John Kugler
John Kugler Credit: Bob Warner

After my column last week about our union-busting mayor (“Mayor union-buster: Rahm Emanuel fights the Chicago Teachers Union over a longer school day—and it’s not about the kids”), I’ve been getting calls and e-mails from people in the mayor’s north-side fan base who say I’m too easy on the teachers.

Must you be so hard on the mayor? Can’t you just say something bad about the teachers?

Yes, I can.

As much as I think Mayor Emanuel’s plan to add 90 minutes to the school day is a union-busting public relations scheme that’s been pushed without adequate discussion of how the extra time should be used . . .

And as much as I appreciate public school teachers for all they have done for publicly educated children, including my own . . .

I have to say: the teachers brought a lot of this on themselves.

Or at least their union did—along with just about everyone else in this town who went along with the game that was being played. In this way, they were no different than the black ministers, north-side independents, free-market libertarians, and all the others who looked the other way so they could get their little scraps of the pie during the Daley years.

For years, the teachers union was playing by a set of rules that suddenly changed. And it’s clear they’re not sure what to do about it.

As a former City Hall press operative once explained to me, for most of his tenure, Mayor Daley didn’t want to play the bad guy. Despite all of his power, Daley’s first instinct was to avoid a fight by cutting a deal.

For example, he bought off leaders in the black community by larding the CPS central office with payrollers sent over by various ministers, activists, aldermen, and state legislators, who could then be counted on to remain silent in the face of whatever educational scheme the mayor was coming up with for the day. Like—just to name one—the end of social promotion, which led to thousands of black kids being held back, ostensibly for their own good, because they scored low on standardized tests.

A lot of good that’s done, by the way—the dropout rate remains around 50 percent.

For the teachers, it meant taking annual raises of roughly 2 to 4 percent. (Come to think of it, that’s way better than I’ve done.)

But in exchange for those raises, the mayor got the teachers’ complicity—or at least their union’s—on everything from the tax increment financing program to wasteful downtown spending to the bid for the 2016 Olympics, all of which siphoned off energy and resources. More to the point at hand, they did pretty much the same thing on education issues, essentially giving the mayor and his central-office appointees complete jurisdiction over curriculum, testing, and other important classroom issues.

Yes, a handful of firebrands on the fringes of the union were always talking about empowering teachers to join the larger debate over classroom policies. But generally the reaction of the union leaders ran a little like this:

Forget that highfalutin educational stuff! We’re a union—we bring home the bacon. If you want to talk educational policy, go teach at the university.

In 2001, though, members of the Chicago Teachers Union staged an insurrection and elected a new president: Debbie Lynch, a self-proclaimed advocate of teachers taking charge over curriculum and policy.

Then, for the next three years, the rival faction in the CTU fought Lynch every step of the way, doing what they could to make sure she was a one-term president.

They succeeded. In 2004, the teachers replaced Lynch with Marilyn Stewart, one of the leaders of the anti-Lynch faction. The union returned to its old go-along-to-get-along ways.

In 2007, Mayor Daley—looking to win over the unions as he pushed for the Olympics—agreed to a contract that gave the teachers a 20 percent raise over five years, while preserving seniority rights and tenure protection.

Of course, in 2009 the games were awarded to Brazil. And so went peace with the union. Over his last two years in office, Daley tried to take away tenure and seniority rights and cut back the pay hike. He also handed out more charters, which are nonunion.

Union members responded last year by throwing out the old guard and bringing in Karen Lewis, who I remember as one of the rank-and-file reformers when she was a high school science teacher at Lane Tech.

Meanwhile, in his first few months on the job, Mayor Emanuel has intensified Daley’s crusade, taking away the last year of the pay raise, handing out more charters, and pushing for the longer school day. And now he’s basically calling them selfish ingrates who don’t care half as much about the kids as they do about their paychecks—even though for years everyone from Mayor Daley to union leaders told them that money is the only thing they should care about.

And now they have to get involved with policy, if only to look good in the larger public relations campaign.

That brings me to the subject of John Kugler, a field rep for the union. I spent an entertaining couple of days hanging around with him as he made his rounds.

He’s a wisecracking, F-bomb-dropping, tell-it-like-it-is, former high school shop teacher who wears his union allegiance on a button (“Proud to be a union thug”) attached to the collar of his wrinkled shirt.

“I’m just joking about that button,” he says with a big smile. “I’m not really a thug. I love everybody—even Mayor Emanuel.”

Man, I’d love to get him in a room with the mayor and watch them go at it.

In the course of a day he sits through hours of grievance hearings initiated by teachers who claim they were unfairly fired, demoted, or otherwise mistreated by a principal or other board employee. One case involves a social worker with multiple sclerosis who was reassigned from a school with an elevator to a school without any even though she can barely make it up the stairs.

“Can you believe this shit?” Kugler says. “I don’t make this shit up. You can’t make this shit up.”

After a break in the hearings one day, he headed over to Lake View High School for an after-school meeting with about 35 of his rank and file. For more than an hour he sat in a classroom with about 30 teachers as they peppered him with questions, complaints, and concerns: What’s going on with the fight over the longer day? Why are we the bad guys in the media? Don’t people realize how many hours we work? Why haven’t we gone on a public relations offensive to tell our side of the story?

Then Kugler gave it right back to them.

“You’re up against a powerful mayor,” he said. “You want people to know about your longer day, tell your parents, put it on your Facebook, spread the word anyway you got. Get involved. You got to be active.”

His message should be heeded by all the others who’ve closed their eyes for all these years.