CTU Candidates Debate Over Before it Began
By Jim Vail
May 11, 2013
The Chicago Teachers Union candidates debate at the House of Delegates meeting May 8 was a shadow of the last dynamic debate between five candidates that propelled the Coalition of Rank and File Educators into an upset victory three years ago over the United Progressive Party, which led the union for the past 40 years.
Observers at the Union of Operating Engineers proclaimed CTU President Karen Lewis the winner over the UPC challenger Tanya Saunders-Wolffe in a knock-out.
I would say Wolffe tripped and fell numerous times in the ring, while Lewis stuck to her guns and delivered right and left jabs, leaving no one in doubt who was the debate champion.
The next CTU presidential election will be held in the schools on May 17th between CORE's Lewis and the Coalition to Save the Union's Wolffe (made up of former UPC and PACT members).
The weakness of the challenger was clearly evident from the start. While Wolffe pointed out weaknesses in the new contract, the disaster of the union president's support for the infamous SB7 law that effectively gave up teachers' seniority rights - the cornerstone of a union - and the fact that the strike did not stop Mayor Rahm Emanuel's assault on the union, she offered no convincing solutions.
"That hope we once had has been turned into despair," Wolffe said in her opening remarks. "The hope in the streets, has turned into despair in the suits."
Wolffe pointed out that the new contract resulted in longer work hours for less pay, more power for principals and a record number of 54 school closings.
Wolffe said the solution is to work more closely with politicians (former CTU president Marilyn Stewart once boasted she consulted Mayor Richard Daley before agreeing on the contract), and work more closely with the Chicago Public Schools to develop programs like fresh start with a CTU - CPS turnaround that prevents firing the entire staff (an initiative started by former CTU president Debbie Lynch).
It's called the inside game - the American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten has worked it well while signing away teachers rights and jobs throughout the recent years of massive education privatization.
(Weingarten doesn't even see a problem with working hand in hand with the enemy, inviting Bill Gates to be a keynote speaker at the AFT convention in Seattle. Gates is currently putting up millions of dollars for more charter schools to destroy union jobs and is actively promoting the end of teachers pension system!)
CORE came to power doing the exact opposite - to fight the business - political establishment to stop school closings and its massive attack on teachers' union rights.
And there certainly is a fight between the mayor and the CTU president which has exploded in the press and resulted in few meetings to work things out.
"We face a formidable foe," Lewis said in her following opening remarks. "Rahm has an agenda, and that requires compliance."
Lewis then shot off CORE's accomplishments - she has united a union through a massive, popular strike, dramatically increased delegate attendance and participation at meetings and negotiated one of the better teacher contracts in the country considering the onslaught that has rolled back numerous provisions, including union pay and benefits and seniority rights.
"The NY Times called me and asked how did you get more than any other district throughout the country in your contract," Lewis said to strong applause.
Lewis, who appeared in total control throughout the night, just shook her head and said if Wolffe was so upset with the new contract, why didn't she complain when she was a member of the contract bargaining committee to help negotiate something better.
Plus tying test scores heavily to teacher's evaluation, which Wolf criticized Lewis for, was actually first negotiated under the UPC administration, Lewis added.
Wolffe did not have the answers.
On the question of how to work the political system, Wolffe said she would make sure the union got back to the table with politicians so they would listen, because "I have no intention to run for mayor in 2015."
Lewis at this point looked like the prize fighter, waiting to get in an easy pop.
"The political process is not that simple as let's get a drink," Lewis said, to rumblings of laughter from the delegates.
Lewis pointed out the CTU has an impressive research team that provided legislators with sharp questions for CPS CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett at a house educational committee hearing.
Lewis added that house speaker Michael Madigan, basically the state's version of Emanuel, said nothing to stop the strike despite the mayor's pleas to stop it.
Wolffe did hit hard on the notion that the CTU is not a service union, but as Lewis says, a member driven union. Wolffe said the union is not addressing many member problems.
The reality is, the state of filing grievances and winning against certain abusive management problems is probably no different between the old or new union.
Interestingly enough, Wolffe said the strike should not have been used before negotiating. Lewis countered that there were many negotiation sessions before the teachers walked off the job.
"We had 54 negotiation meetings before we went on strike," Lewis said. "I thought (the Board of Ed) would settle. You were there Tanya, what's the problem now."
No doubt, it was a knock out in favor of Lewis.
Next, Second City Teachers will look at the vice president debate between CTU VP Jesse Sharkey and his challenger Mark Ochoa.