Disruptive strike finally is over
Both sides often lose in a strike. But Chicago teachers won hands down.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel likes to think of himself as a tough guy, and that's one reason he revels in his nicknames as "the Rahmfather" or "Rahmbo."
But there's tough, and then there's really tough. The Chicago Teachers Union — militant, organized and used to getting its own way — showed Emanuel a thing or two in its seven-day strike that won much of what the union wanted from the tough-talking Emanuel.
The union not only figured out a way around a new state law drafted specifically to forestall a Chicago teachers' strike, but succeeded in watering down new statewide requirements designed to toughen teacher evaluation rules and get poor-performing teachers out of the classroom.
The mayor, of course, formally declared victory Tuesday.
"In past negotiations, taxpayers paid more, but our kids got less. This time, our taxpayers are paying less, and our kids are getting more," Emanuel said.
As far as platitudes go, that's first-rate. But Emanuel gave the game away when he refused to answer questions about the four-year agreement. The devil is in the details, and Emanuel didn't want to delve into the fine print.
Here's how one Chicago Tribune headline addressed a particularly tough issue.
"Mayor praises contract but won't detail how city will pay for raises."
The Chicago school district is in debt by roughly $1 billion, and now it's agreed to spend another $74 million. How can the city do that?
It can't, and that's why the Emanuel administration already has leaked stories to the news media that indicate the school board will close more than 100 schools. That, of course, raises a question routinely addressed to union leaders — how are they serving their members' interests when they negotiate salary and benefit increases that result in management having to lay off some union members to pay more to other union members.
But that's an issue for another day.
The good news is that the strike is over, and more than 350,000 schoolchildren who were held hostage by striking teachers can return to city schools. The bad news is that the city's schools aren't very good. More than 40 percent of ninth-graders don't graduate from high school. Elementary school students are behind and stay behind the academic performance of their peers elsewhere.
This agreement may help move city schools forward to some degree, but they already are so far behind that marginal improvements don't count for much. The reality is that thousands of children in Chicago do not receive the kind of education they will need to be successful in life.
Mayor Emanuel did win some gains — the school day will be increased by about an hour, but 500 new teachers will be hired to cover the extra time. Teacher evaluations will be based on student performance, but only partially. School principals can make their own decision on whom they hire rather than be forced to accept the laid-off teachers based on seniority.
For their part, teachers were successful in watering down rules for performance evaluation. They also defeated the idea of merit pay and won a substantial pay increase, more than 17 percent over four years. The increases comes in the form of extra pay for experience and advanced degrees as well as a 10 percent hike over four years.
The bottom line is that the teachers flexed their muscles and, as a result, got a far better deal than Emanuel wanted to give them. Already well-paid, they threw the city into chaos to protect their interests and gave Rahmbo a lesson in how to play hardball.