Walkout puts city up for grabs
Chicago teachers have already won at the negotiating table. But how much more will they get?
With public school teachers on strike, 350,000 children at loose ends and parents stressed by uncertainty, chaos reigns in Chicago.
And the strike has just started.
After months of negotiations, teachers walked off the job on Monday, promising to return as soon as the school district meets their demands. But management has already given away the store, offering 16 percent raises over four years to teachers who, with an average salary of more than $70,000 a year, are the highest paid in the nation.
Of course, reaction to the strike depends on your point of view.
"In showdown, signs of unions under stress," ran a headline in a recent New York Times.
From that perspective, it's the union and its members who are under assault, and it's true to some degree. Their world has changed. The economy is weak, and financial reality has hit home. Governmental entities that for decades were ripe for the pickings by public employee unions are strapped for cash.
This strike wasn't supposed to happen. State legislators passed a reform bill last year that was enthusiastically supported by legislators in both parties and intended to make it more difficult for teachers, particularly those in Chicago, to go out on strike.
Rather than accept that fiscal and political reality, Chicago's well-paid teachers have chosen to wreak havoc on the city.
There's no denying the militancy of the union members. They have been preparing for this strike for months, voting with a 90 percent majority to authorize a walkout prior to the beginning of negotiations. Some say it's become personal because of the feud between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and teachers' union President Karen Lewis.
Whatever the cause of the first teachers' strike in 25 years, the familiar refrain that teachers are on strike "for better schools," as one strike sign stated, could not be further from the truth. This strike is about what all strikes are about — money, benefits and job security for union members.
As for Chicago's schools, they have been for years and still are among the worst in the nation. More than 40 percent of ninth-graders drop out of high school before graduation. Grade-school students are dramatically behind their peers elsewhere in reading scores. Further, the city school system faces a $1 billion budget deficit.
The schools' deep-seated problems, of course, are not exclusively the fault of the teachers, many of whom are highly competent and extremely dedicated to their jobs. The problems result from decades of corruption, incompetence and political mischief in a system that members of the city's political elite avoid like the plague. It's no accident that Mayor Emanuel's children attend extremely expensive private schools.
Many Chicago parents wish they could do the same, but they cannot afford to do so. Indeed, the average Chicago family income of less than $50,000 per year is far less than what the average teacher earns.
What happens next is anyone's guess. Teachers are holding out for more money — a wholly unrealistic 19 percent in the first year alone. They also insist that job-performance evaluations not be tied in any way to the performance of their students and that laid-off teachers be recalled if a new job opens rather than allowing management to hire the best person for the job.
The school district, led by Mayor Emanuel, went into this negotiation with high hopes. District administrators hoped to introduce a longer school day, hold the line on spending, introduce the concept of merit pay and implement a toughened teacher evaluation process. Some of that has already been jettisoned by management while the rest hangs by a thread.
None of this is any good for the children who attend the city's schools, children whose lives will be permanently crippled by an inadequate education. But their status is that of a pawn in this strike against the public welfare.