These days haven’t been all that heady for the Chicago Teachers Union. With the Second City’s cash-strapped traditional district demanding a seven percent pay decrease for teachers as part of a new contract, the AFT affiliate may pay an even higher price for backing the unsuccessful candidacy of Cook County Councilman Jesus (Chuy) Garcia over Mayor Rahm Emanuel (as well as the union boss Karen Lewis’ four-year-long effort to halt systemic reform). With Emanuel essentially guaranteed the top job for as long as he chooses, Lewis must figure out whether to moderate the union’s militancy (at a cost of losing support from the hardcore traditionalists that put her in office) or adopt an even harder edge.

wpid-threethoughslogoBut don’t think CTU has no weapons for a long fight with Emanuel at its disposal. It has plenty. One of the little-noticed of them is its eponymous foundation, which has morphed from a barely-funded affiliate that doled out scholarships to a key backer of the union’s allies.

The Chicago Teachers Union Foundation doled out $1 million in grants in 2013-2014, according to its filing with the Internal Revenue Service. That’s 12,661 times greater than the $80 in grants it handed out in the previous fiscal year. This is thanks to $1.3 million in investment income in 2013-2014, an increase from the zero dollars it had generated a year earlier.

The foundation’s grantees include many of the Chicago AFT local’s key allies in its efforts against the school reform efforts championed by Emanuel and predecessor Richard M. Daley. Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, the progressive outfit which also received $60,000 from the national AFT in 2013-2014, received a $30,000 grant from CTU Foundation last fiscal year. Pilsen Alliance, another group who has been a loud and vocal backer of CTU’s opposition to Emanuel’s regime, also received $30,000 from the union’s foundation. CTU Foundation handed out a $30,000 to Action Now Institute, an education advocacy outfit which has been active in the parent union’s protest marches; last week, Action Now joined together with CTU, Pilsen, Kenwood Oakland, and a branch of the influential Amalgamated Transit Workers Union to protest the district’s proposed contract terms.

Much of the money given out by CTU Foundation is going to the Second City’s neighborhood associations, nearly all of whom are membership-based (and therefore, unlike your typical homeowner’s association, not necessarily representative of everyone in those communities). This includes Brighton Park Neighborhood Association, which participated alongside CTU and its other vassals in last week’s protest; it collected $30,000 from the union’s foundation last fiscal year. Another neighborhood group, Blocks Together Chicago based out of the Humboldt Park neighborhood, received $20,000 last year, as did Enlace Chicago, which is based on the mostly-Latino Little Villages Neighborhood.

A big winner: Southwest Organizing Project, which is based in the Second City’s southwest side communities. CTU Foundation gave it a direct grant of $20,000, while giving $50,000 to its Grow Your Own Teachers initiative. The latter program, part of an effort in Illinois to help communities to help parents and other non-traditional types get into classroom teaching, is certainly admirable. But let’s remember that it can also help CTU gain new activists within its rank-and-file.

But CTU Foundation’s giving extends beyond those small groups. Raise Your Hands for Illinois, which is pushing against the use of standardized testing and student test score growth data used in teacher evaluations the union opposes, picked up $20,000 from the foundation last fiscal year. Illinois Justice Foundation, which funds progressive efforts, also collected $20,000 from the foundation last year. And the Network for Public Education, the outfit headed up by once-respectable education historian (and Lewis pal) Diane Ravitch, picked up a $20,000 grant.

CTU Foundation’s more-activist giving is a 180-degree change from past years. Long-dedicated to handing out scholarships to children of CTU’s rank-and-file — it gave out $13,000 of them last year (or little more than the $12,000 ladled out in 2012-2013) — the foundation became a key arm of the union’s political efforts two years ago. Under Lewis, who presides over its board, the philanthropy sold some of its real estate for $12.7 million, then began redirecting those proceeds toward the union’s favored few.

Considering that many neighborhood associations and small nonprofits lack the financial wherewithal (even such resources as printers, copying machines, and conference space) to hold meetings and conduct business — and that reformers often fail to extend their considerable resources to help them — the grants from CTU Foundation (along with the other help provided by CTU itself) are more than enough to win them over to the union’s cause. Little wonder why CTU has managed to portray itself as some sort of grassroots outfit even when information (including April’s mayoral election runoff results) say otherwise.

CTU Foundation’s political in all but name spending may work in the union’s favor, so long as it doesn’t run afoul of the federal tax man. After all, the Internal Revenue Code (along with private letter rulings and other IRS decisions) prohibit philanthropies affiliated with organizations from funding activities that provide more than an incidental benefit to parent organizations. Given the strong ties between CTU and the outfits funded by the union’s foundation (and the even closer ties between Lewis and Ravitch), you can easily argue that the union is getting more than an incidental benefit from the spending.For reformers in Chicago, as well as compatriots in the rest of the nation, the spending activities of the CTU Foundation show that it makes good sense to take a look at how foundations affiliated with AFT and NEA affiliates (as well as those of the parent unions) are using what are supposed to be public benefit dollars for what could be their own private purposes beyond just a little publicity.