When I first started teaching in Chicago, I was skeptical about being a member of the Chicago Teachers Union. I was a hotshot rookie teacher who looked at the “step-and-lane” system of pay as archaic. When I saw then-Harlem Children’s Zone CEO Geoffrey Canada tell Oprah Winfrey that teachers unions were the greatest impediment to school success, I began to further question my union’s purpose and my allegiance to it. If someone had told me during those first few years that I could’ve skipped paying my dues and opted out of the union, as may likely be the outcome of the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court case, I probably would have. Boy, I would have been sorry. (The Janus case is about whether public-sector unions should be allowed to collect fees from nonmembers who benefit from collective bargaining. )
Now, after 14 years as a Chicago Public Schools teacher and CTU member, I see this issue much differently. I began my career and my union membership during the seemingly peaceful times of Mayor Richard M. Daley. During my eighth year of teaching, Mayor Rahm Emanuel took charge of the school district.
One of the first decisions he made was to ask for a longer school year and school day without offering teachers a raise for this extra time. It was this decision, as well as feelings of mistrust and disrespect toward the mayor, that led to Chicago’s 2012 teachers strike.
I marched during that strike and reaped the benefits that the CTU won for me and my colleagues. What I found in my union was the call for social justice that I wasn’t hearing from CPS. Not only did CTU leaders fight for teachers’ salaries and benefits, the union did not back away from addressing educational conditions not conducive for students’ learning — overcrowded classrooms, aged textbooks, outdated technology, and the lack of supportive services, such as school librarians, counselors, psychiatrists and nurses.
I am grateful that I have a union to defend my salary, my working conditions, my position and my students’ educational conditions. What Mark Janus, a child support specialist for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, who is not a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has championed Janus’ fight in Washington, are ignoring is that their workplace experience as white men doesn’t equate to that of women or people of color.
In 2017, CNN Money noted that women in the workplace ask for raises as frequently as men, but they are 25 percent less likely to get them. In 2001, Bloomberg reported that African-American workers saw slower growth compared with whites in every wage bracket. The wage gap between Latinos and whites is large as well, with Latina women earning 54 cents for every dollar a white man makes.
In the world of unions, however, fairness in salary exists. A teacher with as much experience and education as I have acquired earns as much as I do, regardless of his or her gender, race, ethnicity, creed or political affiliation. Though I think financial sweeteners should be made to the salary schedule to raise the value of teacher leadership positions, I now value union negotiations in ways that I didn’t in my first few years of teaching.
I see the impact a strong union can have on its workers and the people they serve — in my case, the students of Chicago Public Schools. Last fall, Stanford University professor Sean Reardon reported that during the school years of 2009 through 2014, Chicago students’ elementary standardized test scores showed six grades of growth in five years of schooling. During those same years, I worked for five different CEOs; the last was Barbara Byrd-Bennett who is now in prison.The one constant for CPS teachers is the CTU.
Teachers elected Karen Lewis as CTU president, along with her slate in 2010, and we haven’t had a leadership change since.
Teachers in Kentucky and Oklahoma are on strike for fair wages and more educational funding for students. Just last month, with the recent successful teachers strike in West Virginia, we witnessed one of the greatest examples of the effects of ending mandatory fair share fees. Unions in West Virginia don’t have mandatory fees or even formal collective bargaining rights. These are two reasons why the state’s average teacher salary is one of the lowest in the country at $45,622. West Virginia teachers statewide banded together and won a 5 percent raise.
People need to understand the moral and ethical reasons for staying in a union, as well as the behind-the-scenes work a union does.
I know that because my union fees are mandatory, the Chicago Teachers Union is able to function at an effective level, just as I can professionally because it has my back.
Gina Caneva is a 14-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and Writing Center director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy.
This editorial first appeared in the Chicago Tribune.