On the Defensive, Chicago Teachers Try to Shake Up Their Union

Matt Muchowski May 28, 2010

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union, affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, protest proposed cuts to the Chicago Public School system in downtown Chicago on May 25, 2010.

School admin­is­tra­tors across the Unit­ed States should beware. 

Teach­ers in Chica­go are lead­ing an upris­ing against the the Chica­go plan’ of char­ter and turn­around schools, the poli­cies that Arne Dun­can cre­at­ed as CEO of the Chica­go Pub­lic Schools (CPS) sys­tem and is now imple­ment­ing nation­wide as Pres­i­dent Obama’s Sec­re­tary of Edu­ca­tion.

One week ago, near­ly 20,000 of the Chica­go Teach­ers Unions 30,000 mem­bers vot­ed on new lead­er­ship. Incum­bent Pres­i­dent Mar­i­lyn Stew­art and her Unit­ed Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus bare­ly beat the mil­i­tant Cau­cus of Rank and File (CORE) Edu­ca­tors. CORE did so well, in fact, that there will be a run-off elec­tion on June 11. With recent endorse­ments from oth­er cau­cus­es in the union, CORE can­di­dates look poised to become the new lead­ers of the union.

The suc­cess of the rank-and-file cau­cus high­lights a grow­ing anger among teach­ers at char­ter schools, which use pub­lic funds but are man­aged by pri­vate com­pa­nies and hire non-union teach­ers. In Chica­go, some char­ter schools have tak­en over the build­ings that pub­lic schools used to occu­py and have been a main rea­son why the union has lost 6,000 members.

As CORE’s vice-pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Jesse Sharkey said, There is a wind of change in the union, the major­i­ty of the teach­ers want­ed some­thing dif­fer­ent. The first round of votes showed that and I expect the sec­ond to con­firm that.”

CORE has built a rep­u­ta­tion as a group of teach­ers that suc­cess­ful­ly fight against char­ter schools. Cielo Munoz, a teacher at Penn Ele­men­tary School, explained that her class sizes have increased as a char­ter school that shares the build­ing with Penn con­tin­u­al­ly expands, ask­ing for about four new class­rooms a year. 

Munoz won­dered, Is this nego­ti­at­ed or a takeover?” She sup­ports CORE because, it does not seem to be afraid. … Core was there on the first day we start­ed to have prob­lems. CORE is on the front lines.”

Elaine Rose, a gym teacher at Christo­pher Colum­bus Ele­men­tary School, explained that CORE is peo­ple who have been in schools for a long peri­od of time, who know what’s going on and who want to make the changes we need.”

CORE co-chair Jack­son Pot­ter says the group offers a dif­fer­ent mod­el of orga­niz­ing that goes beyond bread-and-but­ter issues of a strong con­tract and bet­ter pay. Accord­ing to Pot­ter, CORE is going to fight to enforce teacher con­tracts, defend the union in the pub­lic eye, and mobi­lize the com­mu­ni­ty in sup­port of pub­lic edu­ca­tion.

CORE has orga­nized sev­er­al large ral­lies of teach­ers against pro­posed school bud­get cuts. On May 25, it brought all the dif­fer­ent fac­tions of the teach­ers union togeth­er at a well-attend­ed ral­ly in down­town Chica­go.

CPS CEO Ron Huber­man has said the school sys­tem is fac­ing a $600 mil­lion short­fall. How­ev­er CORE called on the city to fill that gap with mon­ey allo­cat­ed for the cre­ation of char­ter schools and from the city’s tax incre­ment finance” (TIFs) dis­tricts, which May­or Richard Daley’s admin­is­tra­tion uses to cap spend­ing on schools and spur gen­tri­fi­ca­tion.

As Sharkey explained: The city spends hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars on edu­ca­tion­al pri­or­i­ties that are about dis­man­tling and hurt­ing pub­lic edu­ca­tion, and we would like to see those resources spent on sup­port­ing pub­lic schools.”

Pot­ter explained that CORE has been reach­ing out to teach­ers and unions across the coun­try and local­ly to counter the poli­cies of pri­va­ti­za­tion. Pot­ter put the May 25 ral­ly in the con­text of the poli­cies that are begin­ning to be imple­ment­ed nationwide:

This shows you that the reac­tion is going to be tremen­dous… peo­ple are going to begin mobi­liz­ing.. and say­ing that this is not a plan to improve edu­ca­tion this is a plan to pri­va­tize edu­ca­tion. This is not a plan to empow­er teach­ers and make them bet­ter at what they do, this is a plan to divest from the school and neigh­bor­hoods… it start­ed here in the city, we plan on end­ing it here in the city.

Matt Muchows­ki works for Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union and enjoys defeat­ing anti-union leg­is­la­tion. He lives in Chica­go and for a brief but mem­o­rable time was asso­ciate pub­lish­er of In These Times.
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