'Union bosses like Karen Lewis seem intent on thuggery and intimidation to get their way... ' Plutocrats deploy proxies as CTU and CPS reach impasse on contract negotiations

Less than one year after Substance first reported that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was establishing what became known as the notorious Rent A Preacher and Rent A Protester actions, what should become knows as the "Plutocracy's Proxies" have begun appearing in the Chicago media, echoing the same talking points against the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago's teachers that have been used since Emanuel took over the city's public schools in May and June 2011.

Rebecca Nieves-Huffman (above) made her debut as the Chicago spokesman for "Democrats for Education Reform" (DFER) at the February 22, 2012 Board of Education meeting, when she took the podium in support of school closings and turnarounds. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.The latest to deploy on behalf of the plutocracy is Rebecca Nieves-Huffman, who identifies herself in an Op Ed in the May 4, 2012 as the "Illinois Director of Democrats for Education Reform." DFER, as it is known, is the creation of New York Hedge Fund billionaires and a handful of hired hands who promote the notion that there is a division among Democrats and that corporate school reform has a large base among the public. Because the groups are all funded to the tune of millions of dollars, they are able to generate Web sites and other outlets even before they have one member. Over time, they also try and deploy cadre who speak out against unions, employe the usual teacher bashing techniques of the Big Lie, and attempt (usually, with little success) to build a base among teachers and parents across the city.

Rebecca Nieves-Huffman first appeared on the public education scene in Chicago speaking out in favor of school turnarounds and closings at the Board's February 22 meeting. Like her similarly pluocratically bankrolled colleagues from Stand for Children and Advance Illinois, she praises the mayor, bashes teachers, and tries to play the game of "Good Teacher/Bad Teacher" by calling on teachers who really care about "the kids" to break with their union bosses.

The Grandaddy of these groups in Chicago is the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club, which more than a year ago unveiled the scare words "nuclear" to describe the option that Chicago teachers would have to strike in defense of their rights and against the continued attacks on teachers and public schools. The May 4 Op Ed by Nieves Huffman, reprinted here, utilizes all of the cliched talking points that come out of the corporate school reform think tanks and organizing groups. They will be heard across the city more and more in the coming months, and will be amplified as Chicago's corporate media try to give the impression that someone among the city's teachers is against teachers reestablishing their rights, by a strike if necessary, through the collective bargaining process.


CTU’s reckless strike talk is bad for Chicago’s kids

By Rebeca Nieves Huffman, Chicago Sun-Times (May 3, 2012 6:38PM online; May 4, 2012 in print)

For much of the last year, while parents, community leaders and policymakers have been focused on bringing much-needed improvements to the Chicago Public Schools, the teachers union has been not-so-secretly planning to hold our city — and our schoolchildren — hostage by calling for a strike.

A teachers strike — something Chicago hasn’t seen since 1987 — is a big deal. It’s a nuclear option for defiant union negotiators who don’t get their way.

One reason there aren’t as many teachers strikes around the country as there used to be is that everyone involved — including teachers — recognizes the havoc created for families and for students who need every minute of education possible to keep pace with their peers around the country and around the globe.

Strikes are extremely dangerous, which is what makes them effective as political tools.

This is why it is so upsetting that the Chicago Teachers Union has been so reckless about playing the strike card. This does not sound like a union that has any respect for the principles of collective bargaining, where both sides work in good faith at the bargaining table. Rather, union bosses like Karen Lewis seem intent on thuggery and intimidation to get their way outside of the process.

The May 4, 2012 Op Ed in the Chicago Sun-Times could function as a template for the upcoming deluge of plutocratic propaganda against Chicago teachers and the Chicago Teachers Union. The usual lines, including unstinting praise of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, will be increasingly shrill as the summer of 2012 goes on and the Chicago Board of Education continues to try and eliminate the rights of Chicago teachers under the lengthy Chicago Teachers Union contract.While the rest of the city has focused on how to provide students more time for learning, the CTU has very publicly pushed its members towards a strike. If the union follows through on its threats to walk next school year, hardworking families would be burdened with millions of dollars in lost wages and emergency day-care costs.

Chicago and our students would suffer. It would certainly make for interesting conversation between public school parents when one parent can’t send their child to school while another parent sends theirs off every morning to a public charter school (there are 110 public charter schools in the city with non-unionized teachers).

