Coming Back [Updated]: Can the Leader of the Chicago Teachers Union Both End the Strike, Retain her Victories and Keep Her Union Unified?

“It’s a lot harder coming back from a strike than going out.”

Strikes usually do not end with the union leader holding the still beating heart of the mayor over their head as the multitudes scream approval. Karen Lewis has been the leader of the Chicago Teacher Union (CPU) for a year, she deposed an incumbent union leader who had also beat an incumbent leader.

Lewis is a charismatic, popular leader who rallied the troops to despise the new mayor who earned their ire by keeping up a steady attack on teachers and their union.

The heat increased, negotiations stumbled, the union built support among parents. Negotiations escalated and the city seemed to agree on a substantial salary increase.

The problem for the union was the strike issue: respect. If you ask teachers why they were willing to leave their kids and walk a picket line the answers were vague. Respect is difficult to write into a contract.

The union attempted to frame the issues:

* class size

* a  teacher evaluation plan

* school closing and resulting teacher layoffs

The CTU contract never addressed class size issues, and, the cost factor is huge.

Every teacher evaluation plan uses student achievement data to some extent – Chicago had a pilot program utilizing supervisory-teacher teams – a limited peer evaluation. The New York State law requires plans to be approved by local unions – Illinois does not have that provision.

The mayor has been adamant – principals must have total control over the staffing in their schools. If a school closes the teachers are laid off with no recall rights – and – over 100 schools are scheduled for closing over the next few years.


See summary and contract language for proposed settlement here.

Lewis is an excellent public speaker – she can rile up a crowd – she has an edgy style, she bashed Mayor Emanuel to the glee of her members, and the mayor poked back further angering Lewis’ members.

The strike was a collective “f___ y__” to the mayor.

The problem for the union: what was the exit strategy?

The proposed solution was a compromise – all labor/management settlements are compromises – both sides surrendering positions.

Lewis, after spending a year preparing her members was unable to convince her delegates to pass the settlement along to her members for a vote.

How do you define respect? How do you write respect into a contract?

How does a leader convince her members that the settlement is a victory?

Al Shanker took his members out on strike three times, and brought them back still unified. The long (36 days), contentious Oceanhill-Brownsville strike was racially charged with huge acrimony, the strike placed Shanker on the national stage. In 1975 he ended the strike without bringing back the 15,000 laid off teachers – but – saved the city and saved his union. A bankruptcy would have abrogated the union contract.

Where is Lewis going in Chicago? It is unlikely the city will move off the agreed upon contract – the mayor will move to the courts.

In 1995 UFT president Sandy Feldman negotiated a contract that was defeated by the union membership. Months later a very similar contract proposal was ratified by the union membership.

In New York City the union contract expired almost three years ago. Under the leadership of Michael Mulgrew the union was a key player in a state law which requires that teacher evaluation plans are negotiated at the local level. Attempts by the mayor to end a seniority-based layoff-recall law were thwarted, the union won both court cases and arbitrations which delayed or prevented school closings/redesigns. For Mulgrew the strike route was never an option. The union receives high grades from parents as the mayor’s educational policy approval ratings tumble.

Standing in front of thousands and haranguing the masses is “sexy,” it satisfies egos, the adrenalin pumps, the crowd roars, you are the leader of a movement.

Once the members are in the streets – how can you keep the passion of the crowd, and bring the members back to classrooms?

Whether Lewis will emerge as a leader who can make the hard, and sometimes unpopular decisions, to both represent her members, negotiate and cajole and extract concessions from management, or, is she the mullah who drives his supporters into the streets leading to senseless, futile militancy?

Lewis and the Chicago Teachers Union are at a crossroads.

Take a listen to “Which Side Are You On,” a classic union song.


4 responses to “Coming Back [Updated]: Can the Leader of the Chicago Teachers Union Both End the Strike, Retain her Victories and Keep Her Union Unified?

  1. Yes, it is harder to come back than to go out. Ask anyone who’s ever stormed out of the room in the middle of an argument. I am sure that the Chicago teachers would rather be working than walking the line, but the issue of respect is a serious one. In respectful labor management negotiations it never comes down to a strike. Both sides acknowledge the positive motivations they bring to the table and try to negotiate to meet each other’s legitimate interests. This doesn’t happen when one side wants to accuse the other of bad motives and wwants to claim the moral high ground (Children First anyone?). This is what is happening in Chicago, where a corporate ideology that demonizes unions and teachers as self-interested actors working against the interests of children is dominating the management side of the equation. If management (Emannuel) backs away from his ideology and starts treating teachers as actors who can contribute to the solution, then the strike can end.


  2. Marc is correct. I’d like to add two additional comments.
    In your post you write that Ms. Lewis, “rallied the troops to despise the new mayor,” and also considered whether she would be “the mullah who drives his supporters into the streets leading to senseless, futile militancy?”
    Both comments are incendiary and are themselves “disrespectful” to the CTU leadership and membership. They deserve a better critique than the one you have offered.
    One argument that I don’t see anyone making is how the corporate driven, so called “reform movement,” has upended the way human beings acquire knowledge and wisdom. With all of the talk about teacher evaluations, very little has been said about the “dumbing” and “deskilling” down of management and teachers via principals who sometimes have two years of teaching experience and are fast-tracked into positions of power via “Leadership Academies” and many college graduate programs. This necessarily requires the “spreadsheet data fascism” models of accountability currently in vogue. Without them, and all of their check off boxes and faux observation templates, how would inexperienced teacher/principals meaningfully “evaluate” their staff members?
    This top down dismantling of experience has created the perfect gateway for high stakes tests and “teacher accountability measures.” The “deformers” have been much smarter than our local and national leadership.
    Instead of disrespecting Ms. Lewis and the CTU, perhaps it is time to offer a fair and balanced critique of Ms. Weingarten, Mr. Mulgrew, Mr. Mendel and Mr. Casey. They too are not perfect. Perhaps they will learn something about educating their members and our communities about the hijacking of our school system by a small of group of people intent on privatizing public schools.
    We all deserve better than your post.


  3. JP
    For the three decades prior to Child First decentralized school districts in NYC hired entirely through patronage – especially in the poorest areas of the city. In the same districts teacher vacancies were commmonplace … high school graduation rates were appalling, and based on the low skill RCT exam … teachers were ignored … there were fewer applicants than jobs.

    It was “easier” to teach, if you showed up every day and blood didn’t run out from under your door you were satisfactory. Lesson observations were few and far between,

    Today scores of aspiring teachers apply for every job. Finding the exemplary principal is challenging …

    Teaching is in the spotlight – teachers are in the spotlight. With six figure salaries employers are going to assess effectiveness.

    I fear that if the Chicago teachers linger on the picket lines a settlement may be imposed by the court.

    How many strikes have unions won? Union membership is at an historic low with little public support.

    These are perilous times for unions.


  4. These are perilous times but “power concedes nothing without a struggle.” The real questions are ot whether the CTU should have gone on strike, they were pushed into it by a my way or the highway board and city administration, but rather are they striking for the and getting the right things. Loking at the proposed contract settlement, I didn’t see where going forward they are creating committees with teacher majorities to solve problems. That is the true sign of respect and teacher voice and it will only be won at the bargainning table.


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