Democracy is messy—welcome to the teachers' union | On Politics | Chicago Reader

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Democracy is messy—welcome to the teachers' union

Why teachers' union politics gets a little messy


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Back in the fun-filled early days of the teachers' strike—before Mayor Emanuel brought in his lawyers and everyone decided to go back to school—it was still possible to get a laugh or two out of the comments of some of our local politicians. Like First Ward alderman Joe Moreno, who on September 10 went on Fox News to discuss public education—god help us all.

After attempting to out-Fox the anchor, who was bellowing about blowing up the whole system (presumably after removing children from the buildings), Moreno remembered his talking points and launched into the mayor's spiel. As in: It's not the teachers we hate—we love teachers. It's that dastardly teachers' union.

"I support the teachers, but the union has made severe mistakes," Moreno said. "They are a conservative union stuck way back in the 60s and 70s."

You know—way back in that era when aldermen did exactly what the mayor told them.

Well, in the aftermath of Sunday's union meeting and Tuesday's decision to end the strike, I think it's time to give everyone—starting with Alderman Moreno—a little lesson about the politics of the Chicago Teachers Union.

For starters, the union isn't some alien creature that's brainwashed the poor unsuspecting teachers of Chicago and forced them to go on strike. No way. For better or worse, the teachers are the union—hence its name. And it was the teachers of Chicago—the same teachers Moreno and the mayor say they love—who overwhelmingly voted to go on strike.

In other words, if you don't like the teachers' union, you don't like the teachers.

Personally, I can think of a few I'll never be wild about, like a certain seventh-grade math teacher who gave me a C.

But a teachers' strike is serious business, especially for the kids who missed classes, the teachers who missed paychecks, and the parents who went out of their minds trying to navigate child care and work.

Still, given the recent history of the Chicago Teachers Union, it's not surprising that President Karen Lewis and union delegates initially backed off on ratifying the deal, thus extending the strike two more days.

Teachers get kicked around by principals, sliced and diced by pundits, and punched for good luck by politicians like Mayor Emanuel, who's steadily converting more unionized schools into charters. And that's in addition to their primary job of working with kids who may or may not want to be worked with.

At this point the union is one of the only places a teacher can take a stand. So perhaps it's not surprising that there were quite a few union-hall hotheads and militants who banged the drum and waved the flag. Loudly.

Lewis may have negotiated a hell of a deal, or as close to it as she thought she could get, but she didn't know if she had the votes to approve it. And she sure as hell wasn't going to muscle it through—not unless she wanted to wind up like Thomas Reece and Deborah Lynch.

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