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has shown he’s able to be reasonable at the bargaining table, offering a compromise on the length of the school day. Many advocates felt he gave too much, but negotiations are never perfect. At least he didn’t take his marbles and go home, which is what the CTU is essentially threatening to do.

CTU’s political brinksmanship is bad for kids. While the rest of the city has been focused on how to improve math and reading results for kids, the union has been busy demanding a 30 percent pay raise. Teachers need and deserve to be rewarded for the crucial work they do, but only if they view themselves as partners in our kids’ education. The “mock vote” to strike held at some schools made clear what the union thinks about that partnership.

To be sure, the problems facing the Chicago Public Schools are significant and the to-do list for all of us, including teachers, is long. That can make for some testy negotiations. But if we’re all committed to what is best for Chicago’s young people and the future of our city, reasonable people will be able to compromise at the bargaining table.

Despite all of the threatening strike rhetoric from the union bosses, we have to believe there are teachers all over the city who are more interested in helping their children prepare for their futures than in holding Chicago hostage to create some dubious leverage over the public school system.

It is time for those teachers to stand with parents and declare that enough is enough. Put a cork in all of this strike talk and work this out like grown-ups.

Chicago will be watching to see who is really putting our students first.

Rebeca Nieves Huffman is the Illinois director of Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee.


May 5, 2012 at 6:19 PM

By: Jay Rehak

Ms. Huffman's comments are offensive

When people such as Ms. Huffman claim the CTU is being reckless by "throwing around strike talk", they need to be reminded that the Union has had the ability to strike since last year, when contractually agreed to 4% raises were denied to us by the Chicago Board of Education. Rather than being "reckless" the CTU leadership and membership have been incredibly patient and worked through this school yea, despite the fact that our current contract has been abrogated.

Fortunately, I believe most working class Chicagoans understand that the City's teachers are fellow middle class workers who are trying to hold the line against those whose primary goal seems to be the destruction of collective bargaining and the lowering of people's living standards for the benefit of the few.

May 6, 2012 at 1:33 PM

By: Rod Estvan

Jay's comments

Jay writes: "they need to be reminded that the Union has had the ability to strike since last year, when contractually agreed to 4% raises were denied to us by the Chicago Board of Education. " Is that really the analysis of the union?

It seems that once the CTU did not void the contract and go on strike when the 4% was removed during the summer, and began a new school year with acceptance of step and lane increases still provided to teachers that the CTU lost that chance to strike. If the CTU does retain the right to strike under that provision and its member still get to keep step and lane increases that is one sweet deal indeed. Is that how other people understand that provision?

I also understand the CTU has appealed to the labor board whether or not CPS actually experienced a fiscal emergency apparently in hope of getting the 4% restored. I guess I see that appeal itself as in a way voiding the ability to strike over that issue. But maybe I am confused about that issue since labor law is in many ways a unique form of contract law I do not fully grasp.

I agree with Jay about Ms Huffman's op-ed being offensive to teachers. Raising the strike issue is part of bargaining whether it is stated openly or not, its not some sort of crime. As long as you have the legal ability to strike it seems to be a legitimate threat to use as part of bargaining as long as the union continues to go to the table and try to work out a deal.

Rod Estvan

May 6, 2012 at 5:12 PM

By: George N. Schmidt

CTU still fighting for the four-percent raise, reformers are lying when pushing the Rahm script...

In relation to the great "Four Percent Ripoff" of June 2011, both Jay Rehak and Rod Estvan here are right. Technically, the CTU had the right to strike as soon as the contract was torn up on June 15, 2011. That's when the newly installed Rahm Emanuel Board of Education voted unanimously to void all of the union contracts' final year raise — based on the false claim that CPS was facing a "fiscal emergency." That was the beginning of what will hopefully go down in history as the Lies of Rahm Emanuel. Someone else can document the "Why" of Rahm's assault on the city's teachers and on the facts, but the "Who, What, When, Where and How..." are now clear after a year of the Emanuel administration at CPS and the Emanuel Board of Education governing CPS.

I say "false claim." One of my colleagues has been educating the union's members on this by using the word "lie."

