Chicago Teachers Union Takes the Upper Hand with Overwhelming Strike Vote

Kari Lydersen

The debate between teachers, parents and Mayor Rahm Emanuel continues over how many hours Chicago Public Schools students should be spending in the classroom. Those opposed to a longer school day cite the heat of many non-air conditioned buildings and the notion that Chicago schools’ issues go much deeper than the number of hours in class. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

The Chica­go Teach­ers Union lost an impor­tant skir­mish with May­or Rahm Emanuel last year when the state leg­is­la­ture passed Emanuel-backed leg­is­la­tion requir­ing a 75 per­cent vote to autho­rize a strike – a high num­ber seen as a blow for teach­ers unions in Illinois.

But the attack appar­ent­ly helped ener­gize and mobi­lize the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU), as a whop­ping 89 per­cent of teach­ers vot­ed on June 11 to autho­rize a strike come fall (actu­al­ly late sum­mer) as high­ly con­tentious con­tract nego­ti­a­tions stretch on. Chica­go teach­ers last went on strike in 1987.

Emanuel acknowl­edged the over­whelm­ing vote but tried to min­i­mize its sig­nif­i­cance by ask­ing the pub­lic and media to focus on oth­er num­bers – the increased hours he wants kids in school. Teach­ers have repeat­ed­ly said they are not against a longer school day or school year, but demand appro­pri­ate pay rais­es in return. Emanuel rescind­ed a con­trac­tu­al­ly oblig­at­ed 4 per­cent raise for teach­ers dur­ing his first year in office, and now his admin­is­tra­tion is propos­ing a con­tract with a 2 per­cent raise while length­en­ing the work day from sev­en hours to sev­en hours and 40 minutes.

Many par­ents have pushed for a com­pro­mise, with more time in school but not as much as Emanuel and Chica­go Pub­lic Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard are demand­ing. Crit­ics of the longer day cite oppres­sive heat in many non-air con­di­tioned build­ings, oth­er demands on stu­dents’ time and the inescapable fact that Chica­go schools’ prob­lems go much deep­er than the num­ber of hours in class.

At five hours and 45 min­utes, Chica­go stu­dents have one of the nation’s short­est days. But teach­ers say the actu­al amount of instruc­tion in Chica­go schools is on par with oth­er schools nation­wide. There is no easy fix for the sys­tem­at­ic eco­nom­ic and social prob­lems that impact Chica­go stu­dents, but more resources and small­er class sizes would like­ly do more than extend­ed days to improve stu­dent engage­ment and performance.

The union says the administration’s con­tract pro­pos­al will result in larg­er class sizes. Jack­son Pot­ter blogged on the union website:

Like Repub­li­can can­di­date Mitt Rom­ney, they make the argu­ment that class size doesn’t matter…The Board has reserved the right to change class size pol­i­cy at any time and mere­ly noti­fy the union and it has elim­i­nat­ed any fund­ing of posi­tions to low­er class size in the dis­trict; the pre­vi­ous con­tract com­mit­ted $2.25 mil­lion to low­er class sizes. These changes will con­crete­ly increase our class sizes through­out the dis­trict, even though many kinder­garten and pri­ma­ry grade class­rooms through­out the city have class sizes that approach 50 stu­dents in a room.

The union blasts the administration’s pro­pos­al for increas­ing the focus on stan­dard­ized test-based stu­dent per­for­mance in eval­u­at­ing teach­ers, includ­ing an empha­sis on mer­it pay.” Nation­wide, teach­ers have long com­plained that eval­u­at­ing their per­for­mance based heav­i­ly on stan­dard­ized test­ing is unfair to ded­i­cat­ed teach­ers in under-fund­ed, low-income and immi­grant-heavy schools and curbs their abil­i­ty to teach creatively.

Pot­ter sum­ma­rizes oth­er rea­sons the union oppos­es the administration’s pro­pos­al: elim­i­nat­ing teach­ers’ abil­i­ty to bank sick days, increas­ing health insur­ance costs and requir­ing teach­ers to work 10-hour-days dur­ing report card pickup.

