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By Ben Joravsky

In the early morning, before the students arrive, Debbie Lynch Walsh addresses a meeting at Kelly High School. “I’m running for president of the Chicago Teachers Union,” she tells a collection of teachers at the southwest-side school. “Tom Reece isn’t doing the job.”

It’s a familiar refrain–the election on May 18 will be the third time Walsh has challenged Reece in the last five years. In some ways she’s never stopped challenging him; after each defeat she just goes on campaigning in union halls, courtrooms, and newspapers. “I got 28 percent the first time I ran and 42 percent the last time, and I think this time I will win,” she says. “The real issues have never gone away, even if some people want to pretend they don’t exist.”

As in her other campaigns, Walsh is now hammering Reece. He is, she notes, a former elementary school science teacher who left the classroom more than 20 years ago to become a union official. “He’s out of touch,” she says. “He doesn’t have a clue.”

Ironically, Walsh once seemed destined for a similar career, having left the classroom in the 70s to work for the union’s national office. In 1991 she returned to Chicago to work for the local union’s research center. But in 1995 she went back to the front lines–she now teaches eighth grade at a school on the southwest side–where she’s been ever since.

According to Walsh, Reece has betrayed teachers by making a covenant with Paul Vallas, Mayor Daley’s handpicked schools CEO: “He’s acting more like an agent of management than a guardian of the teachers.” She adds that on crucial matters of policy such as curriculum and class size, Reece rarely makes any public protest. “He has allowed the board to increase class size,” she says. “My class has 31 children in it. The kindergarten in my school has 35. That’s an outrage.”

She also says he hasn’t protested as the central office has put greater pressure on teachers to raise scores on standardized tests, even though it’s uncertain how educationally significant these tests are. High school students now take three standardized tests a year, losing at least a month of regular class time in preparing for them.

In the age of centralization, Walsh complains, teachers have been turned into robots. They work in a climate of “fear and intimidation” few unions outside the city would tolerate. Vallas and the board have the authority to fire teachers without a hearing. Teachers can appeal to get their jobs back, but it’s a long, cumbersome, and expensive process. And the board isn’t required to pay the legal bills of teachers when a hearing officer rules that they were wrongfully dismissed. “Where was our union while all this was happening?” she asks. “Where was Reece?”

Moreover, Walsh says, Chicago teacher salaries continue to lag behind those in other districts in the region. “The starting salary in Chicago is about $34,000, the average teacher gets $48,000, and the top salary is around $60,000,” she says. “This has never been a profession you go into for high salaries, but we’re lagging behind.”

In contrast, the top salaries for suburban teachers range from $65,000 to $90,000, according to a recent analysis by Substance, a monthly newspaper put out by teachers that opposes Reece and Vallas. In Cook, Du Page, and Lake counties, wrote the paper’s editor, Sharon Schmidt, in the April issue, “all 57 high school and unit [elementary] districts paid veteran teachers more than Chicago in 1999-2000.”

“My problem isn’t with Vallas per se,” says Walsh. “I’m not after his job–I’m after Reece’s. At the heart of all these reforms over the last few years is the false assumption that the teachers are the problem. The persistent theme is that if you can just get rid of bad teachers everything will be great. And Reece goes along with that. He’s been silent and passive throughout. He doesn’t have an agenda to improve underachieving schools. He has no vision, no leadership, no agenda. He’s abdicated all responsibility on professional issues to the board–he allows the central office to do whatever it wants.”

Reece dismisses such charges as the empty rhetoric of a chronic complainer who lusts for an office she can’t possibly obtain. “It’s the same old same old,” he says. “I disagree with almost everything my opponent has to say. I think we’ve had a change of direction for the better in the last few years. I think it’s a different attitude. Look at things ten years ago. Every day you got up in the morning and read what bums the teachers are. We had just a terrible negative image of the school system, and the city, and everybody who worked in the schools. We’ve made progress, though we’re sure not finished.”

He insists he is not Vallas’s puppet. Instead, he says, they have a “real partnership,” meeting as “equals” on a regular basis to hash out their disagreements in a civil fashion. “Paul can be a little loosey-goosey, and he can use bad language,” Reece says. “But you know how I feel about that? So can I. I mean, Paul can be a little quick on the trigger, and he’ll say something that he might later regret. But I understand that.”

