Workers’ Correspondence

An unprecedented turnaround took place during contract negotiations between the 33,000 Chicago Teachers Union members and the Chicago Board of Education. Both the union’s governing body, the House of Delegates, and the rank and file members voted no to the first contract proposal recommended by newly-elected President Deborah Lynch on Oct. 16. The major sticking points were the length of the proposed contract – five years – health care costs, school day extension partially offset by a shorter school year and lack of improvement in working conditions.

Following the overwhelming rejection vote, Lynch reversed her original position. Passing out buttons with the slogan “Whatever it takes,” she set the tone for a very upbeat follow-up meeting. Lynch’s strike recommendation was approved by the House of Delegates. Representatives of each of the other Board employee unions gave words of support to a cheering crowd of delegates. The coalition consisted of the Service Employees International Union, Operating Engineers, Teamsters and Firemen and Oilers Unions. They were followed by Chicago Federation of Labor President Dennis Gannon.

The negotiating team went back to the bargaining table and succeeded in winning a better deal, which included 4 percent annual raises; a four-year contract; lower health care increases; and seven fewer work days in exchange for 15 minutes added to the school day.

On Nov. 14 the House of Delegates voted to approve the new proposal by over 55 percent. The membership approved the new contract proposal Nov. 18 in a close vote.

The rank and file, angry and frustrated, rejected the first proposal because they felt in the past that their concerns had not been addressed by the Board of Education, the city and the old union leadership. They thought that this was the time to go for the “gold.” The lack of reductions in class size, the increased reliance on standardized testing, school closings and the “No Child Left Behind” law make it very difficult for teachers to teach. The budget cuts caused by the war in Iraq, the poor economy and Bush’s tax cuts for the rich alongside the unchecked drive towards privatization of the public schools are some of the many problems that added “fuel to the fire.”

If we are to strengthen our future contract negotiations we must first get rid of the Bush administration. Push Bush, his administration and right-wing partners “out the door in 2004.” “Whatever it takes” is what rank and file union members are saying. Seems to me that is what we have to do.

– Lance Cohn, Retiree delegate, Chicago Teachers Union (AFT Local 1)

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