“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.