Hundreds of teachers, YouTube video, contradict press reports on Chicago Teachers Union August 31 meeting…
Chicago teachers rejecting proposed contract despite enormous pressures?

"What is the truth?" a recent movie asks.

The epistemological question resonates today in Chicago, as more than 32,000 teachers and other members of the Chicago Teachers Union prepare to vote on a September 10 referendum for a new, five-year contract.

The contract was supposedly approved by the union's 800-member House of Delegates after a stormy three-hour meeting on Friday evening, August 31, the beginning of the Labor Day weekend.

According to one of Chicago's two major daily newspapers, an overwhelming majority of the delegates at the meeting voted in favor of the contract.

According to dozens of people who were at the meeting — and a YouTube video — there was never a vote count, so the numbers being reported widely in the press are simply a lie.

Chicago awoke on September 1 to find two contradictory reports on what had happened the night before at a tumultuous meeting of the 800-member "House of Delegates" of the Chicago Teachers Union.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times and CTU president Marilyn Stewart, the delegates had voted by an "overwhelming majority" to endorse a five-year tentative contract that Stewart had negotiated with the Chicago Board of Education. Unique in the press reports on the August 31 union meeting, the Sun-Times stated the numbers of the supposed vote:

"Stewart's spokeswoman said the final count was 428 out of 557 in favor of the contract," stated an article in the September 1 Sun-Times by reporter Kate Grossman.

As every reporter who had actually been at the meeting knew, there had been no count, let alone a "final count" of the votes in the House of Delegates that night. What had happened instead was that Stewart's supporters had been allowed to pack the large meeting hall at Chicago's Plumbers Hall for the August 31 meeting, then Stewart had hastily called for the "Yes vote. After a large number of delegates (and others) stood up for the "Yes", Stewart simply refused to do a count, stating that "Yes" clearly had the requisite "50 percent plus one" needed to win.

Immediately, calls went up to have the "No" vote counted, but Stewart refused to do so. Backed by the "parliamentarian" for the night, a lawyer named Jennifer Poltrock, Stewart refused to call for the "No" vote, ignored calls for a Roll Call vote, and simply ended the meeting to go downstairs at Plumbers Hall. There, the union's publicity director had caged the TV cameras and other reporters in a room behind closed doors to wait for Stewart's version of what had just happened upstairs.

Within five minutes after the "No" vote and Roll Call calls had been ignored at the large meeting upstairs, Stewart came down and told the press that the House of Delegates had voted by an "overwhelming majority" to recommend that the union's membership approve the contract. As Stewart spoke, her publicity director, Rose Maria Genova, was giving reporters a press release stating that the House of Delegates had approved the recommended deal. The press release announcing the "Yes" vote had been printed before the House voted.

Stewart quickly ran into trouble as she tried to adhere to the script that called for her to proclaim that the contract had been "approved" whether it had been approved or not. While the TV cameras whirred and reporters took notes, from outside the room where the press conference was being held a growing sound came. "No! No! No!" the voices said from the other side of a door guarded by union security people.

While Stewart's staff tried to keep the press focused on Stewart's version of what had just happened upstairs, reporters, one by one, left the press conference to see what the commotion was outside. Despite attempts by the union's security staff to block the door (I had to force it open to get into the hall), before long, almost every reporter who had been sent to cover the story of the meeting was outside in the hall, facing dozens of angry teachers, all of them voting delegates representing schools, who were chanting "No! No! No!" and trying to tell the press what had happened.

The reporters who went into the hall from Stewart's media event included Carlos Sandovi (Chicago Tribune), Kate Grossman (Chicago Sun-Times), John Myer (Catalyst magazine) and a reporter from Substance (myself). We were quickly followed by reporters from at least two TV stations (WGN and Fox 32). The other TV stations were handicapped in covering the story because they had only sent a camera crew. By union rules, camera crews are only allowed to film an event, but can't serve as reporters. The most important stations without reporters were Univision (one of Chicago's two Spanish language stations) and NBC.

As the dramatic events unfolded, it became clear that a large number of delegates had been opposed to the contract and weren't going home despite the late hour (it was nearly eight p.m.) and the fact that it was a holiday weekend.

What had actually happened upstairs during the end of the meeting, however, was less clear to reporters who hadn't been there (all of us), but which became clear less than 12 hours later, when an anonymous video appeared on YouTube.

