IF REFORMERS in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) win union elections June 11, it will shake up City Hall, rattle teachers unions–and provide a rebuke to President Barack Obama’s education policy.
In the first round of union elections on May 21, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) gained 30 percent of the vote in a five-way race, compared to 31.9 percent for the incumbent United Progressive Caucus (UPC), which has controlled the union for 37 of the last 40 years.
As a result, Karen Lewis, a longtime union militant and co-chair of CORE, will square off against CTU President Marilyn Stewart in a runoff election for the union presidency.
Formed in 2008 in response to the union’s failure to stand up to school closings ordered by then-Chicago Public Schools CEO, Arne Duncan, CORE mobilized not only rank-and-file teachers, but parents and community organizations against an agenda that centered on closing “failing” schools, expanding privately run charter schools and grinding down job protections for teachers.
Duncan and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley tapped corporate resources to take over schools or open new ones, even as the CTU lost about 6,000 members in the last decade as 70 neighborhood schools were closed.
Today, of course, Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education, and the Chicago plan has gone national. The federal Race to the Top program dangled more than $4.3 billion in front of budget-starved school districts and states if they would clone Chicago’s program.
But now, Chicago teachers appear ready to fight back against the Duncan agenda and the corporate interests he represents.
As Jesse Sharkey, CORE’s candidate for CTU vice president, put it:
The winds of changes are blowing in the Chicago Public Schools. This school system is Arne Duncan’s hometown. For the last 10 years, we’ve suffered under many of the same initiatives that are now being brought to every school system in the country.
This election result demonstrates that teachers are not willing to sit by passively and watch our public schools get turned over to private operators, see programs get cut to the bone, and see schools become test factories.
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THAT ANGER at the base of the union meant that CORE got a hearing. With only a fraction of the resources of the incumbents, CORE has been able to raise its profile, not only thanks to big meetings and protests against school closures, but also through systematic organizing in the communities most affected by the slash-and-burn methods used by Duncan and his successor, Schools CEO Ron Huberman.
For example, CORE has worked with the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM), a group initiated by parents and community members in schools that are under-resourced or tagged as “failing.”
A sign of CORE’s appeal came last year when two of its members won election to two of the union’s seats on the teachers’ pension fund.
CORE also benefited from the near self-destruction of the union’s UPC leadership. CTU President Marilyn Stewart first took office in 2004, ousting reformer Deborah Lynch, who failed to win a second term after negotiating a concessionary contract. Stewart defeated Lynch again in the 2007 CTU elections–this time overwhelmingly–with militant posturing and promises to obtain a great contract.
But the five-year deal she negotiated subsequently won approval of union delegates only through a disputed parliamentary procedure before it was ratified by the membership.
Soon afterward, the UPC was in full-fledged civil war. Stewart ousted her key strategist, Ted Dallas, from union office and ultimately had him expelled from the union entirely. The purge exposed lavish expenditures by Dallas and other union officials, as detailed in the Substance  newspaper and Web site, which chronicles and analyzes the CTU from a reform perspective.
Soon afterward, Stewart–whose combined income from multiple union positions is about $272,000 per year–admitted that the CTU budget was millions of dollars in the red .
UPC never recovered from that internecine battle. Linda Porter, the CTU’s treasurer, broke with Stewart to run against her for president in the 2010 elections. Another UPC faction ran its own campaign, and Deborah Lynch mounted another comeback effort to make it a five-way contest.
In the end, the UPC, which once had a formidable machine at its disposal, could get only a couple of hundred votes more than CORE.
The result is all the more striking in view of threats from Schools CEO Huberman, an ex-cop and former transit boss who’s been assigned by Daley to ram through the next phase of school “reform.” Huberman claims that the school budget is nearly $600 million in the red–and that teachers will either have to forego 4 percent pay increases in each of the next two years or accept thousands of layoffs that could increase class sizes from 30 to 35.
All the CTU presidential candidates except one vowed to reject Huberman’s demand to reopen the contract. But CORE’s Karen Lewis had the credibility that other candidates lacked, given the caucus’ fighting record, however brief.
She argued that the relief given to the schools on pensions was in itself enough to overcome the budget shortfall. Moreover, Lewis and the CORE slate pointed to how Mayor Daley’s tax increment financing (TIF) scheme–which shifts property taxes into a citywide slush fund–will have diverted more than $1.2 billion from Chicago schools between 2006 and 2012. Rather than give back, the CTU should fight back by building a democratic, fighting union, Lewis argued.
“CORE’s success is [that] we are a big-tent, grass-roots group led democratically from the bottom up,” Lewis said when election results were released. “That was why CORE began in the first place–to activate and energize all members in running the union. It also turned out to be a winning campaign strategy.”
As CORE co-chair Jackson Potter put it , “Our message isn’t that we’re going to fight for you, but with you.”
Enough teachers agreed with these arguments to put Lewis into a dead heat with Stewart. And now CORE has a shot at ousting the UPC and sending a message to the CTU’s parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, that it’s time to push back against the corporate style “school reform” pushed by Duncan and Obama.
“What the union had been doing wasn’t working,” said Sharkey, CORE’s vice presidential candidate. “Teachers know the power of our union is in decline. And while we can’t guarantee that we’ll win this fight we’re facing, we can guarantee that we’ll lose if we don’t try.”
LEE SUSTAR is labor editor for Socialist Worker, where this article originally appeared.