This is not about a misunderstanding. It's about a campaign of disinformation and misinformation unprecedented in the history of Chicago (and that's saying something, given that my Congressmen have included Dan Rostenkowski, Rahm Emanuel, and Rod Blagojevich...) aimed at the Chicago Teachers Union and the union's current leadership. And it began literally the first day the Rahm Emanuel school board sat down and has continued through this week with the publication of the DFER attack on Chicago teachers and the CTU.

We're talking about deliberate lying by CPS officials from virtually the first day Rahm's Board took power.

What happened?

As everyone who understands basic contract law knows, a deal's a deal. The unions representing Chicago's school workers, the largest of which is the CTU, had a five year contract, and the fifth year (as all the others) required that CPS pay a four percent raise to all workers covered by the contract. CPS had a tiny loophole (not big enough for what they tried to get away with, and one that will never recur) and tried to drive a truck through what amounted to a rat hole. If CPS could declare (based on some financial information) that it was facing fiscal constraints, it did not have to pay those raises, contract or no contract.

At a special meeting on June 15, 2011, the members of the Board of Education got a Power Point briefing — with virtually no counter narrative and no questions from anyone familiar with the CPS budget and independent of the talking heads assembled to do that dirty work — asked a bunch of carefully scripted questions, one by one, and then voted unanimously that they were indeed facing a "fiscal emergency." The vote was taken after an "executive session" during which they basically had a bite to eat. When they came out, they voted that they had to break the fifth year of the unions' contracts and void the contractual four-percent raises based on the disinformation they had just received in that Power Point.

The "fiscal emergency" technically required that CPS did not have the funds to pay, out of its general operating funds, the four percent pay raises for all of the workers covered by all of the CPS contracts (not just the CTU).

The common estimate of the total cost of that four percent raise for everyone covered by the contracts was about $100 million for the 2011 - 2012 school year. But even if we bring that estimate up to $150 million, the evidence was clear on June 15, 2011 that the money was going to be there, and it's been clear since, as CPS has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on everything from new hirelings in the bureaucracy to building giveaways to its pet charter schools.

CPS knew at the time it has that money, despite all of the "Sky Is Falling" Chicken Little Power Points that have been presented then and since.

How can I say this?

Simple: The truth was in CPS's own financial documents. And given all that prattle and rattle about how the members of the Board (and Rahm, and Brizard) are all about "business" savvy and following the "business model", we have to assume that all of them began their careers in public education in Chicago by reading their own financial documents (and not some silly "Power Point," which has become the vehicle for CPS craziness the past year). Their own balance sheets showed that they were not facing anything like the Chicken Little "fiscal emergency" they claimed.

By the time the seven members of the Board of Education received the "fiscal emergency" Power Point at the June 15, 2011 "Special Meeting" (which I've been calling the "Chicken Little Meeting" for obvious reasons), CPS had received its quarterly financial reports from its own controller. These had been showing that the previous year's lie (the "One Billion Dollar Deficit!!!" claim by the previous Chicken Little, then CEO Ron Huberman) had been a lie, too. The final quarterly report on the books for FY 2011 (which CPS officials had in hand when they went out and lied to the public on June 15, 2011) showed that CPS was running a surplus ("reserve," "fund balance" — whatever you want to call it) in excess of $500 million — give times the cost of those raises — at the end of Fiscal 2011 (which was June 30, 2011).

And the fund balances had been showing up with each quarterly report to CPS throughout the 2010 - 2011 school year (FY 2011, which ended at midnight on June 30, 2011).

So when we say they lied, they lied. The trickery CPS was able to temporarily get away with was that the audited financial reports for FY 2011 would not be presented to the Board of Education until six months later, in December 2011. And those audited financial reports (called the "CAFR," for Comprehensive Audited Financial Report) did not become available to the public until January 2012. Since the Chicken Little lie was unveiled in June 2011, CPS had six months to play with its Bernie Madoff version of accounting and "business management."

During those six months, as I've reported, CPS went on a spending spree unprecedented in its history. The Brizard Bureaucracy was expanded at an unprecedented rate. For the first time in history, CPS paid outsiders "relocation and transition" fees (up to $30,000 in the case of Brizard) to move to Chicago and help run the schools of the third largest city in the USA. CPS also began paying a "retention" fee to certain bureaucrats (e.g., Jennifer Cheatham) who were simply being moved from one bureaucratic job to another. And every month the Board's seven members voted unanimously and without discussion to approve all of these additional costs. In addition to what appears on the public record (in the Board's "Agendas of Action," CPS was also adding hundreds of new bureaucratic positions without reporting them to the public!