"Does the video match what she [Marilyn Stewart] said?" was the main question on the blogs as the video's existence became known. "You be the judge!"

What the videos on youtube show are the minutes of the meeting during which Marilyn Stewart was refusing to call the "Nos" on the vote count she had just declared had approved the contract.

Standing on the stage are Marilyn Stewart, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, and a blonde woman whose name is Jennifer Poltrock. Poltrock's law firm represents the Chicago Teachers Union in lucrative outside business and had refrained from acting as parliamentarian at union meetings after the conflict of interest was noted by many delegates.

While the sounds of the words "Roll Call! Roll Call!" can be heard in the background, Poltrock can be seen confirming Stewart's refusal to allow a count of the "No" votes, let alone to do a roll call. 

There are other videos that will be coming out. I didn't check the time ID on the stuff on You Tube, but it was probably around 7:30 p.m. when Marilyn Stewart and her people were trying to rush through a quick vote so they could go downstairs and announce that the delegates were in support of her contract proposal.

What wasn't clear at the time the press was watching the anger of the delegates who had been refused the right to vote "No" was what became a little more clear in the YouTube videos. The trouble for Marilyn Stewart was that by the end of the August 31 meeting, the delegates were against the contract she had brought in. Even with the "Yes" vote being padded by the votes of dozens of her staff and even some retired staff who had come to the meeting (without credentials) to support Stewart, the dissent had grown from the moment the meeting had been convened at 5:00 p.m.

Even though Stewart had scheduled the meeting for a Friday night at the beginning of a holiday weekend, the delegates stayed and stayed as the meeting went over every page in the proposed agreement (which should be up by now at Catalyst or somewhere).

At no time was I inside the meeting itself, but dozens of people came to update me on the progress of the meeting. I was downstairs at the main entrance to Plumbers Hall where I sell Substance every month throughout the entire time (from roughly 4:00 p.m. to after 7:30 p.m.), until the press events at the end began.

By an hour into the meeting — at roughly 6:00 — the high school delegates were coming outside (some still smoke, and you have to go outside to smoke) and were saying, one by one, that their schools would vote against the contract unanimously or by an overwhelming majority. During that time, I spoke with delegates from more than a dozen high schools who told me that.

The summary of their feelings was:

"Five years is too long...

"Four percent is too little..."

It was not clear at that point, however, what the elementary delegates were feeling. But as the meeting wore on and people got to read more and more of the dozens of pages in the proposed agreement, more and more people came out angrily.

Finally, elementary delegates began coming down at about 7:00 p.m. saying they had been sold out. In addition to the five-year contract (which Stewart had promised she would never do during her re-election campaign in April and May) and the small four percent raise (at a time when Chicago has an unprecedented budget surplus in its public school funds), elementary school teachers had been promised a preparation period during their work day, and Stewart had not gotten it for them.

Just a few months earlier, in order to get elected, Marilyn Stewart had promised the teachers that she would never settle for less a seven percent raise. When she was running for election last Spring, she had also stated that she would never settle for a four-year contract (let alone a five-year deal).

The elementary teachers had been promised one duty free prep period during their work-day. When it became clear that hadn't happened, more and more elementary teacher delegates began coming out angrily talking about the "Sellout!" (The first time I heard that word was about 6:30 or 7:00 p.m., and from elementary delegates).

Inside the large meeting hall, Stewart and her people were trying to control the discussion in the House. When they failed to do that, they refused to do a standing count or roll call vote, as the You Tube videos show.

I only know the union's history going back 35 years, but the Chicago Teachers Union has never done a House of Delegates vote on a proposed contract where the vote of the delegates was not counted.

A standing vote count or a roll-call was routine at that point. In fact, I had told a couple of reporters that the first thing the union would give when the press conference took place was the precise vote. Nobody with any experience could have predicted what happened next.

When delegates came out and told me that Marilyn Stewart had refused to do a standing count and ignored dozens of people calling for a "Roll Call" even I was a bit surprised and asked about a dozen people "Is that really what happened? She refused to do a count and ignored a roll call?"

It was unprecedented.

The videos were taken by someone on the left side of the hall, obviously a delegate — or one of Stewart's own supporters — because the only people allowed in were delegates (and Stewart's supporters who get to sit on the main floor with or without being delegates).

