Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm to talk about a possible teachers' strike, pensions, longer school days and school reform.

Chicago Tonight spoke with Jessica Marshall, a high school social studies teacher at a Chicago Public School. She is also a two-year member of CTU. We asked for her take on contract negotiations between CTU and CPS. Read our Q&A below.

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What are some of the main concerns you have with the current contract?

The first thing that worries me isn’t the actual words in the contract. It’s how it’s being approached. Of course we are concerned our school day and school year are going to be longer. But it feels disrespectful with the assumption that "this is what needs to happen" without asking how it’s going to benefit the kids and also the teachers, and how the time is going to be spent.

It’s not like teachers just work 8 to 4. I’m a high school teacher. They are adding 40 minutes to the school day, but it’s not clear the number of classes I have to teach. When I go home, I have an extra 40 minutes to plan for, write lessons for. Something has to give somewhere as far as time. It could be less time that I have to give feedback to students on their essays or one less parent that I’m calling. But whatever the contract ends up being, my interest is in being a good teacher. Things are happening without talking to us and asking us.

What does having a contract in place mean to teachers?

A contract gives us more security. If you have a principal that treats you poorly, what do you do? I’m not a tenured teacher, but even then, there’s no security. A contract is a way to help protect us. I was a special education teacher before I became a history teacher and there were lots of problems. If the school or principal doesn’t provide the resources for these kids, you have to speak up for the kids. But where does that leave you without protection?

Are teachers planning to strike if their needs aren’t met?

I hope not. Personally, I don’t want a strike, I don’t think anybody does. I think a lot of schools are expressing willingness to go on strike if they need to. It’s a commitment for their whole family and a last resort kind of move. I grew up in CPS as a student and I remember my teachers going on strike. We don’t want to, but I feel like if it’s the only way that they’re going to listen to us, then we may have to.

Has there been any interaction between teachers and CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard?

Yesterday, there was a tele-town hall we had for the first time where they invited teachers to talk to Mr. Brizard. He has never reached out or asked us anything. It’s not genuine. They have teacher projects or teacher programs they [CPS] have started to get teacher input, but they don’t ask everyday teachers what we think.

What are your thoughts about Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s involvement with CPS and education in Chicago?

Rahm’s motivation from day one was, “education is going to be my issue, I’m going to do what I need to do.” I found him to be pretty offensive because he says he cares about kids and he’s looking out for them. And every morning, I get up and go to work every day, because I love my students and I love my job. And I just think that not having that classroom experience and telling teachers that…he came in with a pretty arrogant, anti-teacher attitude from day one. Maybe now he will start to back off. Even Daley came out and said, “maybe you need to rethink this.”

What are your thoughts on pensions for teachers?

I think a lot of people don’t realize that we don’t get social security at all. Pension is the only retirement thing we have outside of individual savings and plans. So it matters to us. I’m a younger teacher, I’m 32, but of course I think about my retirement. I feel really bad for a lot of teachers who are getting out of the system now because they are afraid about their pensions.

I have friends who work in the corporate world who get a bonus at the end of the year or they have a Roth IRA, and it’s built into their compensation package.

We pay into our pension and we contribute, so to say that we are just mooching off taxpayers and that we just want to collect a big fat pension isn’t the case. We work for it; it’s part of our compensation package, and we contribute to it and pay into it. We should make sure that everyone has some type of retirement plan or security.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I’ve heard a lot of people say that the union leadership is somehow leading teachers down this path. It’s important to point out that while there are other teacher groups, we voted for this leadership and we participate in our unions. It’s the only Democratic way to work with our union and our teachers. Its frustrating because I read in the media about how the union controls the teachers. But we voted for the leadership. Of course, within the union and in any group, there will be difference of opinions. But it’s undemocratic for them to set up alternate teacher groups and ask their opinion without talking to us.

The union is still the largest group and it’s just passed over. They represent us and I expect that the mayor and Brizard talk to them. They should respect that we have the CTU union. It is our bargaining representative. It’s not like teachers are sitting in a room saying this leadership is bad. You choose if you want to fill out the card. You can choose if you want to participate, vote etc. We meet and talk about stuff in school. We talk about the contract, about news in the education world. It’s useful. We talk and meet with the principal. It works.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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