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Internal Disputes Complicate Chicago Union Delegates' Vote

If there is such a thing as karma, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis is probably feeling it right about now.

When her Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) won the leadership of the CTU in 2010, it was largely for portraying the current leadership as being too cozy with then-Mayor Daly's reform plans. CORE has since made restoring rank-and-file teachers' voices, contesting standardized testing, and holding back efforts to close or shake up schools part of its platform. Those principles have also guided CTU's approach to the negotiations that resulted in the teachers' strike.

But now Lewis is apparently being accused by some within her own caucus as too willing to compromise over the shape of a new contract, according to reports from the Chicago Tribune.

The newspaper reports that, fairly or unfairly, some delegates simply think that the union has not gotten enough concessions regarding job security, school closure prevention, or new staff hiring, in the proposed agreement. That's even as news reports generally view the CTU as having gotten a lot of what it wanted in the framework.

The delay, meanwhile, is putting the union in a delicate position with parents. A majority supported the strike last week, but it's unclear if that will continue as parents struggle to make arrangements for their children.

It all comes down to a vote today at 3 p.m. CT, when CTU delegates will decide whether to continue the strike, an action that will probably also dictate whether the arrangement goes back to the bargaining table. (A district court will decide on Wednesday on a lawsuit supported by Mayor Rahm Emanuel seeking to order teachers back to their jobs.)

If you're looking for a national parallel to all this, you need look no further than the CTU's relationship with the American Federation of Teachers. Lewis' emergence in Chicago caused great excitement among AFT critics, many on the far left, who viewed her as an antidote to what they saw as too many AFT compromises on issues like evaluation and seniority by leaders in locals such as Cleveland and New Haven, Conn. AFT President Randi Weingarten had praised, and in some places helped broker, those deals.

As I reported this summer, the CTU's new tone helps to explain some of AFT's own back-and-forth positions on issues like test scores in teacher evaluation.

Weingarten was visible last week during the strike, speaking at a solidarity rally in support of the CTU. But she's otherwise been working behind the scenes, according to one AFT source.

"Randi has a wealth of experience negotiating big-city contracts and has offered her thoughts, wisdom, and expertise," the source said. "What you have here are years of frustration from more senior teachers. ... Getting them to focus on the substance of what was negotiated, rather than that frustration, is really important—but difficult."

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