Chicago public school teachers on the picket line, a week before the strike was resolved
Chicago public school teachers on the picket line, a week before the strike was resolved Credit: Asher Klein

Back in the fun-filled early days of the teachers’ strike—before Mayor Emanuel brought in his lawyers and everyone decided to go back to school—it was still possible to get a laugh or two out of the comments of some of our local politicians. Like First Ward alderman Joe Moreno, who on September 10 went on Fox News to discuss public education—god help us all.

After attempting to out-Fox the anchor, who was bellowing about blowing up the whole system (presumably after removing children from the buildings), Moreno remembered his talking points and launched into the mayor’s spiel. As in: It’s not the teachers we hate—we love teachers. It’s that dastardly teachers’ union.

“I support the teachers, but the union has made severe mistakes,” Moreno said. “They are a conservative union stuck way back in the 60s and 70s.”

You know—way back in that era when aldermen did exactly what the mayor told them.

Well, in the aftermath of Sunday’s union meeting and Tuesday’s decision to end the strike, I think it’s time to give everyone—starting with Alderman Moreno—a little lesson about the politics of the Chicago Teachers Union.

For starters, the union isn’t some alien creature that’s brainwashed the poor unsuspecting teachers of Chicago and forced them to go on strike. No way. For better or worse, the teachers are the union—hence its name. And it was the teachers of Chicago—the same teachers Moreno and the mayor say they love—who overwhelmingly voted to go on strike.

In other words, if you don’t like the teachers’ union, you don’t like the teachers.

Personally, I can think of a few I’ll never be wild about, like a certain seventh-grade math teacher who gave me a C.

But a teachers’ strike is serious business, especially for the kids who missed classes, the teachers who missed paychecks, and the parents who went out of their minds trying to navigate child care and work.

Still, given the recent history of the Chicago Teachers Union, it’s not surprising that President Karen Lewis and union delegates initially backed off on ratifying the deal, thus extending the strike two more days.

Teachers get kicked around by principals, sliced and diced by pundits, and punched for good luck by politicians like Mayor Emanuel, who’s steadily converting more unionized schools into charters. And that’s in addition to their primary job of working with kids who may or may not want to be worked with.

At this point the union is one of the only places a teacher can take a stand. So perhaps it’s not surprising that there were quite a few union-hall hotheads and militants who banged the drum and waved the flag. Loudly.

Lewis may have negotiated a hell of a deal, or as close to it as she thought she could get, but she didn’t know if she had the votes to approve it. And she sure as hell wasn’t going to muscle it through—not unless she wanted to wind up like Thomas Reece and Deborah Lynch.

OK, history lesson time. Pay attention, people, because this one will most definitely be on the test.

As the union president through most of the 1990s, Reece had a cozy relationship with Mayor Daley and former schools CEO Paul Vallas. In 1998 Reece cut a deal with Vallas in which the teachers got a pay hike of roughly 7 percent over three years. But the rank and file thought the raise was too cheap. Reece rammed the deal through the House of Delegates.

He then claimed that it handily won approval from the rank and file. But many teachers alleged that the election had been rigged. They claimed that their own, unofficial tally showed it.

There was no independent tabulation of the votes and the dispute was never definitively resolved. But teachers remained dissatisfied, and in 2001 Lynch defeated Reece in the union election. It was the first time a CTU president lost a reelection fight.

In 2003, it was Lynch’s turn to negotiate a contract, this time with Vallas’s successor, Arne Duncan. When she emerged from negotiations she claimed she’d won the “total package.” In words that came back to haunt her, Lynch said she not only delivered “the bacon” but the “whole hog.”

The rank and file didn’t see it that way. On October 16, 2003—a day that will live in union infamy—the teachers rejected the deal in a vote overseen by an outsider auditor. Lynch had to turn around and blast the deal she’d once supported.

All the while the Tribune was whacking teachers over the head with an editorial version of a two-by-four: “Delegates from the Chicago Teachers Union on Wednesday night rejected the most generous contract agreement they’ve seen in more than a decade. What were they thinking? Back here on Earth, in the midst of a struggling economy, most private-sector workers are settling for far more modest wage increases—if they’ve kept their jobs. Private-sector employees also are shouldering a share of higher and higher costs for health care, which continue to soar.”

Hmm, sounds familiar. I read a slightly rewritten version of the same editorial Tuesday morning.

Eventually, the teachers ratified the deal. But Lynch’s career was pretty much over. In 2004 she was defeated by Marilyn Stewart. And in 2010 Lewis defeated Stewart largely on an insurrection of teachers who felt, among other things, the union leadership was way too soft on issues like job security and school closings.

So here we are—in some ways right back where we started. There’s no way Lewis could have pushed the deal through without a clear sign from the rank and file that they’d ratify it. As more than one teacher has told me, they’d be very upset if the delegates had approved the contract without running it by them. Give the union credit for this—it may be the last democracy left in Chicago.

Of course, I’m getting calls from all my Nervous Nellie liberal friends telling me Lewis should have cracked down on the delegates and rammed that baby through—like it was Mayor Daley pushing, oh, a parking meter deal though a compliant City Council.

Ah, yes, Chicago liberals. They say they love democracy—until it gets a little messy. Then it’s time to bring back Mussolini.

At some point the world will return to normal: the teachers will go back to work and the kids will go back to the classroom and Mayor Emanuel will go back to converting more unionized schools to charters. And the teachers will simmer with resentment.

Here’s my advice, teachers: organize! As the mayor turns more neighborhood schools into nonunion charters, turn them back into unionized schools.

As this fight ends, the next one begins.