In the wake of the strike vote Emanuel also tout­ed the fact that 60.6 per­cent of Chica­go Pub­lic Schools stu­dents who were fresh­men four years ago grad­u­at­ed this year – the high­est rate since at least 1999. But the insin­u­a­tion that this improve­ment is because of mea­sures pushed by his admin­is­tra­tion comes off as disin­gen­u­ous when one con­sid­ers that these mea­sures have only been rolled out in recent months and not in all schools.

Emanuel said the strike vote does not affect ongo­ing con­tract nego­ti­a­tions with the teach­ers union, but the union has not­ed that tak­ing the vote sev­er­al months before they might strike was meant to pro­vide lever­age in the nego­ti­a­tions and allow 1,500 retir­ing teach­ers to vote. With more than 25,000 union­ized teach­ers, CPS is the third-largest school dis­trict in the coun­try and the CTU is the largest mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teachers.

Emanuel has por­trayed teach­ers as putting their inter­ests before stu­dents’ well-being, and pro­fessed his ded­i­ca­tion to Chica­go stu­dents – fram­ing his bat­tle with the teach­ers as a fight for oppor­tu­ni­ty and equal­i­ty for low-income stu­dents. But many par­ents and stu­dents have spo­ken out in sup­port of teach­ers, who often already put in many unpaid hours and often spent mon­ey out of their own pock­ets to buy supplies.

There has been much intrigue around efforts to gen­er­ate com­mu­ni­ty sup­port (or the appear­ance of it) for the Emanuel administration’s reform poli­cies, includ­ing rev­e­la­tions last year that polit­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed min­is­ters had paid church mem­bers to show up at com­mu­ni­ty meet­ings in sup­port of admin­is­tra­tion pro­pos­als to close so-called fail­ing schools. Around the strike vote, many par­ents received robo­calls attack­ing the teach­ers’ deci­sion to hold an ear­ly strike vote. The calls and oth­er efforts against the teach­ers have been linked to nation­al astro­turf edu­ca­tion reform” groups also active in Cal­i­for­nia and oth­er states where pub­lic sec­tor unions have squared off with city and state officials.

Mean­while, it turns out that Oba­ma strate­gist David Axelrod’s for­mer pub­lic rela­tions firm AKPD Media and Mes­sag­ing is behind ads attack­ing the teach­ers union. Long-time pro­gres­sive school reformer and small schools advo­cate Mike Klon­sky not­ed in a blog post about this rev­e­la­tion that Emanuel seems hell-bent on destroy­ing the city’s pub­lic employ­ee unions.” Klon­sky also ques­tioned the moti­va­tions of Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers pres­i­dent Ran­di Wein­garten shar­ing the podi­um with Emanuel in sup­port of his mas­sive new infra­struc­ture plan – with a heavy focus on pri­va­ti­za­tion – just weeks after she marched with Chica­go teach­ers call­ing for a strike vote. (The infra­struc­ture plan’s mar­ket­ing is spear­head­ed by anoth­er of Axelrod’s for­mer out­fits, ASGK Pub­lic Strategies.)

Chica­go Sun-Times colum­nist – and for­mer teacher – Car­ol Marin not­ed:

Teach­ers in this town have been demo­nized, demor­al­ized, and dis­re­spect­ed. No pro­fes­sion is beyond crit­i­cism and no pub­lic school sys­tem is with­out sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems. But tak­ing a sledge­ham­mer approach to CPS teach­ers and their union has back­fired on the Emanuel admin­is­tra­tion and his schools CEO, Jean-Claude Brizard. And all the radio ads and robo calls fund­ed by out of town, union-bust­ing bil­lion­aires doesn’t alter that fact.

While longer days and clos­ing schools are the promi­nent issues in Emanuel’s bat­tle with union teach­ers, the con­flict has much deep­er sig­nif­i­cance in terms of ongo­ing bat­tles for the future of pub­lic employ­ees unions. And while Emanuel and oth­ers who fig­ure into the administration’s plans are con­sid­ered far to the left of Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er, the bat­tle promis­es to con­tin­ue near­ly as polar­ized and hard-fought. Stay tuned.

Kari Lyder­sen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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