Union Election Puts Reform on Chicago Ballot
Once, the pages of Chicago Union Teacher brimmed with strident stories denouncing the enemies of the city's teachers' union--including the school board.
But twice in the past five months, the monthly newspaper of the Chicago Teachers Union has run positive articles about the school district's new leadership team, complete with color photos. In March, the cover story about the administration's plans for boosting student achievement carried a banner headline: "New Education Plan Could Benefit CTU Members."
The coverage reflects a new era in Chicago, marked by labor peace stemming from a four-year teaching contract. Some Chicago teachers welcome the calm after years of bitter negotiations and uncertainty each fall over whether schools would even open on time.
Others see the 32,000-member CTU's congenial relationship with the administration appointed last summer by Mayor Richard M. Daley as an ominous sign that the union has lost its clout.
This week, Chicago teachers will either endorse their current leadership or vote for a change as they elect a president and a slate of other officers for the next two years. The election raises fundamental issues about the role of teachers' unions in a climate of school reform, a topic of intense interest nationwide. (See Education Week, May 8, 1996.)
The race for the presidency pits a longtime union officer and legislative lobbyist against a teacher and former director of the Quest Center, the union's foundation-supported effort to assist restructuring schools and provide professional development for teachers.
Thomas H. Reece, the incumbent, touts the peaceful atmosphere of problem-solving between labor and management that he says has blossomed in the 413,000-student district. "Everybody knows we're tough," he said. "We've had eight strikes in 10 years. Now is the time to show that we can be reasonable too, and positive."
His challenger, Deborah Lynch Walsh, a special education teacher at Marquette Elementary School, asserts that the American Federation of Teachers affiliate has become reactive and defensive under Mr. Reece. "The union leadership is not part of the conversation about shaping the future of this system," she said. "They're looking more like a company union every day."
She cites the March Union Teacher story, which quotes a union official praising the district's student-achievement plan but acknowledges that CTU leaders were not given the opportunity to submit objections or recommendations before it was announced.
"Employees should have had an equal say," Ms. Lynch Walsh said. "No one is positioning the union and its members as part of the solution to the problem, and not part of the problem. No one is making our case."
Mr. Reece counters that a committee that is reviewing the plan includes union members. The administration, he said, is "open to modification of anything that was done prior to getting our people involved."
'People Feel Better'
The Chicago Teachers Union, once regarded as one of the most militant in the nation, has undergone dramatic change in the past two years.
In February 1994, Jacqueline B. Vaughn, the union's dynamic president of 10 years, died of cancer. Last summer, the Illinois legislature, dominated by Republicans openly hostile to the union, gave control of the city's schools to Mayor Daley, a Democrat.
In the process, lawmakers prohibited the union from striking for 18 months and barred it from negotiating issues such as class size, layoff procedures, the length and hours of the school day, and efforts to contract out services.
As Mr. Reece puts it, the Republicans were setting a trap for the city's teachers, hoping the union would hit the streets in protest. But the union, he says, refused to take the bait.
"That would not only have been suicide for us as an organization," he said, "but also very harmful to the school system and to this city."
The Chicago school-reform board of trustees later agreed to change board policy to incorporate the items stripped from the contract. The union can file grievances and go to arbitration over disputes.
With that assurance, along with the four-year contract and a political alliance with the mayor, the CTU has adopted a quieter, more cooperative stance.
"Sometimes, bad stuff drives people together," Mr. Reece said. "People feel better about the schools and the people that work in them. That's part of our accomplishment."
Ms. Lynch Walsh warns that the union has bought peace at too steep a price. Last fall, she resigned from the Quest Center and returned to teaching. She also launched what is widely viewed as an uphill battle to unseat Mr. Reece.
In that campaign, she has drawn attention to the thorns in the union leadership's rosy new relationship with the district.
The board of trustees has imposed a new teacher discipline policy, she noted, that allows principals to suspend teachers without pay for up to five days with no due process hearing. And she charges that the school system is privatizing teaching jobs by contracting with outside agencies to set up alternative schools and with Sylvan Learning Systems of Columbia, Md., for tutoring programs.
Though Ms. Lynch Walsh is a strong unionist, she also wants teachers to take more responsibility for improving schools. Classroom teachers, she argues, must be intimately involved in reform.
She would like to see teachers hold five, rather than two, of the seats on the local school councils that govern individual schools.
"Tom Reece thinks that fixing the schools is management's job," she said. "I think unless teachers are part of the solution, we won't have public schools."
The current leadership is not fully supportive of the Quest Center, Ms. Lynch Walsh charges, and has been slow to move forward on establishing a graduate school to be based at the center, despite securing state approval.
Mr. Reece said he does not believe administrators want to contract out core educational services and dismissed as "campaign rhetoric" the charge that the union is not fully supporting the Quest Center. "It's going full steam," he said.
The Chicago education community is closely watching the election, which has highlighted the union's changed circumstances.
"The  law stripped away enormous union powers," said Linda Lenz, the editor of Catalyst, a Chicago education journal. "The leadership doesn't have a whole lot of flexibility to do much now, regardless of who is in a particular position."
Anne Hallett, the executive director of the Chicago-based Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, said union leaders can be important players in improving education. "There's generally a feeling here that we've missed the union and would like them to be more active," she said.
While teaching full time, Ms. Lynch Walsh assembled a slate of more than 150 candidates for union positions, called ProActive Chicago Teachers and School Employees, or PACT. She also has persuaded teachers in 320 of the city's 550 schools to hand out literature, and she has spoken to teachers from more than 100 schools.
Joann Podkul, a social studies teacher who is one of the slate's candidates, said the current union leaders lack a compelling educational vision. "I'm also not convinced that they understand what the problems are at the classroom level," she said.
Mr. Reece is running as the head of the United Progressive Caucus, which has run the CTU since the early 1970s. His slate is dominated by teachers who are union delegates in their schools and have extensive CTU-related resumes.
The union president has distributed literature and bulletins headlined "No Baloney" that rebut his challenger's criticisms. Ms. Lynch Walsh has tried to "distort all the good news about our union into things sinister," Mr. Reece's campaign material says, comparing her efforts to Patrick J. Buchanan's maverick bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
Ms. Lynch Walsh said that even if she loses this time around, she'll continue to encourage a movement of reform-minded teachers. "I'll press on and be there two years from now."