There is all the difference in the world between the Chicago teachers’ union and our little band of teachers out in Park Ridge, a Chicago suburb. But as president of my local I try and look at the similarities as well as the differences. I try and take away some lessons.
The Chicago Tribune reports that Marilyn Stewart, the incumbent who beat the challenger, Debbie Lynch, won over 70% of the vote. Four years ago, Stewart beat Lynch, who was then the incumbent, by only 500 votes.
I think Stewart, who is a long standing member of the United Progressive Caucus which has run the Federation for over 30 years, was able to convince members that Lynch was more interested in being at the table discussing educational reform then in the nitty gritty issues of collective bargaining, getting a good contract, job protection and health benefits.
I’m certainly in no position to know how true that is. But true or not, that’s the way the members seem to have seen it.
The tension that exists (see the Green Dot stories) between traditional membership concerns with working conditions and compensation on the one hand and issues of school change and reform on the other, permeates the teacher union movement. It exists in both the AFT and the NEA. Chicago is just the most recent example.
I have had long discussions with some leaders in my own Illinois Education Association about these same issues. Some have argued that the fight to win collective bargaining rights has been fought and won. It was won in Illinois over 25 years ago. Now the union, they argue, must move on and be the leaders in reform, particularly in the area of teacher quality and accountability. If we don’t do it, they argue, then those opposed to teacher unions will.
In my mind, the problem with this line of thinking is that we seem to be fighting the fight for collective bargaining rights all over again. The drive towards charter and contract schools, the Chicago Renaissance 2010 plan, the privatization plans by Bloomberg and Klein in New York and corporate raids like Green Dot in LA, all are real threats to union collective bargaining rights and the very existence of teacher unions.
Stewart’s victory seems to represent a circling of the wagons by Chicago teachers who correctly see their hard fought union rights being threatened. While I certainly think we need to be at the table when non-negotiated issues of teaching and learning are being discussed, union leadership that fails to reflect the traditional concerns of their membership appear to do it at their own peril.