In one of the videos, two of Stewart's employees can be seen. The big guy wearing the dark shirt in the foreground in the scenes is Ted Hajiharis, a former teacher who is now working full-time for the union. Behind Hajiharis is a former Kennedy High School teacher who once insisted on more and more union democracy — until he was hired by Stewart.

Reporters who were at the subsequent Stewart press conference will remember that Ted Hajiharis was the big guy in the black shirt going around asking who all the TV people were. (You got the impression he was trying to find someone he could kick out).

Back upstairs to the "Roll Call!" moment.

Despite the hectic moments, the view of the stage is clear. Marilyn Stewart and the officers are standing there, but Stewart has apparently turned the microphone over to the blonde woman. The blonde woman on the stage is attorney Jennifer Poltrock who represents CTU. Poltrock serves as "parliamentarian" for the union meetings.

People who were inside might be able to say more accurately what Poltrock was telling the delegates, but one thing is clear. No "Parliamentarian" could have approved the failure of the chair to call for a standing vote count. And there are provisions in Roberts Rules of Order for a roll call. That is the only way to make certain that the people who are voting are actually elected delegates.

(For years, Stewart's group, the United Progressive Caucus, has found a way to get credentials into the hands of people who are not elected delegates during key meetings. I spotted one at the August 8 meeting and reported it in the August Substance, but the procedure goes back much further than this month. Basically, in order to ensure the integrity of the vote and count, the counters either have to check every delegate's badge or do a Roll Call count.

Stewart was denying both a full standing vote count and a Roll Call to the House of Delegates at that point, and the union's "parliamentarian" was approving what Stewart was doing.

On the video, the chants in the background are "Roll Call! Roll Call!"

For the first time in the history of a contract vote in the House of Delegates, CTU did not do a standing vote count, and Marilyn Stewart ignored calls for a Roll Call, which is in order under Roberts Rules of Order.

While the event on the You Tube tape was going on upstairs at Plumbers Hall, Marilyn Stewart's media and security people were trying to keep the media, especially the TV cameras, in a room downstairs with doors closed and security posted.

Shortly after the refusal to do the roll call, Stewart appeared before the press downstairs and announced that a significant majority had voted to approve the contract. There is tape of her saying this. When asked what the vote was, she said it was a majority. She repeated this over and over.

Meanwhile, Stewart's press people were distributing a press statement saying that a majority of the House of Delegates had voted to approve the proposed contract. There was no way that press statement could have been written and run off between the time of the "Roll Call!" chants upstairs and the time Stewart appeared downstairs. As far as I can tell, Stewart and her people had written the press statement announcing the "majority" vote before any vote was taken in the House of Delegates.

Despite rather desperate tries by Stewart and her people to keep the TV cameras inside that little room downstairs, there were growing chants of "No! No! No!" coming from the other side of the door. Within five minutes, all of the press had left the area where Stewart was trying to continue explaining what was happening and had gone outside to interview the delegates -- at least 50 of them I counted — who were chanting and protesting what had just happened.

A small group of Stewart's supporters eventually arrived downstairs and tried to drum up a chant of "Yes! Yes!" but they quickly gave up. One of the saddest things I noted about that effort was that one of the people there still trying to cheer on Stewart was the Collins High School delegate Howie Gold. Renaissance 2010 has already ended his school.

By 8:00 p.m. virtually every reporter who was still covering the story was outside interviewing the delegates who were talking against the contract. It was easy by that time for anyone who was paying attention to know who the delegates were, because delegates had been issued green badges to get into the meeting.

I have more than 50 photographs of the scenes during and after the meeting. (I was at no point myself inside the meeting).

The fact that Stewart had a press release announcing a "Yes" vote ready before any vote was taken was one of the most interesting things that happened last night.

I didn't take notes or tape Stewart's report to the press that an "overwhelming majority" or a "significant majority" had approved the contract upstairs, but there were several cameras rolling at that time, and I have a hunch by noon today many people will have posted Stewart saying those words, despite what had just happened upstairs.

People who were in the House of Delegates have gotten used to doing their own count of key votes, since this is not the first time that Stewart's count has been questionable. Every one (more than a dozen) whom I talked with afterwards said that the vote was against the contract, not for it as Stewart claims. �

An ongoing discussion of all of these things is taking place on Chicago's foremost public education blog, ""

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