There’s some buzz about how what happened in Chicago with the strike really doesn’t matter that much. ‘Nothing to see here, please move along’ say some folks in management and in labor. Union watcher Mike Antonucci is right that Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis isn’t poised to seize the reins of the American Federation of Teachers. But no matter what different people may hope (for different reasons), what happened this month will have implications for the education labor-management conversation we’ve seen over the past six years.
Let’s start with the big picture: If you asked education analysts who could put an end to the teachers unions political losing streak it’s a safe bet no one would have said Karen Lewis, who was better known nationally for mocking how Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talks than as an effective leader outside of her union’s caucus. In the past couple of years teachers unions have hemorrhaged members (the National Education Association more than 100,000), lost key political battles on school choice and teacher evaluation and tenure in a slew of states, and perhaps most notably suffered a stinging rebuke in their efforts to recall Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker after he curbed collective bargaining by public workers. Yet there was the bombastic Lewis – who makes no pretense of being into collaboration or education reform – prevailing in the Chicago teachers strike and breathing new life into dispirited union teachers. Says one large urban teachers union president, “I got emails when they authorized the strike vote beating the drum on this.” The members want to know, “why aren’t we doing this, why aren’t we fighting?”
In Chicago school officials and their allies are working overtime to portray the new teachers’ contract as “an honest compromise” in the words of Mayor Rahm Emanuel or a “legitimate compromise” as influential Chicago education leader Tim Knowles put it in a press release. In practice the city gave a lot of ground on key issues to get kids back in school. Sure, in 2014 thirty percent of teachers evaluations will be based on how much students learn. But that’s state law in Illinois! It’s illegal for the contract to do less. Evaluation results will not be especially consequential anyway. Mediocre teachers can keep their jobs year after year and the great teachers in Chicago will not be protected during layoffs, which will still be determined largely based on seniority rather than effectiveness. It’s unclear meanwhile how the city is going to afford the 17 percent raise it committed to – especially at the same time Chicago’s teacher pension fund is nearing insolvency. The city won on some issues, too, by protecting principal autonomy and maintaining a sensible policy on guaranteed jobs when there are layoffs because of the downsizing everyone can see coming. But, overall it’s hard to see the agreement as anything but a substantial victory for Lewis and one that will resonate far beyond Chicago.
Within the teachers unions there is considerable debate about how much to work with management on reform and how much to stick to bread and butter issues. For every national pundit lauding the union designed teacher evaluation system in New Haven, Connecticut, Washington, D.C.’s landmark teachers contract, or the American Federation of Teachers support for the teacher evaluation law in Colorado, there are dozens of activists deriding those moves as sellouts.
It’s not an academic debate. With all the attention on elected officials it’s easy to forget that union leaders, too, are elected – by their members. Get too far out of step and you’ll be voted out. That’s how Karen Lewis won the union presidency in Chicago – by painting her predecessor as insufficiently committed to core union issues and promising a harder line with Chicago school administrators. She’s taken her anti-reform message national within the American Federation of Teachers. When Bill Gates was invited to address the American Federation of Teachers convention in 2010 at the invitation of AFT President Randi Weingarten Lewis made no secret of her disapproval and continues to push for a harder line against reform. Now, after what looks like a successful strike, Lewis has a real credential to go with the rhetoric.
Chicago “tore the scab off some wounds that have been healing” one state teachers union leader told me last week in the wake of the strike. Because Lewis was able to create a coalition by uniting younger teachers who support accountability measures but were concerned about issues like classroom overcrowding and health services for students with veterans vehemently opposed to proposals to evaluate teachers more or reform tenure union leaders say they’re paying close attention to how Chicago affects politics within their own unions.
They know the “reform unionism” field is littered with the bodies of union leaders voted out of office after appearing too accommodating with management or school reformers. But reform unionism had a powerful pragmatic argument in its favor: Until the Chicago strike the political choice for unions looked like accommodation and collaboration or irrelevance. Last week Lewis added a third credible option to the mix – strident resistance.
For now leaders in the national teachers unions don’t want to get too close to Lewis publicly – AFT President Weingarten who has spent several years tirelessly trying to reposition teachers unions as willing to reform is largely keeping her distance and a low-profile because so much of what Lewis is saying and doing is at odds with Weingarten’s public stance on key issues like teacher evaluation or tenure (the two pen a WSJ op-ed today that has some dog whistles in it but is as noteworthy for what’s not said as for what is – and for its mere existence). For their part Chicago officials are trying to salvage the appearance of a good compromise (although Mayor Emanuel penned a strong op-ed in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday).
The short term positioning misses the larger point: Karen Lewis changed the labor-management conversation in education with her stand in Chicago.