He goes on, “We have this thing called strategic bargaining. That means that we meet once a month or so. We march in there with our list, and we talk about it. You should hear some of the discussions we have. It’s a real give-and-take. If I think he’s wrong I tell him. And the thing about Paul is, he does listen. You can get through to him. He’s a decent human being.”

It was during a recent strategic bargaining session that Vallas agreed to raise salaries by 1 percent, even though two years remain on the current contract. “The money was there for the increase because they hadn’t increased pension payments, so they had about $5.5 million in the bank,” says Reece. “So I said, ‘Hey, the teachers are working like hell. How about we do something for the people who deserve it the most?'”

Walsh and her allies say that the 1 percent was a sop Vallas tossed teachers in an effort to help his buddy get reelected. She says, “It’s not a secret that Paul Vallas has been openly campaigning for Tom Reece.”

“Now I know that some of my critics like to get cynical about this,” counters Reece. “One of them stood up at our last delegate meeting and said we should have union elections every year so we can get a raise. Well, it was like having a 16-inch softball coming to the plate real slow. I said, ‘You know what? I’ll take money anytime I can for my teachers.'”

Walsh says that in general these monthly meetings of the union representatives from each school are heated affairs, with people from both sides attacking each other. “The meetings are a sham,” she says. “There is no discussion, there is no debate. When we are able to ask tough questions about union policy or union expenditures, we are ridiculed by Reece and his backers. Reece screams at us for asking ‘political’ questions. Or he ridicules us for being naive and asking dumb questions. It’s all orchestrated. Their officers filibuster for about an hour, and then we get a 15-minute question period. All the people from Reece’s delegation shove their way to the front of the line for the microphone. Then when the 15 minutes are up and we make a motion to extend the question period, Reece’s people vote against it–including the people who are waiting in line. Now tell me–why are you waiting in line if you don’t want to speak? They’re just there to keep us from raising legitimate issues. It’s a joke, a travesty–it’s so undemocratic.”

Reece disagrees. “We run a democratic house meeting,” he says. “My delegates work all day. They come for information. They want to know what’s happening with legislation. They don’t come to hear the negatives from my opponents. They don’t want to hear the same old tirades. They come to the microphone with legitimate questions. You know, there’s such a thing as the tyranny of the minority.”

Reece contends he represents the silent majority of teachers who happily do their jobs and don’t want to be bothered by militant activists, but his support has declined. After the last few major elections Walsh and her backers filed complaints with the U.S. Labor Department against Reece and his backers, accusing them of mishandling ballots. The Labor Department found that there had been some violations, though not enough to reverse the outcome.

The most heated dispute within the union erupted over the 1998 contract-ratification election. Walsh and her supporters suspect the rank and file may have rejected that contract, which would have been a major setback for not just Reece but Vallas and Daley. “However, we’ll really never know for sure, because they never released a school-by-school breakdown of the vote,” she says. “They just announced that they won,” though they did release the vote total.

In 1999 Walsh and her supporters went to court, attempting to force Reece to release the school-by-school vote, but a local judge ruled against them. Then last year over 90 percent of the teachers voted to change the union’s bylaws so that the outcome of future elections, including this year’s race, will be posted school by school. Walsh says, “Getting that school-by-school vote will make it harder for them to keep the union undemocratic.”

Walsh’s base of support is in the high schools, whose teachers have traditionally been more militant. But the vast majority of public school teachers are in grade schools, and they’ve been loyal to Reece. “I understand that I need to do better in the elementary schools,” says Walsh. “I think I have a lot in common there. I am a grade-school teacher. I know their concerns. They’re furious with Tom Reece. They feel no one is speaking to them or for them, no one is addressing their issues. They wonder why they’re paying $700 a year in union dues. The big joke is when something goes wrong in a school, we’re supposed to go to the union.”

Reece is trying to turn such rhetoric against Walsh. “It’s a new age,” he says. “I can’t help it if my opponent doesn’t realize that. Yes, I’ll win. I think we have made real progress. I think teachers feel proud about what they’ve accomplished. I’ll be happy when nobody goes to a cocktail party and says, ‘I’m just a teacher.’ That makes me nuts. I think we’re closer to the point of having real pride for what we do.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.