Teaching Profession

Under New Leaders, Changes Anticipated for Chicago’s Union

By Bess Keller — October 02, 2004 4 min read
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The new leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union say they are discussing changes to union elections and have begun to look hard at the union’s professional-development center.

After an investigation into the CTU’s most recent presidential election, the American Federation of Teachers declared last month that Marilyn Stewart had fairly unseated incumbent Deborah Lynch. Though Ms. Lynch vehemently contested the finding by the parent union, she agreed to step down from the job she had held for three years.

In a report released the same day as that finding, the AFT also recommended an election-procedure switch from school-based ballot boxes to mail-in ballots.

AFT officials said the national union’s investigating committee found “no grounds for overturning” the June 11 runoff election, which Ms. Stewart appeared to win by a narrow margin. Results of that vote had been tossed out by a union committee under Ms. Lynch, which cited evidence of possible fraud and also called for a new election. (“AFT Conducts Probe of Election in Chicago,” July 28, 2004.)

The committee “found no evidence of ballot tampering, fraud, or any other wrongdoing,” the AFT said in a statement.

What’s more, the committee obliquely chastised Ms. Lynch’s team for the way it tried to nullify the election. “The process by which certain information regarding alleged election improprieties was collected and presented … was fundamentally flawed and lacked due process,” the statement said.

‘Smooth’ Transition

AFT leaders met with the two Chicago rivals early on Aug. 6 to reveal the committee’s decision, which had the endorsement of the national union’s 42-member executive council.

Alex Wohl, a spokesman for the AFT, characterized the transition as “remarkably smooth.”

“Deborah Lynch agreed to assist with the transition,” he said. “It began immediately.”

Despite that accord, Ms. Lynch made clear that she disagreed with the outcome. She maintained that the AFT had ignored evidence of fraud and did not have the right to overturn decisions made by two separate CTU committees to invalidate the election results and call a new election.

“One can only assume that in the face of dozens of clearly suspect signatures in a sample of schools reviewed and 1,000 unaccounted-for ballots overall that the AFT found no fraud because they didn’t want to find it,” Ms. Lynch charged in a statement.

Ms. Lynch said her slate would bring the election-fraud issues to the attention of the U.S. Department of Labor. It would be the third time she has protested a loss to Ms. Stewart’s faction, which ran the union for 30 years before Ms. Lynch’s upset victory in 2001. In both the 1995 and 1998 votes, the Labor Department found violations of election rules.

For her part, Ms. Stewart said in a statement that she was pleased that the AFT had “agreed with our analysis that these allegations and the actions that followed were politically motivated, irrational, illegal, and unconstitutional.”

The nation’s third-largest teachers’ union local, with 33,000 members, had been riven by conflict since late June, when the CTU committee declared the election invalid. The two sides battled over the CTU’s offices, purse strings, and representation at the national AFT convention. Ms. Lynch had the locks changed on the union’s offices to keep out the rival leaders. Ms. Stewart asked the AFT to investigate the fraud charges.

In response, the AFT’s top leaders sent three big-city union presidents to Chicago to hear evidence both on whether the election was invalid and whether union committees under Ms. Lynch had exercised their powers within the local and national unions’ constitutions.

Shift in Mission?

Many observers believe that Ms. Stewart, a longtime teacher of children who are deaf and hard of hearing, is likely to step back from the education reform agenda that has brought Ms. Lynch national attention. (“Long Passage,” June 5, 2002.)

Ms. Stewart has said she wants to refocus the union on member services and move away from “a major shift to staff development” that she says happened under Ms. Lynch. The defeated president has a long background in teacher professional development.

One order of business is to deal with the national union’s recommendation of a switch to mail-in ballots. “We certainly want to run a clean election,” said Mary McGuire, the CTU’s recording secretary. “As to what it will look like precisely, we don’t [yet] know.”

Ms. McGuire disputed the idea that the local union’s leader would backpedal on school improvement measures. “President Stewart does hope to build on the reforms put into place with the assistance of the CTU. It appears those reforms pay off,” she said, citing recent test-score increases for Chicago schoolchildren.

But the recording secretary acknowledged that the union-sponsored professional-development center that Ms. Lynch once headed and that has been hailed as a national model will come in for scrutiny. “We have asked the [Illinois Federation of Teachers] and the AFT to come in and do an exhaustive study of the Quest Center, making sure it provides the services our members need,” she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2004 edition of Education Week as Under New Leaders, Changes Anticipated for Chicago’s Union

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