Chicago Teachers Union debate shows gap between past and future of the militant union as the union's 30,000 members head towards election day on May 17, 2013

If the size of the turnout after the Chicago Teachers Union elections debate was any indication, Karen Lewis and CORE are going to be swept back into office for a second term in a week. While more than 100 teachers and other union members devoured 40 Connie's pizzas following the second election debate in the history of the largest teacher union local in Illinois with Karen Lewis and the CORE candidates, a handful of apparently demoralized opponents barely filled a small table a few dozen feet away. CORE — the Caucus Of Rank and file Educators — was in the home stretch of the election campaign that will culminate with the vote count on Friday, May 17. CORE's opposition, calling itself the "Coalition To Save Our Union" seemed to be limping down the field trying to reach the finish line without collapsing.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis (rear) talks to supporters at Connie's pizza following the debate between the candidates for president and vice president of the 30,000-member union at the nearby Operating Engineers Union Hall on May 8, 2013. More than 100 delegates showed up for the CORE election event and some of the best pizza in the USA. Substance photo by Howard Heath.The House of Delegates of the CTU meets once a month to cover an array of union business and to hear reports from the officers and leaders of the union's departments. Participation in the HOD meetings has been growing since CORE was first elected to leader the union in June 2010. At the May 8, 2013 CTU House of Delegates meeting, in addition to the usual agenda of union business, there were two significant election events, speeches by the candidates for president and a debate.

The CTU's 30,000 members are holding an election for union officers, executive board members, and delegates to the state and national conventions on Friday, May 17, so part of the evening was devoted to election activities. The regular union business, the agenda for which is usually posted on the CTU website (, consisted of the usual reports and discussions. It was highlighted by the distribution of the final contract book, which has been in production since the contract was approved by the union's members in September 2012 and by the Board of Education in October 2012.

The editing and production of the contract book had become something of a bone of contention in union politics as the CORE union leadership promised that the contract negotiated after a seven-day strike would be cleaned up after two decades of sloppy editing and some of the leadership's critics tried to make an issue out of the delays in the publication of the book. By the time delegates arrived for the May 8 meeting, however, that issue was moot: all delegates received a spiral bound 8 1/2 by 11 inch copy of the contract, and CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey told the delegates that the books (in smaller format) for every one of the union's members would be delivered to the schools this week.

The two candidates for CTU vice president were Mark Ochoa (left) and Jesse Sharkey (right). The two debated following the May 8, 2013 meeting of the Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates. The debate, which was part of the campaign leading up to the May 17 CTU election, was a first. Members of Ochoa's "Coalition to Save Our Union" had suggested that the vice presidential candidates as well as the presidential candidates debate. Ochoa, who had served for six years as financial secretary of the union under then president Marilyn Stewart, was pressed to explain how the union would have done better in the contract negotiations and Chicago Teachers Strike of 2012. Neither Ochoa nor his running mate, Tanya Saunders Wolffe, was able to explain why they failed to raise their current demand that the union negotiate a "moratorium on school closings" into the contract, when in fact they had been on the "Big Bargaining Team" during the negotiations in August and September 2012. Sharkey pointed out that it was illegal for the union to demand contract provisions that are still not permitted by law. Nevertheless, Saunders Wolffe and Ochoa and their supporters continued during the union meeting to mislead the delegates and rank and file by claiming that to continue the seven-day strike over the issue of closings would have been possible. Substance photo by Howard Heath.For the more than 800 delegates from across Chicago's public schools, it was clear that union politics was on the top of the agenda. Delegates arriving at the Operating Engineers union hall on S. Grove St. were greeted by more than the usual number of activists leafleting outside.

CORE (the incumbent Caucus Of Rank and file Educators, headed by Karen Lewis) had a table at which they were distributing more than a truckload of election materials for distribution in the schools. According to the CORE caucus leaders, nearly 30,000 palm cards and stickers went out to the schools, as well as more than 1,000 election posters. It was clearly a Chicago-style election roaring into its final weekend and week.

