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Lesson Learned

Teachers' union president Deborah Lynch showed the rank and file what they could accomplish if they stood up for themselves. And then, to her chagrin, they did.

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Two years ago, on the night of her election as president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Deborah Lynch told a cheering crowd of supporters that their vote was the sign of a new day for public school teachers. "The message is out--we're empowered," she said. "The lesson of this election is that we can't be taken for granted."

On October 16 Lynch learned that lesson herself, when the rank and file voted by a two-to-one margin to reject the contract she'd negotiated with the Board of Education. "Things have certainly changed--teachers are much more vocal than they used to be," says Larry Vigon, the union delegate from Von Steuben high school. "The pressure's been building for a long time--it's like a volcano going off."

According to Vigon and other teachers, the October 16 vote wasn't as much about specific issues in the contract as it was about venting anger, frustration, and disappointment. Chicago teachers always talk about their powerlessness, but they've rarely been so openly rebellious. "We've always gone along like sheep with whatever the central office or the union leaders told us to do," says one veteran north-side grammar school teacher. "But now there's this new openness. I've never seen anything like it."

The rebelliousness seems to be partly a delayed reaction to the reign of former schools CEO Paul Vallas, now the chief of Philadelphia's public schools. Many teachers saw him as a cranky autocrat who bullied the rank and file with arbitrary rules and regulations. He forced high school teachers to devote almost a month to preparing students for the Chicago Academic Standards Examinations (CASE), a poorly conceived multiple-choice standardized test. He demanded that grammar school teachers hold back any student who didn't receive a passing score on multiple-choice standardized national achievement tests. He insisted that teachers in schools where students got low scores resign and reapply for their jobs. And he micromanaged curriculum, going so far as to order one south-side high school English teacher to stop teaching Coffee Will Make You Black, a popular coming-of-age novel.

Thomas Reece, then president of the CTU, kept silent in the face of Vallas's mandates. He cautioned teachers not to take a strong stand against Vallas, because Vallas was so close to Mayor Daley. He said it was prudent for the union to leave larger curriculum issues, including testing, to Vallas. And he declared that he and Vallas engaged in a healthy behind-the-scenes give-and-take.

In the fall of 1998 Reece and Vallas announced that their close working relationship had enabled them to quietly negotiate a three-year contract that included raises of 2 percent the first and second years and 3 percent the third. On November 10 the teachers held a ratification vote, which was controlled by the union hierarchy, and a few hours after the votes had been collected Reece announced that the rank and file had approved the deal by a margin of 13,501 to 9,942.

Many teachers didn't believe him. "You'd talk to other teachers from other schools, and you'd ask them how their school voted," says Lynch. "And it seemed everywhere people were against the deal." That December, George Schmidt--a former high school English teacher who publishes Substance, a monthly newspaper about the schools--began calling union delegates from schools around the city, piecing together his own count of the vote. The count was unofficial and incomplete, but it suggested that more than 9,942 teachers had voted against the contract.

Reece denied that his count was off, but Lynch, then an eighth-grade teacher from a southwest-side grammar school, pressed him to publish a school-by-school tally of the results. He refused, on the grounds that he didn't want his supporters being harassed by Lynch's supporters.

Lynch, who'd already run against Reece twice for president and was clearly gearing up to run again, took the matter to court. "You had this strange situation," she says, "where our union dues were being spent by our union to keep us from seeing the results of our vote."

Eventually Lynch lost her case. But the showdown, well chronicled in Substance, led many teachers to shift their anger from Vallas to Reece. He was, they said, too close to the board hierarchy, too willing to go along with whatever Vallas dictated. They said they wanted a more independent union chief, and in the election of May 2001 Lynch unseated him, getting almost 60 percent of the vote. It was the first time a union challenger had ever unseated an incumbent president.

Her election caught Mayor Daley off guard, but he seemed to see how discontented teachers had become. A few weeks after Lynch's victory he replaced Vallas with Arne Duncan, a lower-profile central-office aide.

Over the past couple of years Daley and Duncan have extended an olive branch to the union. Last year Daley agreed to bring back the collective bargaining rights that had been abolished when Vallas came into office, and Duncan agreed to do away with CASE, after teachers at Curie high school vowed not to give the test, even if it meant losing their jobs.

