Ousted Chicago Teachers Union President to Take On Her Successor

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The Chicago Teachers Union is in for a bumpy year.

Former President Deborah Lynch, who lost the last election by just over 500 votes, has thrown her hat into the ring to unseat her successor, Marilyn Stewart, in the May election. Negotiations for a new contract are due to start in June. And Ms. Stewart has already asked teachers to prepare for a strike—the first in more than two decades—in advance of contract talks that are expected to be contentious.

Meanwhile, jobs are decreasing. Ms. Lynch says 4,500 teacher jobs have been lost because of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s plan for school improvement, Renaissance 2010, under which 12 underperforming public schools have been closed, and new ones opened as privately run charters or contract schools whose teachers are not district employees.

Some observers say talk of a strike is irresponsible.

“When you’re president of the union, you don’t go around talking like a gang-banger,” said George Schmidt, a former teacher who now runs an online newsletter on the Chicago district.

But Ms. Stewart said she mentioned the possibility of a strike only to prepare members, most of whom have never participated in such a job action before.

“Members have to be educated,” she said, adding that she hopes it doesn’t come to that.

Different Styles

Ms. Stewart, 55, is seen as a vocal champion of members’ rights and benefits.

“I think she’s proving herself to be a strong president,” said Helen Ramirez-Odell, a school nurse. She said one of Ms. Stewart’s priorities has been to bring together deeply divided factions within the 32,000-member union. “Unity is just important to her, and she tries to treat everyone with respect,” Ms. Ramirez-Odell added.

The two biggest factions that are almost always at loggerheads are the United Progressive Caucus, led by Ms. Stewart, and the Pro-Active Chicago Teachers and School Employees caucus, led by Ms. Lynch.

Ms. Lynch, who led the union from 2001 to 2004, has kept her feet firmly planted within the caucus—and the American Federation of Teachers affiliate. She has been a vocal critic of Ms. Stewart’s leadership and of the mayor’s Renaissance 2010 plan.

But during her term in office, she also made decisions that could haunt her in this election, such as negotiating a contract that gave principals leeway to fire nontenured teachers without due process. Even Ms. Lynch’s supporters say the move misfired, with administrators playing favorites, they claim, and firing more than 2,000 teachers over the past two years.

That 2003 contract also called for an increase in health-insurance premiums and additional time on the job for teachers, although it did raise salaries by 16 percent over four years.

Supporters of Ms. Lynch talk of a leader who was considered one of the most progressive teacher unionists in the nation. She helped start the Chicago local’s Quest Center for professional development, and championed giving teachers a voice in turning schools around. ("Long Passage," June 5, 2002.)

This time, however, Ms. Lynch, 55, is taking a more militant stance against the administration, which, she said, is undermining the union. “We wouldn’t partner with a board of education leadership that’s giving our schools away,” Ms. Lynch said.

Different Records

Ms. Stewart said she’ll try to reverse some of the provisions of the earlier contract. She hopes to win back due process for nontenured teachers and get relief on health-insurance costs. “Our health care is tied to a raise, so if you get a raise, your premium goes up,” she said. “That’s ridiculous.”

The current president says she is unperturbed by Ms. Lynch’s bid to regain her office.

“I’m confident that members are not willing to walk that street again,” Ms. Stewart said. “If elections are in May, and the contract ends in June, why would you go with someone that negotiated a contract you didn’t like?”

Ms. Lynch, meanwhile, says that members have had four years working under the contract to see that it did benefit them. For instance, she said, the average member is making nearly $10,000 more each year now, while health-insurance costs have gone up roughly $400 annually.

“We are going to invite our members to take a look at what we accomplished in our first term, what we are committed to accomplishing in a second term,” said Ms. Lynch, who teaches at Gage Park High School. “They now have both our records to compare.”

Vol. 26, Issue 21, Page 7

Published in Print: January 31, 2007, as Ousted Chicago Teachers Union President to Take On Her Successor
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The print version of this story gave the incorrect date for an article on Deborah Lynch in the newspaper's archives. The date is June 5, 2002.

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