Leading ‘Ugly’ Not The Answer For Organized Labor, Chicago Teachers Union, Karen Lewis

John Ostenburg

By John A. Ostenburg
The Outpost Observer

Public employees’ unions got a shot in the arm on one day, and a sharp stick in the eye on the next.

The resounding vote of support for the right of public employees to organize and bargain collectively that came in Ohio on November 8 had a little of its shine diminish when only days later a video of Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis – making less than even remotely professional comments before a large gathering of social justice educators – was splashed across the internet and television news channels. In the video, Ms. Lewis makes fun of the speaking manner of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and also brags about her extended pot-smoking during her college years. (Watch video)

Viewing the video is like watching an elementary school child challenge a playmate: “Your mother wears combat boots!” Or perhaps an adolescent bragging to teenage companions about getting away with an illicit act. But Ms. Lewis shouldn’t be emulating a small child or an adolescent; she should be showing the kind of leadership that negates all the unfair criticism that these days is being directed at public employee unions and their members.

My intention is not to poke fun at Ms. Lewis for her gaffe, for doing that would be little more than what she did in speaking sarcastically of Secretary Duncan’s slight lisp. Nor is it to chastise her for her confession of youthful drug use, for such a confession – in the proper setting and circumstances – could have positive benefit. Instead, I want to address the issue of how a once powerful union is slipping every day in its influence, and of how this slippage is bad for organized labor in general.

First, my own confession. I was a staff member for the Chicago Teachers Union for 15 years. I began as a communications consultant and then held positions as editor of the union newspaper, legislative director and lobbyist, head of the Communications Department, and ultimately chief of staff. I served three presidents but chose to resign when Ms. Lewis was elected, in large part because I didn’t like the tone that she had set in her campaign for the CTU presidency, but also because I felt it was time for me to move on.

During my tenure at the CTU, I didn’t always agree with the leadership on all issues. For one thing, I felt that each of the three presidents under whom I served was much too inclined toward patronage in the selection of persons who held staff positions within the union. This is a very common occurrence in organized labor, just as it is in many areas of government. Persons who work in the campaigns of the successful candidates are rewarded with staff positions, many times without any regard whatsoever for whatever skills, experience, or knowledge they might bring to the job. That’s not always the case; but it certainly is true too often.

I also was disappointed with all three administrations because such rudimentary actions of good management as employee evaluations never occurred. Nor did comprehensive long-range planning. Too much attention was directed toward grievances and matters of that sort, which actually only concerned a small portion of the total union membership. The CTU is the largest local union in the state of Illinois and has tens of thousands of members; by contrast, grievances during any year might benefit a handful of a few hundred. What about the needs of all the rest? Professional development for members, for example, garnered only a slight percentage of the union’s overall budget, even though all the members of the union regularly faced criticism – unjustly, I might add – that they were not up to par in the delivery of instruction to the students and could  benefit from more union-sponsored professional development.

But even with these areas that caused me concern, I always believed I was working for an important cause in doing the work of the union. One of the tasks I undertook throughout my years at the CTU was to spend lots of my own time reading, studying, and writing about the history of the union. The CTU will be 75 years old in October 2012; it was born in a period of labor unrest that was the aftermath of the creation of the Chicago Teachers Federation (CTF) in 1897, which was the first teachers’ union in the United States. The CTF was one of the initial creators of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in 1916, and both CTF and CTU members served in key roles in the AFT in the initial years of the national organization.

At the time the CTU was chartered by the amalgamation of several small unions and in its early years, educators in the Chicago Public Schools faced lots of problems. There was a period when teachers were paid in scrip because the Board of Education didn’t have sufficient funds to meet regular payroll obligations. Teachers often were hired because they were patrons of powerful politicians, and many who were serving with distinction arbitrarily were fired in order to make room for the patronage hires. The union wasn’t immediately successful in changing things – it took 30 years before the union gained collective bargaining rights and entered into its first contract with the Board of Education – but dignified and steady leadership eventually won the day and the CTU was recognized statewide and nationally as a powerful force.

During all those years, even though some folks were hired for positions within the union as a result of supporting the caucus that controlled things, the organization itself was stable and individuals moved up the ranks of leadership based on the experience they gained in posts at lower rungs on the ladder.

