Chicago teachers union votes to oppose anti-labor law

CHICAGO—The executive board of the Chicago Teachers Union voted on May 2 to oppose a union-busting law passed by the Illinois Statehouse and Senate that would effectively eliminate seniority, make it close to impossible for Chicago teachers to strike, and limit collective bargaining rights.
The vote of the executive board, later passed by the union’s house of delegates, reverses the position of CTU President Karen Lewis, who—along with the heads of the Illinois Federation of Teachers and Illinois Education Association—had endorsed the legislation, SB 7.
Instead of mounting a Wisconsin-style labor mobilization to defend teachers’ rights, the union leaders instead sought to make a deal that would leave out some of the most reactionary proposals proposed by anti-union zealots.
What the bill does contain is enough, however, to be a crippling blow to teachers.  SB 7 would effectively eliminate seniority for teacher layoffs, giving school districts the green light to lay off higher paid senior teachers. The bill also targets CTU with provisions requiring a lengthy legal process for teachers to go on strike, requiring 75% of the membership to vote for strike authorization and giving new Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel the right to lengthen the school day without negotiating with the union and with no raise in pay for teachers.
The final version of the bill contained additional provisions that the teacher-union heads claim they never agreed to and were added without their knowledge. These included language that would remove Chicago teachers from the jurisdiction of the state labor board, making it impossible for the union to even file grievances. The changes to the final version of the bill caused the IEA to withdraw its support for the bill and state they were “neutral,” essentially saying they were for the bill but wanted legislatures to pass a trailer bill that remove those provisions.
Karen Lewis’ endorsement of SB 7 came as a shock to many activists in the Chicago Teachers Union. Lewis was elected on a reform slate last year and has been a leader of the reform caucus CORE, which has organized rank-and-file teachers to fight against school closings, charter schools expansion, and other attacks on teachers. CORE members on the union’s executive board organized the vote to reverse the union’s endorsement.
While the change in position from CTU is a positive development and evidence that the reform movement in CTU is alive and strong, the change appears to be too little too late. The prospects for building a fightback movement with labor mobilizing in the streets to stop SB 7 are dim. Many rank-and-file teachers are confused and demoralized over the union’s initial endorsement of the bill, and in the case of the IEA, over the union’s pitiful position of being “neutral” on a bill that would substantially weaken their rights and job security.
The only activity being encouraged is to call politicians and beg them to remove a few of the worst aspects of the bill, hardly a call to action that could inspire members to mobilize.
The unions should have been clear from the beginning with a simple message: No concessions! Instead of sitting down to negotiate the terms of the union’s ass kicking, they should have met any reactionary education bill with tens of thousands outside the capitol building in Springfield and a call for labor solidarity as has happened in Madison, Columbus, and Indianapolis.
CTU must now deal with newly elected Mayor Emmanuel, who has called on CTU to accept pay cuts and wants to expand the privatization of Chicago schools. Emmanuel lobbied hard for SB 7, and was behind the bills many provision that target CTU. In order to mount an effective struggle to fight against Emmanuel’s union busting, CTU must mobilize the rank-and-file and trade-union and community solidarity around a clear message that defends teachers’ rights.
The union’s stance against SB 7 was a first step in this direction. In CORE’s statement to its members in opposition to SB 7, the reform caucus said, “Even our best efforts may not stop this bill, but it’s important that we come together and face our challenges with clarity, honesty, and unity. The stage is being set for battle, and what we do now matters for the impending clash between the incoming mayor and the teachers who care for Chicago’s children.”
> The article above was written by David Bernt and first appeared in the June 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.

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