Chicago on Strike!

This morning, 25,000 Chicago Public Schools teachers headed to the picket lines, as the Chicago Teachers Union declared a strike after failing to reach a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement with leaders of the nation’s third-largest public school district.

According to media reports, CPS negotiators have offered 20 proposals to union officials.  Agreement seemed to be reached on a 16-percent pay raise for teachers, while disagreement remained over teachers’ share of health care costs and an evaluation system that would include measures of teacher effectiveness.
CPS is now enacting contingency plans for district operations.  The city’s 118 public charter schools, though, will remain open, with teachers and students continuing the learning process that only began a week or so ago.
Today’s actions has dear ol’ Eduflack reflecting on March of 1990, when public school teachers in the State of West Virginia went on a statewide strike (80 percent of counties participated).  For two weeks, edu-Mom walked the picket lines with virtually all of her fellow teachers.  Then, the strike was over pay, with Mountaineer teachers being paid among the lowest salaries in the nation for public school educators.  Following legislative and legal interventions, the strike ended after two weeks.  Then-Gov. Gaston Caperton agreed to boost teacher pay, moving West Virginia into the center of the pack for teacher salaries.  The move transformed Caperton into the “education governor” and moved West Virginia away from competing with Mississippi for the worst teacher pay in the nation.
What was particularly interesting about that West Virginia strike was the enormous support that teachers had from citizens across the state, particularly in that first week.  Visiting my mother and her colleagues on the picket lines, I saw parents and non-parents honk in support, drop off food and drinks for the picketing teachers, and generally check in to see how the teachers were doing.  It energized the teachers on the lines, and showed the media and the politicians that there was strong public will for this exercise of their labor rights.
As the West Virginia strike headed in double-digit days, though, that public support started to wane.  Parents didn’t know what to do with their kids, and couldn’t afford to continue to take days off of work or pay for babysitters.  Public will started to shift, as local school districts filed lawsuits to get teachers back in the classroom.  After 12 days,  teachers returned to work with a pledge from the governor and legislature for better pay and better respect.
Then, it was a simple narrative.  West Virginia teachers wanted to be paid fairly.  In a state with a strong union history and a respect for public education, the strike made sense.  Pay our teachers better than 48th or 49th in the country.  After all, we all understand what it means to be underpaid and under-respected.
The Chicago experience, though, is a little more complicated.  Currently, Chicago has an unemployment rate of 10.5 percent.  According to CBS Chicago and other sources, the average Chicago school teacher is making more than $70,000 per year, while the average Chicago worker is making slightly more than $30,000 per annum.  So a 16-percent raise seems more than reasonable, and seems to be a pay increase both sides have already agreed to.
If the strike is over a teacher’s share of health care benefits, most American workers are seeing their personal health insurance costs increase.  Gone are the days when healthcare is covered 100-percent by the employer.  As costs rise, workers across the nation fortunate enough to have coverage are paying more for it.
And if the strike is over evaluation, it becomes more and more challenging to secure a 16-percent raise in tough economic times, and then say one doesn’t believe in greater accountability for those educators serving in the system and demanding those raises.
Yes, it is a complicated narrative that CTU is trying to sell.  If the media reports are correct, this is no longer about salaries and paying teachers fairly.  Instead, it is whether teachers should be treated like other professionals, bearing additional healthcare costs and being held to a greater level of accountability than in years past.  That is a narrative that is going to be very difficult to sell to Chicago families, many of whom are experiencing unemployment, reduced benefits, frozen pay, and other financial challenges.
Of course, the strike isn’t just about the salaries and benefits being negotiated as part of the a new CBA.  No, the CTU is using this strike to speak out against the needed reforms being pushed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his administration.  Since becoming mayor, Emanuel has embarked on a bold reform agenda.  He extended the school day (ridiculously, Chicago had one of the shortest school days in the nation).  He established specific efforts to drive improvement in schools across the city.  He sought to reward teachers willing to hold themselves to greater levels of accountability than the CBA called for.  And he did all that facing a sizable budget deficit in a district with needs growing by the day.
Last night, Mayor Emanuel said, “The kids of Chicago belong in the classroom.”  He is absolutely correct.  While some defenders of the status quo may take issue with the sentiment or see it as some sort of punchline to a reformer joke, the ones most hurt by this strike are the kids.  The kids are losing out on instructional days.  The kids are now being shuttled around as part of “contingency plans.”  After just returning to school, the kids are being denied their rights to a public education.
As Emanuel continued, “This is totally unnecessary.  It’s avoidable and our kids don’t deserve this … This is a strike of choice.”
The mayor is correct.  Here’s hoping that both sides figure out how to choose to end this strike quickly, and get our kids back in the classroom.
UPDATE: To further complicate the narrative here, CTU has now released a one-pager articulating what they are looking for from Chicago Public Schools.  The challenge?  Can one really address “educate the whole child,” “address inequities in our system,” “teach all children,” “partner with parents,” and “fully fund education” as part of a collective bargaining agreement intended to focus on salary, benefits, and working conditions of the adults in the system?

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