From the board's perspective, the proposed contract, announced in September after almost four months of negotiations, was another example of this good-faith effort to maintain peace with the union. It offered teachers a 4 percent raise in each of the five years of the deal. Starting salaries would rise from $34,538 to $42,020, and maximum salaries, for teachers with doctorates, would rise from $63,276 to $76,985.

"It's a better package than we received last time," says Lynch, who campaigned hard for the deal in the weeks leading up to the vote, calling teachers on the phone and visiting their schools. She warned that there was little chance of getting more money from the board, since the board had no more money to give. She said a no vote would be the same as a strike vote--the offer was as good as it would get.

The rank and file weren't swayed. They said rising health insurance costs would eat up part of the raises, and they wanted the board to hire new teachers to reduce classroom overcrowding (the contract included only $1 million to that end). And almost everyone agreed that five years was too long for a contract. "Everywhere I heard that it was too long," says Brian Minarcik, who teaches at Darwin elementary in Logan Square. "Why are we locking ourselves in for five years? If the economy improves we want a new deal."

On October 16 the teachers voted 15,965 to 10,723--votes were collected and counted by a union-hired outside auditor--against the deal. It was the first time the union had ever officially rejected a pact endorsed by its president. The no voters weren't divided by ethnicity, age, or gender. They even came out strong in grade schools, where teachers traditionally vote with the union.

Another reason for the no vote was that Reece's supporters--represented by Ted Dallas, the union delegate from Wells high school--remain vocal in the union. "I think Dallas and his faction would vote against anything Debbie came up with," says Vigon. Dallas, who didn't return calls for comment, has already announced that he's putting together a slate to run against Lynch in May.

"Coming into the vote, I wasn't sure if it would pass or not," says Vigon. "I know most teachers were saying they were against it, but sometimes people have a habit of changing their minds when they have to mark the ballot." He thinks the rejection vote is the latest howl of protest from a teaching staff that's tired of being taken for granted. "It's time the system adopted a new attitude toward teachers," he says. "You just look at what's going on--high-stakes testing, school closings, putting schools on probation, No Child Left Behind and all its mandates. No one asks us--they just tell us. It rubs teachers the wrong way. After a while it's like we don't count for anything."

The rejection vote also represents a desire for greater independence on the part of young teachers such as Minarcik, who's 34 and has been in the system for only four years. "I speak up--I encourage other teachers to speak up," he says. "I became a teacher for all sorts of idealistic reasons. It's not just a job to me. It really bothers me when the newspapers and radios quote teachers who are screaming for more money. Personally, I think those teachers are ignorantly representing us--more money does not give you peace of mind. I want them to deal with substantive issues."

School officials say they'll meet with the union in an attempt to resolve their differences and avoid a strike. "At this point we feel that the agreement was fair and reasonable," says board spokesman Peter Cunningham. "But because we need this to work and avoid disruption, we will continue to meet with them."

Privately, school board insiders say they're baffled by the teachers' vote. "They are out of control," says one. "You've got those old Reece people talking about how this contract was no good--and they're the ones who negotiated a 2 percent deal in good times. That's astonishing. The fact that they have any credibility with any teacher is fucking unbelievable. And yet why isn't anyone in the union standing up for Lynch?"

Lynch says she's supporting the teachers' decision even though that means reversing her original stance. "I think there's frustration and anger over the fact that this contract doesn't make up for the last eight years of lousy wages and working conditions," she says. "Our membership's feeling empowered. They're mad as hell and they don't want to take it anymore."

In retrospect, Lynch says it might not have been a good idea to go along with the board's request to keep the details of the negotiations secret. "Last spring the board and the union decided to bargain in good faith without making public comments, so our words wouldn't be taken out of context and played off each other in the press," she says. "From the standpoint of enabling bargaining to proceed, that helped. But from the standpoint of winning union support, it didn't. Our members didn't see us fighting for them."

The major sticking point seems to be the contract's length. The board originally sought a six-year contract and saw the five-year deal as a compromise. "The whole point," says the insider, "is not to have to do this again in two years." But teachers have already let Lynch know they're willing to strike for a shorter deal.

"My thing is we finally have a Democrat from Chicago as governor--and we're still 48th out of 50 on per-pupil spending," says Minarcik. "I don't want a deal that goes for so long that we blow this chance to get more state funding. The union and the board have to think differently. They have to get together and press Blagojevich for more money now, not in five years. It's time to think differently. The old way isn't working."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.

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