For all the prattle about "accountability," by early 2012, it was like an addict (Brizard and his overseers, from the Broad Foundation to the mayor) had been given the keys to the pharmacy, and the cops (supposedly the Board members) were all taking a break. The 2011 - 2012 school year has seen a kleptocracy the likes of which even Chicago has rarely seen before (the last time it was this big was during the 1930s, when earlier generations of the same crooks were in charge).

Considering the enormity of the looting, it's breathtaking that many pundits (not merely Ms. Nieves Huffman) could accuse the leaders of the teachers and Karen Lewis of "thuggery." But such crazy disinformation have become the stock and trade of the plutocracy's assault on facts in the interest of their lies.

What did the CTU do?

It filed a grievance on behalf of its members. That grievance, which should be heading to the Illinois Labor Relations Board this summer for a major hearing, was in process all last year. I was one of the two expert witnesses asked by CTU to testify about the phony "deficit" and how CPS had the money at the time the Board voted on the Chicken Little Power Point.

What was the CPS answer to the grievance:

Basically, they said "F___ you! It's our money and we can do whatever we want with it..." They didn't challenge the facts — including the biggest fact, that there was no "fiscal emergency" on June 15, 2011 when they claimed there was — they simply asserted a "management right" that before then nobody knew they had: the right to break legitimate contracts based on making stuff up like a kid caught with a crib sheet on a test.

In the context of the odious Op Ed by the odious Ms. Nieves Huffman (whose sycophant vitae is nicely summarized by Rod Estvan), it's important to note that the teacher bashing and union busting by the Rahm Emanuel Board of Education (the seven Board members appointed by Rahm held their first meeting on June 15, 2011) began at the first Board meeting and has continued ever since. The "longer school day" push to get schools to go along with the mayor's nonsense in August and September was a later attack on the union. And it was also a later show of two things: bad faith and the fact that CPS had millions of dollars to throw around. Every month since then, the Emanuel administration has been attacking the union(s), either directly from the mayor himself or by proxy (the funniest of which are the Rent A Preachers and Rent A Protesters I first exposed in August and September 2011 and which made headlines in January 2012).

But the offensiveness had been full-time literally since the Emanuel inauguration. And it continues to today with the proxy teacher bashing and union busting from the well-subsidized pen of Ms. Nieves Huffman.

It's been clear since a bunch of the Hedge Fund fans to Rahm bought the Sun-Times that the Op Eds (and some of the "news" columns) would be aping the mayor's talking points, so it's no surprise that Ms. Nieves-Huffman gets a major place to comment, even though her arrival on the "school reform" scene in Chicago is of most recent vintage. We can expect more of that, and have to thank Ms. Nieves-Huffman for one thing: She basically laid out most of the talking points we can expect to hear, in what used to be called "stereo" from all sides (from the Rent A Preachers and Rent A Parents to the overpaid and undercompetent Broad Foundation bureaucrats now populating every floor at CPS headquarters at 125 S. Clark St. and in every one of the "Network" and other offices of the new Broad-sponsored school system in Chicago.

The CTU did the right thing putting the question of enforcing a legal contract through the current laws of the state of Illinois, just as the leadership (despite considerable discontent from some among the union's 30,000 members) has been patiently following the draconian strictures of SB 7 and the discriminatory laws of the State of Illinois (only Chicago among all Illinois school districts faces the "75 percent" hurdle).

I'm confident when the grievance is resolved this summer, that the dozens of Nieves Huffmanses now being organized behind the walls of talking points and publicity stunts of the Emanuel administration will say, when that happens, that CPS is, "once again," without the money to pay for the contracts it was obliged to honor back in June 2011.

During the 12 months since the first Emanuel Mendacities began spewing forth from the new Chicago Board of Education, the corporate reformers (these include in my book most of the major pundits, the editorial board of the Tribune, Advance Illinois, Stand for Children, and that old favorite, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago; DFER Illinois is the new kid on that old block) have not once asked any hard questions about the wasting of hundreds of millions of dollars by CPS, on projects ranging from the new bureaucracy that has been foisted on the schools system (all without teaching experience; most from outside of Chicago; many of whom received "relocation and transition" payments...) since a year ago.