The opposition to the current leaders, calling itself this year the "Coalition to Save Our Union", also had a group of people distributing leaflets. Unlike the tumultuous election in 2010 (which saw a five-way race in the May voting), the 2013 CTU election is a two-way race between. In 2013, the election pits CORE, led by incumbent president Karen Lewis, against the newly formed "C2SOU," led by elementary counselor Tanya Saunders Wolffe. C2SOU activists were pointing out that they represent a grouping consisting of former members of the United Progressive Caucus (UPC) and members of the ProActive Chicago Teachers (PACT) caucus. Some activists, however, noted that there are more former UPC and PACT leaders now in CORE than are left in the opposition.

Two events inside were part of the election process. The first event consisted of five-minute speeches by both presidential candidates. This has been the union's tradition for as long as anyone can remember. But a second event, a debate between the candidates for president and vice president, was taking place for only the second time. (The first debate took place during the 2010 election, when five slates of candidates were presented to the members, which resulted in the CORE slate winning against the incumbent "United Progressive Caucus" in a runoff; CTU rules require that candidates get a majority of the votes for any category to be elected).

And so the second event, the debate, consisted of three-minute speeches by presidential and vice-presidential candidates, followed by questions posed by an independent moderator, Professor Paul Green of Roosevelt University.

Following the events, both groups brought their people together at Connie's Pizza. The CORE group had more than 110 people gathered in the downstairs room at Connie's, while a handful of the others sat at another location in the large restaurant.

When asked about the debate, Kyle Gilbertson had this to say, “It seems like it's o contest. I felt like CORE candidates brought passion into what they were saying. It seemed pretty clear that the Coalition to Save Our Union was grasping for what used to be, the strategy of our union which was a failed strategy and which was deep with management. How could you cooperate with Rahm Emmanuel and his appointed Board of Ed?”

Sandra Stone was asked, “How could you compare the opening remarks of the presidential candidates?” She talked about Karen Lewis. “I feel more confident that she can go the long haul. She poses realistic and has goals that are obtainable.” When asked about the other candidate’s speech “I didn’t feel she had any issues. What I think is PACT and UPC want to salvage their reputations, but at the end it petered out. They weren’t prepared for the new issues. They had been naïve and followed IFT and AFT and didn’t know how to get out of that..."

Nate Goldbluam, one of the two co-chairs of CORE, stood up and thanked the crowd: “We’re proud to be showing Chicago what can be show as what’s just. I’m proud to be part of union to build its power with CORE. It’s been very clear who deserves to run this union the next three years. It’s clear the best candidates are already in office. We know Rahm is looking at this election and wants to know our strength, unity and member’s’ faith.”

Karen Lewis, current CTU president, commented: “Let’s always take the high road. There is so much we could say that’s ugly but it doesn’t move us forward."

Both caucuses have announced plans for activities in the final days before the election. The last CORE general membership meeting will be held on Monday, May 13, at the Letter Carriers union hall at 39th and Wabash beginning at 4:30 p.m. Delegates and others will be able to pick up final election materials for the voters at their schools at that meeting. Additional information will be available at the CORE website:

The "Coalition to Save Our Union" has not announced any general meetings of its members, but has announced a number of election activities for the final nine days before the voting. That information is available on the "Coalition" website.

The voting will take place in all Chicago public schools on May 17, 2013. Groups of union members who are not assigned to any particular school will be voting, for the most part, by mail ballot. Teachers who are unable to be at their own schools on election day are allowed to vote by "Supplemental Ballot" at any school. Retired teachers do not vote in the union's general elections, but elect their own delegates and functional vice president by mail ballot later.

The audio record of the May 8 debate is supposed to be posted at the union's website ( on May 9, 2013.

A Power Point outline of how the voting is conducted in the schools was posted on the CTU website on May 8, 2013 (see "Delegates").


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