09.18.12

Chicago Teachers Union Blows Its Chance for a Deal

Labor had a great deal in sight. But the union boss fumbled her opportunity to seal a quick victory. James Warren on how harried parents could turn on teachers any day now.

Rahm Emanuel, tough, irascible, and chronically profane, is a man of many faults. But he knows how to count votes. If only Karen Lewis, his rival in the ongoing Chicago teacher’s strike, could say the same. The head of the local union appears to have miscalculated, as a decision to put a new contract to an approval vote Sunday was punted amid rank-and-file confusion and internal differences over the deal.

The weeklong walkout wound up in court Monday. The mayor failed to get an order that the teachers return immediately, and the judge said he won’t hold a hearing on the request until Wednesday. Hopes of an end to the impasse were put on hold until then, as stressed parents juggling unexpected child-care duties struggled to cope with the ongoing crisis.

No one doubts the intelligence and drive of Lewis, a Dartmouth grad with considerable passion for the cause. But Sunday afternoon’s session of the union’s House of Delegates raised anew questions about Lewis’s leadership of a local that is showing signs of becoming organized labor’s version of the Tea Party.

Lewis and the union hierarchy thought they could get fairly quick approval Sunday of a pact with some relatively complicated and sensitive matters, notably involving how to assess teacher performance and the recall of laid-off teachers. But when the meeting convened, the delegates received scant details about the lengthy bill of particulars—and nothing remotely close to a copy of the deal. What’s more, Lewis left precious little time for the delegates to get the work done, starting at 3 p.m. when they needed to wrap up by sundown because of the Jewish holy period of Rosh Hashanah. It was not until Monday that rank-and-file teachers were able to log on to a union website and get a dramatically condensed, 28-page version of the deal.

Lewis was an insurgent candidate who defeated an incumbent in 2010 for the Chicago Teachers Union presidency, winning 12,080 to 8,326. She has led a populist surge that at times has put the local at odds with its parent, the American Federation of Teachers, even while making Lewis a bit of a folk hero to some within the national organization. The split in a historically fractious local with frequent leadership turnover means there is a large core of Lewis doubters.

Their qualms have not necessarily been lessened by at times impolitic and immature remarks. Last year at a Seattle labor gathering, the onetime aspiring comic launched into a rambling, 35-minute monologue belittling Emanuel; Education Secretary Arne Duncan, her union predecessor; and capitalism in general.

It is far from unprecedented for a union leader to return to the rank-and-file with a deal they don’t particularly like, forcing the two sides to return to the table and perhaps continuation of a strike. But sometimes, rank-and-file unhappiness can be a reflection of a failure to manage expectations and deliver on a deadline.

Compounding the frustration: once they got a better look at the outlines, many teachers regarded the pact a good deal. While chaperoning her own strike-idled kids at a Chicago playground Monday afternoon, a striking special education teacher said her school’s union delegate had just asked her and others how he should vote. She wants to return and supports a “yes” vote on what she conceded appears to be a positive agreement.

After all, the deal on the table features what could amount to a 15 percent or 16 percent pay hike over a potential four years (three years guaranteed and a fourth given to the parties’ later discussions)—not bad, considering we’re in the middle of a recession. For the first time since 1995, when a traditional recall provision was scrapped by a new state law pertaining only to Chicago, the union has gained a recall provision for certain members who are laid off.

For the moment, the onus remains squarely on the shrewd but erratic union president and a high-profile, opinionated mayor who would probably be best served by laying low.

In addition, the teachers have seemingly beaten back a large measure of Emanuel’s attempt to get far more comprehensive classroom assessment provisions in the deal. Further, they fended off his call for merit pay and for eliminating automatic increases tied to tenure and continuing education.

Taken together, the deal appears to be far from what some national opinion makers, like David Brooks of The New York Times, have suggested is a ringing Emanuel accomplishment that will put Chicago at the forefront of the education reform movement.

With the wind at her back, Lewis could have decreed victory and moved on. But the delay in a decision carries significant political risks. While popular support for the union remains substantial, it’s highly probable that parental frustration could begin turning against the union in a few days. Sunday’s untidy meeting inspired what amounted to a citywide “Oh, no!” groan, especially among parents sent unexpectedly scurrying for child-care alternatives.