The silence from the corporate "school reform" crowd (Ms. Nieves Huffman is not alone in that lucrative business in Chicago) about the hundreds of millions of dollars wasted during the first year of Rahm's Board and Jean-Claude's "team" (whose members have been disappearing as fast as rain on a hot sidewalk on a hot day) will be worth saving for posterity. Each of the utterances provides footnotes to the hypocrisies and hypocrites currently trying to dominate the narrative about the education of Chicago's 400,000 public school children (two of whom are my sons...) and what Chicago's working teachers and other unionized school workers (one of whom is my wife) deserve.

The question isn't why the teachers are getting angry, but how everyone has been patient during this year of teacher bashing, union busting, and the mendacities of the Emanuel administration. An old button has been dusted off by Chicago's teachers and will be seen a lot in the next couple of months. It says, simply: "We've been too nice for too long."

Every month when the Chicago Board of Education meets, I cover it for Substance. And every month I'm amazed as I watch the prancing dishonesty of the seven Board members. But then, within a couple of days I can read about their ilk in The Wall Street Journal or Barron's. 

May 9, 2012 at 7:44 PM

By: Maureen Cullnan

Huffman's timing during Teacher Appreciation Week

This is Teacher Appreciation Week, and I have to say you can't fault Ms. Huffman's timing. Most everyone else is thinking it might be nice to take a moment to send a note, to thank a teacher who has helped your child when he struggled with a difficult concept. Or who agreed to write that letter of recommendation at the last minute. Well, not Ms. Huffman, the Director of Education Reform Now.

Timing is everything. So why now? Well, the short answer is because of Mayor Emanuel\'s penchant for negotiating public sector contracts in the media. But the long answer is interesting, too.

Chicago education reporters have noted a number of PACs have come to Chicago to support the privatization of CPS. According to Jonah Edelman, Director of Stand for Children, one of his PAC's jobs is to develop a groundswell of support for the Mayor's education policies -- so that his top-down mandates don't hurt him politically. Hard sell, that.

Especially after the Aspen Ideas Festival 2011 video went viral. Because we can't forget how Stand for Children, funded by Gates, Pritzkers Griffin, Zell, Crowne and others in that tax bracket, pushed through SB7. SfC was followed by the arrival of Education Reform Now in Chicago, an offshoot of Democrats for Education Reform, which is backed by hedge fund managers.

Oh no, not hedge fund managers again!

We parents wonder why Silicon Valley and Wall Street is spending millions on pr via fake "grassroots" groups to try to get Chicagoans to believe that charters and vouchers and online learning are better -- despite all the research to the contrary?

Why do they want to privatize America\s schools so desperately?

Bloomberg reported back in January that "Less than a third of the “virtual” schools managed by for-profit companies made adequate progress toward meeting state standards last year, compared with about half of all public schools, according to the report from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"The findings demonstrate that online public schools, which educate more than 200,000 students nationwide, don’t have the results to justify their growth, said Gary Miron, lead author of the study and a professor at Western Michigan University.

"K12 Inc., part-owned by billionaire Michael Milken, and Pearson’s Connections Academy are the biggest operators of Internet- based charter schools — privately run public schools. “I don’t think students are being well-served,” Miron said. “I don’t think taxpayers are being well- served.”

Yet, back in Chicago, Pearson's CEO, Marjorie Scardino, was recently named head of the Board of Directors of the MacArthur Foundation -- despite the scandal of a non-profit arm of Pearson hosting school district superintendents on international junkets. The fear is that those superintendents' purchasing decisions may have been influenced by these trips.

The New York Attorney General is investigating, and Illinois State Superintendent Chris Koch's name comes up. But we don't hear much from our Chicago media.

Also, unfortunately, earlier this year the MacArthur Foundation withdrew its funding for excellent news reporting on Chicago and CPS schools by the Chicago News Coop. This was right after hedge fund friends of the Mayor's purchased the Sun Times.

Now the Sun Times has bought the Chicago Reader.

Trying to silence the honest reporters?

So much for an open, honest debate on public education.

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