Chicago City College Teachers Being Used as “Pawns” Against Teachers Union, Say Teachers

Chicago Teachers Union.Chicago Teachers Union. (Photo: Bartosz Brzezinski / Flickr)As the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) sets September 10 as the day it will begin its strike, another group of Chicago teachers say they are being unfairly pressured into signing a weak contract, which they argue will make them pawns in the propaganda game against the CTU. A group of more than 1,000 full-time professors at the City Colleges of Chicago, represented by the American Federation of Teachers Local 1600, are currently in discussion with the City Colleges of Chicago on a tentative agreement that the union administration hopes will be concluded as early as this weekend.

But a group of teachers against the agreement, including Hector Reyes, a science professor at Harold Washington College, say it is too coincidental that there is a push for them to agree to a new contract this weekend when theirs does not expire until 2013. The tentative agreement has striking similarities to the one being rejected by the CTU, said Reyes.

The sticking points are issues of merit pay, removal of “steps and lanes” that would help teachers earn increased pay as they gain seniority and a proposed pay raise that teachers argue is a “pittance,” said Reyes. Some of the central issues in the collective bargaining discussions with the CTU are wage increases tied to student performance that will be determined by standardized testing as well as curbing “steps and lanes.”

“Its pure propaganda,” said Reyes. “It’s valuable for the mayor to claim ‘See, it’s not like the CTU has been saying, look at how quickly I made a deal with these other reasonable teachers.'”

The city college teachers and the CTU share another similarity – they teach primarily the same students. Roughly 82 percent of the students in CPS receive free lunches, meaning they are below the poverty line, and then go on to make up the majority of students at the City Colleges of Chicago. Faculty in both places has similar complaints about their working conditions and administration – overly large administrative salaries for those at the top, classrooms with too many students and not enough resources.

In a recent report on the City Colleges, NBC tallied its realities: “The $659 million budget for City Colleges this year shows a 300-percent increase in money allotted for travel, a newly created Central Office department with a budget totaling just nearly $7 million, almost all of that for salaries, according to the FY2013 budget and a teaching staff made up largely with adjunct or part-time professors.” In addition, the district administration has pioneered a “Plan for Reinvention,” which will include bringing in a more vocational curriculum and the much-maligned Central Office

Decisive Weekend

The City College professors were only given details of the tentative agreement early last week, said Reyes, and by Tuesday many had not yet received their paper ballot in the mail. He told Truthout that this didn’t allow many members enough time to fully consider the impact of being rushed into the contract.

The union’s administration recommended a “yes” vote on the contract. Caitlyn Rowney, director of communications for Local 1600, said she was unable to discuss the details of the tentative agreement. However, she said, “we are thrilled with the contract. We think it’s a great agreement for members of the union.”

The text of the tentative agreement is not the exact language that will be voted on, but the key issues are:

  • There will no longer be a pay rate that goes along with the degree of academic achievement of the educators, a process known as “steps.” The tentative agreement would remove “steps” entirely in the second year of the contract. Critics argue this will also remove seniority rights.
  • Instead, teachers will get an increase in their base pay through a cost of living allowance (COLA) worth 2.5 percent a year as well as the opportunity to earn merit pay depending on how students perform. The merit pay increase of a potential 1 percent bonus would, however, only be based on student performances in one particular year and not carry on to the next year.

Merit pay issues based on student performance hit those against the contract particularly hard.

Sheldon Liebman, chair of the humanities at Wright College, sees the community college system as providing a service that can’t be quantified. “The City Colleges provide a very useful service for students in the city by giving them, the graduates of a lousy public school system, one of the worst in the country, what is really a last chance for many of them.”

In addition, said Liebman, not all students come with the intention of graduating. “Community colleges have multiple functions. People might be coming in to brush up on several skills, or because they are intellectually curious, not always to graduate with a degree.”

Reyes said the contract is being forced through on pain of a worse agreement for City College teachers.

“The bogeyman is that we could get an even worse contract,” said Reyes. “They are hoping that people will feel scared by that, but for the most part we have encountered people willing to fight for a better contract.”

Both the Harold Washington Chapter and the Wright College Faculty Committee, two of the seven campuses of the City Colleges in Chicago, have come out urging their members to vote “no” on the agreement.

In addition to being against the tentative agreement as it stands, the Wright College Faculty Committee also noted that some essential issues were not on the table at all: “The proposed changes do not address issues of class size, academic freedom, shared governance, ranking promotion or a commitment to hire full-time faculty. We are disappointed that we have not been provided with a comprehensive contract draft. We are disappointed that we are not allotted sufficient time to review an agreement that will affect our students and us five more years. Given the unresolved issues, we recommend a NO vote.”

The CTU’s negotiations have had similar roadblocks over issues that the union argues are essential to the negotiations, but are not officially on the table – large class sizes, lack of arts programs and school closures.

“Most of us [teachers] are less interested in the bread and butter issues then classroom issues. We’d like to build up the quality of the program,” said Liebman.

This is not the first time the full-time City College professors (adjuncts are represented by a different union) with Local 1600 have disagreed with their contract. In October 2004, the union went on strike, with workload issues being a central disagreement.

An anonymous blogger who has been vocal on the City Colleges contract fight noted the differences between then and now:

“When Local 1600 went on strike back in 2004, a significant factor propelling the strike was that the old, corrupt leadership of the CTU refused to fight back, rolled over and sacrificed their members in their contract negotiations the year before. The onus was placed then on 1600 to hold the line, which they did then despite numerous shortcomings. Roll the film forward to 2012. Now CTU has a leadership and a membership ready to fight. The same types of disgusting concessions are being demanded from both unions. The best chance they stand to win this fight is by joining together, shoulder to shoulder. There is no good reason why Local 1600 should be voting on a new contract ahead of the outcome of the CTU contract fight. Particularly because it’s current contract doesn’t expire for another 10 months. A victory by CTU, will only make it harder for Emanuel to impose onerous concessions on1600.”

How will the vote go this coming weekend?

Reyes said he has “high hopes that we have a very strong chance of defeating this horrible contract.” Liebman said he didn’t know how it will go, but he is slightly inclined to think it will pass.

Until then, the Local 1600’s solidarity options are the same as any other union supporter’s, said Eric Fink, a labor lawyer and professor. “They can essentially do what any other union supporter can do when they are not at work – join the picket line.”