Teaching Profession

Old Guard Retakes Helm of Union In Chicago

By Bess Keller — June 23, 2004 3 min read
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A union activist from the old guard narrowly ousted the sitting president of the Chicago Teachers Union, who was known nationally for pushing teacher involvement in school improvement.

By a margin of 566 votes, Marilyn Stewart beat incumbent Deborah Lynch in a June 11 runoff race that drew 22,606 members of the 33,000-member union.

Ms. Stewart’s win returns control of the local to the faction that held it for 30 years before Ms. Lynch’s upset victory in 2001.

Ms. Lynch was hurt by the contract she negotiated in the fall, which teachers approved only after an earlier version had been rejected by union representatives, who also had urged a walkout. Though the contract provided for 4 percent annual pay increases for most members, it also handed teachers increased health-insurance costs and added time on the job. (“Contract Approved in Chicago, Averting Teachers’ Strike,” Nov. 26, 2002.)

A longtime teacher of the deaf and the hard-of-hearing, Ms. Stewart said she does not plan big changes immediately.

But she said she plans to return the union to a focus on service to its members, after what she describes as “a major shift to staff development” under Ms. Lynch.

“It’s a matter of a philosophy change,” Ms. Stewart said last week. “The primary function of a union is to protect its members and provide the working conditions that will help them educate the children.”

She added that the new contract included “a lot of givebacks” that frustrated teachers when they fully realized what had happened.

Ms. Lynch and her spokesman did not return calls for comment.

Many observers believe the new president is likely to pedal back from Ms. Lynch’s education reform agenda.

In a sometimes stinging campaign, Ms. Stewart had characterized the incumbent as inexperienced, focused on reform to the detriment of union basics, and removed from the front lines of education. Though Ms. Lynch stepped from an 8th grade classroom to run the union, she has a long background in teacher professional development with the CTU and its parent, the American Federation of Teachers. (“Long Passage,” June 5, 2002.)

Something of a Surprise

Ms. Lynch blamed a series of announcements from Chicago district leaders for undermining her campaign, according to local press accounts. Between the May 21 election, in which none of four candidates captured the required 50 percent of the vote, and the runoff on June 11, school officials announced plans to cut 1,600 jobs and close 10 schools.

Speaking to the local press, the incumbent’s supporters contended that the officials wanted a return to the days when the union president was less outspoken and visible to the public. District officials denied the charge.

Also in the past few weeks, teachers were reminded of the largely unpopular contract when they had to sign up for the health-care plans allowed by it.

Ms. Lynch conceded the election before the last of the mail- in votes were counted, saying she would return to teaching when her term is up July 1.

Ms. Stewart’s win surprised many teachers and observers because Ms. Lynch had led substantially in the initial vote and then received the support of the two candidates who did not make it to the runoff.

Some observers said the long-term meaning of the election is murky. “It’s not clear that it is really a return to the old regime or just a fluctuation between factions that are fairly equivalent,” said G. Alfred Hess, the director of the Center for Urban School Policy, based at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

One thing the change in leadership does not necessarily herald, he said, is a wholesale retreat from teacher engagement in school improvement. “Just because there’s less encouragement for that from the union doesn’t mean there’s less teacher engagement” at local schools, he said. If teachers want it, “the union won’t stop that.”

Mr. Hess said he also believed the CTU would remain committed to running 10 low-performing schools in the district, a deal worked out under Ms. Lynch.

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