In the last few months, Illinois teachers have been under the same corporate assault faced by teachers in surrounding states. Resistance to this assault was most pronounced in Wisconsin, where public sector workers are still battling Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to take away their collective bargaining rights. In nearby Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan, a resurgent right-wing organized under the Republican Party has assaulted labor directly and provoked a grassroots response from rank-and-file workers.
Here in Illinois, where Democrats control the governorship and state houses, the attack against teachers has been more subtle. As in Wisconsin, right-wing political organizations backed by big money – Advance Illinois and Stand for Children – also tried to take away the collective bargaining rights of teachers. But the teacher organizations worked together to stave off the attack. In January, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), Illinois Education Association (IEA), and the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) worked together to kill the union-busting bill, the Performance Counts Act. However, leaders of the statewide teacher unions were told by Democratic Party politicians immediately after that an alternative bill would have to be worked out, drafted with collaboration between the union leaderships and the moneyed interests. The result of these negotiations at the top was SB 7.
SB 7 was a compromise between the teacher unions and the out-of-state billionaire-backed organizations. With SB 7, the unions accepted major concessions, while preserving collective bargaining rights and winning language that establishes portability of tenure and other similar gains. The bill was negotiated by Democratic State Senator Karen Lightfoot and was initially supported by all three teacher union leaderships. The corporate reformers also promoted its passage, celebrating its erosion of seniority tenure rights.
While there are some positive aspects to the bill, most notably the portability of tenure between districts, SB 7 is a defeat for teachers. It establishes teacher “performance” over seniority as the most salient factor in who to keep during layoffs. To rate performance, student test scores will be used, a practice that is well-known to be faulty. It could lead to arbitrary managerial favoritism. Even worse, Chicago teachers were singled out by language that weakens significantly the right to strike. As reported by Labor Notes, SB 7 amounts to a significant attack on union teachers:
Make it virtually impossible for Chicago teachers to strike. A yes vote by 75 percent of the bargaining unit would be required—not just 75 percent of those voting, but 75 percent of all covered employees. By contrast, Illinois teachers outside of Chicago would retain the traditional standard for strike authorization, a simply majority of those voting. Strike decisions would also face mandatory delays adding up to at least six months to the wait time. Weaken seniority by having layoffs and re-hires based first on performance evaluations and other teacher qualifications. Years of service would apply only when other factors are considered equal. The effect is to give management greater leeway to select which workers they want. Remove bargaining disputes for Chicago teachers from the jurisdiction of the Illinois education labor board. This move would prevent CTU from filing unfair labor practice charges, and strips state authority from mediators and factfinders. “They’ve written the remedies out of the law for any refusal to bargain,” explains CTU attorney Robert Bloch. Establish a four-year probation for new teachers, instead of the current two years. Teachers would have to pass performance evaluations that could be tied to student test scores, a standard that has been widely criticized by educational researchers.
Whereas in Wisconsin the corporate assault threatens the very existence of the unions as organizations, teachers in Illinois face a more gradual attack, a “death by a thousands cuts”. Many teachers and union leaders understandably felt that a compromise was necessary given the alternative of a much worse defeat. But we should admit that this was nevertheless a defeat, a reality that was glossed over by the top leaderships of both the IEA and IFT.
Eventually, due to SB 7’s problems, the CTU would withdraw its support from the legislation. CTU negotiators were given 15 minutes to agree to the bill and some of the details, particularly those governing the right to strike, were not made clear.
That SB 7 is the best we could do in the face of corporate assault is testimony to the weakness of our unions in mobilizing its members and the larger community in defense of teachers and public education. Top unions leaders promote exclusively a strategy of lobbying Democratic Party politicians who answer to corporate lobbyists as well. Others, including the new vibrant leadership of the CTU, argue that we should build grassroots organizing of the rank-and-file and community allies, a movement in the streets typified by the continuing Wisconsin teacher revolt.
No sooner than the ink was dry on SB 7, the Illinois teacher unions had to fight off an attack on state pensions. In Illinois, public sector workers do not pay into social security but are instead covered by a state pension for retirement needs. Facing a budget crisis in Illinois as a result of the bank-induced Great Recession, corporate interests and business-backed politicians are now looking to balance the budget on the backs of its workers. With current proposals to reform the state pension system, teachers and other public sector workers would see a severe erosion in pension benefits and/or massive pay cuts. Worse, there is a chance that proposed changes could result in the dismantling of the state pension system in Illinois. (See Just BloNo Editorial Report, Teachers Fight Attacks On Pensions.)
As of the weekend of May 21-22, the teacher unions have organized an effort by members to lobby politicians, by telephone and email, to insist that the state pensions be adequately funded and benefits maintained at current levels. According to sources in the IEA, the outpouring of teacher input has resulted in a delay of a potential bill’s consideration. Teacher outcry against the attack has resulted in grassroots action. A recent meeting on the pension issue brought 125 area teachers to the IEA headquarters in Bloomington, where teachers were encouraged by incoming IEA president Cindy Klickna to organize among their peers in the workplace.
Resources for lobbying by phone and email can be found at the IEA website. Just BloNo will continuing its reporting on this issue in the weeks to come.