Challenger Topples Chicago Teachers Union President
Through 10 stormy teacher strikes and several education overhauls, one of the only constants in Chicago public school leadership was the United Progressive Caucus of the Chicago Teachers Union.
Starting in July, though, new teacher faces will sit across the bargaining table from Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas' district team. A new slate of leaders, led by outspoken 8th grade teacher Deborah Lynch-Walsh, unseated the incumbent top officers in an election late last month.
In her third attempt to claim the presidency of the CTU, Ms. Lynch-Walsh argued that the current union leadership had failed to "wage a real fight" against Mr. Vallas and his "anti-teacher" policies.
"We didn't have elected leadership speaking about our concerns," Ms. Lynch-Walsh, the head of the ProActive Chicago Teachers and School Employees Caucus, or PACT, said last week.
Of the 47 seats up for election, PACT candidates won all but nine, including the five major offices: president, vice president, treasurer, financial secretary, and recording secretary. Of the 21,378 votes cast for president, 12,220, or 57 percent, were for Ms. Lynch-Walsh, and 9,158, or 42 percent, were for CTU President Thomas H. Reece.
"There has never been a shift in power of this magnitude [in the union]," said Jackie Gallagher, the CTU spokeswoman.
Added Gail Purkey, the director of communications for the Illinois Federation of Teachers: "I don't think you can underestimate the depth of what the Lynch- Walsh slate has accomplished here."
The union election was the second recent shakeup in the nation's third-largest school system. Gery J. Chico, the president of the school board, resigned a day before the union-election results were released on May 25.
Ms. Lynch-Walsh is no stranger to Chicago schools or union leadership. She has taught in Chicago classrooms for 12 years and has another 13 years of union experience, including a stint with the American Federation of Teachers, the CTU's national counterpart, in Washington. She served as the director of the CTU's Quest Center, which established an extensive professional-development program for teachers.
She has steadily been gaining support for her claims that the 34,000-member Chicago union needs fresh leadership. In 1996, she won 28 percent of the vote; two years later, she received 42 percent the vote.
The PACT's landslide victory proves that the current union leadership is out of touch with its members, Ms. Lynch-Walsh said.
"The silence of the [United Progressive Caucus] leadership was deafening," she added.
Mr. Reece has been the union's president since 1994, and he was a CTU executive board member for 12 years before that. The United Progressive Caucus had led the powerful union for decades, grooming future union presidents from within its own ranks, with little viable opposition. Mr. Reece himself was the handpicked successor of Jacqueline B. Vaughn, a charismatic leader who died of cancer after heading the union through a decade of repeated strikes.
Ms. Gallagher, the union spokeswoman, said the union does not have a dissatisfied membership, as the president-elect contends. Still, she acknowledged that its positive working relationship with Mr. Vallas and Mayor Richard M. Daley, who assumed control of the 431,000-student district in 1995, is perceived negatively by some teachers.
Some teachers believe the union is too closely aligned with district management, observed Anne C. Hallett, the executive director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, a Chicago-based network. "Things are maybe too quiet," she said.
Although Ms. Lynch-Walsh and her team's confrontational approach could force the board "to sit up and take notice," Ms. Gallagher said, it shouldn't come at a price.
"It would be a rotten shame to abandon the good working relationship that the parties have had," she said.
Ms. Lynch-Walsh said the union was being co-opted by the district administration and school board. She said that, instead, she would seek a "true partnership" with the district, in which teachers have an equal say in improvement efforts in Chicago schools. She said some of the measures taken by the district—such as the "reconstitution," or restaffing and reorganization, of high schools—were done to teachers instead of with them.
Mr. Vallas told the Chicago Tribune that he looked forward to "establishing an excellent working relationship" with Ms. Lynch-Walsh and her team.
Vol. 20, Issue 39, Page 11Published in Print: June 6, 2001, as Challenger Topples Chicago Teachers Union President