This action that the board took, and quite frankly I'm surprised that they took it, could easily be a catalyst for a strike."

Bruno said the best alternative to a strike would be a strategic, methodical campaign to create a counternarrative to the board's stance. "The challenge will be for the teachers to talk more broadly so that it's not merely a conversation about 4 percent," he said.

Chicago Public Schools "could be creating the seeds for a much better informed and much better prepared bargaining agent than the city's ever experienced," he said. The new union leadership, which took over last year, is much more active than past leaders in organizing and building relationships with parents and community organizations, he added. That could help move public opinion in their favor.

Over the past two months, CPS has developed a public relations campaign, rolling out a listening tour with its new chief executive, Jean-Claude Brizard, announcing $75 million in cuts for the central office and outlining a deep budget deficit. Public officials across the country have called for wage and work force cuts and even changes in collective bargaining rights to address budget problems.

"People can argue with details about the numbers, but clearly, at this juncture of our budgetary cycle, we are facing an extraordinary budget gap," said David Vitale, president of the Board of Education. "We can't hamstring ourselves by saying we can reasonably expect to pay you those raises."

Lewis doesn't accept that message. "Paying teacher salaries did not take us to financial Armageddon," she said.

Nationally, teachers have been made scapegoats, said Randall Bates, a retired teacher. Teachers need a new strategy to re-establish themselves as professionals, he said, rather than just accepting the definition of a management-worker relationship.

"We have to regain the trust of the public; the public employs us," said Bates, who worked in city schools for 30 years. "We should go forward to earn that trust. We have to become leaders of educational reforms."

Lori Zaimi, 33, a union member and the coordinator of technology services at Murray Elementary School in Hyde Park, said the union had been ramping up efforts to galvanize teachers and make them aware of potential threats to their contract.

Others, like Nancy Besser, a teacher at Monroe Elementary in the Logan Square neighborhood, said there was little time to talk about union issues because she had to remain focused on her work, educating children.

"To tell you the truth, all the teachers here are just busy with what we have to do," Besser said before the vote. "The job is very demanding, and the last thing we're doing is sitting around talking about what's going to happen to our raises."

But Mark Paye, an English teacher and union delegate at Roberto Clemente high school, said that attaining a 75 percent strike-authorization vote would not be difficult given the impact the rescinded raises could have on people's lives.

"Unfortunately, people sometimes don't step into action or get active until they feel it in their pocketbooks," Paye said. "I think this would fire people up more."

Paye said he welcomed the test faced by the Chicago Teachers Union and by public employees nationwide.

"I think we're going to have a wake-up call," he said. "I think people in the country do look toward Chicago, and they're going to be looking here to learn from our successes and our mistakes."

Chicago News Cooperative, Fri Jun 17 2011

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