In 2001, the dominant caucus – the United Progressive Caucus – was defeated in the union elections and a new group came into power. While many of the persons hired by the new caucus were inexperienced, the new president herself had been an employee of both the CTU and the AFT and had a sense of what union leadership was all about. The three years Deborah Lynch served in office weren’t the best for the union – the contract she negotiated, for example, had lots of holes in it – but she managed to keep the organization afloat. The biggest problem facing the Lynch administration was that the president was somewhat alone in the area of experience; virtually everyone around her was totally new to the union leadership role.

When Marilyn Stewart was elected as president in 2004, she had the wisdom to call back into the staff ranks a number of individuals who had worked or held office in previous administrations and were greatly experienced in union matters. As a result, in 2007, the Stewart administration negotiated one of the best contracts in the union’s history. President Stewart also oversaw the greatest financial reform the union ever embraced, taking the organization from a deficit of more than $600,000 to a surplus of more than $2 million over a two-year period. Unfortunately, though, some internal problems among the officers resulted in a deep split within the union ranks and after six years in office Ms. Stewart lost her post to Karen Lewis.

Virtually no one who is part of the Lewis administration is an experienced union leader or administrator, and the problems that the CTU has faced during the past year clearly are a result of that. When Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor of Chicago in early 2011 – less than a year into the Lewis presidency – he quickly took on the CTU and the union’s leaders seemed clueless in how to deal with him. Aside from a number of antagonistic public statements, CTU leadership seemed unable to enter into effective talks with the new mayoral team. The biggest loss the union experienced was the defecting of members at several schools from the union’s position on a longer school day; as union members in one school after another chose not follow the CTU directive on the length of the school day, and instead to accept what Mayor Emanuel was requesting and offering, the union looked more and more like a paper tiger. Finally the CTU itself caved in on the longer-day issue.

Whether or not a longer school day is needed wasn’t really the true issue in the battle Mayor Emanuel was waging with the CTU. He wanted to show that he was stronger than the union and he won. A more experienced leadership at the CTU would have handled the situation in a manner that saved face even if losing on some fronts. That, in fact, is the essence of good negotiations: each side gets something in the end. As regards the longer-day issue, in the end CTU members got only what Mayor Emanuel had offered from the very start. The union appeared almost as an uninvolved bystander in negotiations between the mayor and the teachers.

Mayor Emanuel effectively defeated collective bargaining by successfully wooing teachers in some schools to follow his lead rather than maintain solidarity with their colleagues at other schools. The whole basis for collective bargaining is that the membership is represented by one voice and what is negotiated is applicable to everyone and not just segments of the membership. That concept flew right out the window in the longer-day settlement.

Now, the comments made by Ms. Lewis at the social justice gathering do even more to diminish her effectiveness as a leader, and thus to erode the power of the CTU. Leaders don’t make fun of the physical defects of their opponents; leaders don’t childishly boast about how they violated laws and customs; leaders sit down across the table from one another and work out effective solutions to problems.

If the Chicago Teachers Union fails in its purpose of representing the best interests of its members, the spin-off effect on other unions will be devastating. Soon Chicago and Illinois will be seeing the same kind of anti-union actions by legislators and statewide elected officials as have been seen in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio.

The CTU has been quick to offer the explanation that President Lewis comments were taken out of context and are being exploited by right-wing anti-labor organizations.

On the first of these arguments, the video itself seems to prove the contrary. There was no legitimate context for saying that Arne Duncan would have lost his lisp if he had attended public, rather than private, schools; Ms. Lewis herself acknowledged that was an “ugly” comment. Likewise, there was no legitimate context for implying to an audience that included school-children that smoking pot is a good way to “self-medicate” at times of personal crisis.

As regards the charge that the comments are being exploited by right-wing anti-labor forces, the CTU is correct. However, while it’s true that the anti-labor groups are taking shots at the CTU, it’s also true that the gun the anti-labor folks are using was loaded by Karen Lewis.

John A. Ostenburg is in his fourth four-year term as mayor of Park Forest, Illinois, and formerly served in the Illinois House of Representatives. He retired in July 2010 as the chief of staff for the Chicago Teachers Union after holding various CTU posts over a 15-year period. A former newspaper reporter and editor, he also has been a teacher and/or administrator at elementary, secondary, community college, and university levels. E-mail him at [email protected].