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Eyes on Chicago in battle of teachers unions vs. ‘reformers’

Updated: July 13, 2012 6:25AM

While Chicago teachers may or may not go on strike this fall, one certainty has emerged as a result of their overwhelming vote to authorize one.

Between now and the start of school, we’re bound to see what will amount to a bruising political campaign for the hearts and minds of Chicago residents because of the national implications of the contract outcome.

We’ve witnessed an abridged version of that campaign in just the week and a half since the Chicago Teachers Union announced it would take a strike vote.

A national education “reform” group seeking to de-legitimize the teachers’ vote struck first with radio commercials produced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s media strategist, then followed up with robo-calls. The union hit back with radio ads attacking the wealthy interests backing their opposition.

Before September, expectations are that the “reform” groups pushing the anti-teachers union agenda will graduate to TV commercials, while the union has already put in motion a grass-roots organizing effort in cooperation with allied community groups — starting with a campaign to elect the school board.

“We expect them to ratchet up the attack,” CTU President Karen Lewis told me Monday in an interview after Monday’s announcement that nearly 90 percent of her union’s members had authorized a strike.

“They can always up the ante. There are billionaires funding them,” Lewis said. “We can’t compete on the money level.”

That doesn’t mean the union will necessarily be going it alone if the contract battle unfolds as expected.

Asked if the CTU had received any funding from its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, Lewis said: “Not yet.”

CPS officials are expecting the federation to join the fight financially, if it hasn’t already, because any union losses in the Chicago contract are expected to become the model for other major cities.

Jake Breymaier, a spokesman for the group financing the campaign against the strike vote, refused to comment on the possibility of the commercials continuing, but added: “Education Reform Now — Advocacy will continue to call on both sides to reach a compromise that keeps Chicago students in school while improving their learning.”

Just don’t hold your breath waiting for them to run any ads pressuring the Board of Education.

You may have noticed I’ve been putting “reform” in quotes. This is not meant to question the motives of the education “reformers,” only to point out that in this context especially, there are many competing visions of what it would take to reform our schools.

The teachers, believe it or not, might even have some valid ideas, as expressed through their union, and there’s no sense ceding the high ground to the folks determined to make their union disappear just because they’ve put Reform in their name.

I mentioned this in my last column on the subject, but let me say it again: There’s no sense getting all panicky just because the CTU members voted to authorize a strike. It doesn’t mean there will be a strike, although it certainly does mean the teachers have preserved their right to strike as an option.

Some people think teachers should not be allowed to strike, arguing it gives them the upper hand at the negotiating table.

In fact, some of those people thought they had discovered a back-door method of outlawing a Chicago teacher strike in a new law requiring a 75 percent vote of the entire union membership to authorize one.

When the CTU outmaneuvered them by voting earlier in the bargaining process than expected, they cried foul. From where I stand, there was no foul, and those protesting most loudly only made themselves look silly by joining in the scare tactics.

That issue should be resolved. The teachers can strike. Now the issue is what it will take to keep them from doing so.

The thorniest issues may be proposals for a new pay structure and job-security provisions for teachers thrown out of work by school closings and reorganizations.

As we have seen this past week, pressure will be put on Chicago residents to choose up sides between CPS and the union. You might consider taking the same approach as each of them.

Just say you’re on the side of the children.

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