Despite Optimism, Chicago Teachers Ready to Strike

David Moberg

As roughly 29,000 Chicago teachers – as well as students, parents and politicians – prepared for a potential strike on Monday, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) president Karen Lewis told reporters on Wednesday that she was very optimistic” that the walkout could be averted.

She had at least one reason to feel upbeat: The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) negotiators had just dropped their demand that the union accept a form of merit pay. Although some teacher unions across the country – including Chicago City College teachers last weekend – have agreed to merit pay, the CTU has strongly opposed pay for performance,” citing many recent studies that show such schemes yield no gains in student achievement.

It was the second time in the talks that CPS modified its demands in response to strong union opposition. Having imposed a longer school day – despite evidence from other districts that extended time does not improve student performance – the school board agreed last month to hire additional staff and reduce the planned extension in hours.

CTU has proposed a better day” alternative that emphasizes an enriched curriculum. This would include arts instruction, physical education, foreign language classes and library facilities for all students, many of whom lack access to any such enrichment items.

Despite these CPS accommodations, many big issues remain unresolved, including pay. Also, the union wants to protect teachers who are displaced – for example, that the teachers laid off when schools are closed and re-opened in a turnaround” have first crack at jobs opening elsewhere. It worries about how new evaluation procedures will be implemented. And CTU wants to keep contractual language on work rules and working conditions that CPS wants to eliminate.

The real grievances of the union and most teachers – who overwhelmingly authorized a strike – run much deeper. Teachers are angry at how the mayors of the city, especially the current offocieholders, Rahm Emanuel, and CPS administrators and board members have treated them as the source of most school problems and not respected their professional training. We’re tired of not being listened to,” said one Roosevelt high school teacher. And we’re pretty unified.”

CPS and mayoral insensitivity has stoked anger. Or, as retired teacher delegate Miriam Socoloff says, with tongue in cheek, Rahm knows how to turn out the base.”

The union and most teachers see current city policy as an attack on public education (especially with the promotion of charter schools despite their spotty record). For Chris Christianson, a 25-year veteran teacher, the central issue is privatizing public education,” and despite the limitations on how the union can address that process through negotiations, he says, The only leverage we have is a strike.” 

But a recent state education law that attempted to make it harder for Chicago teachers to strike also limited mandatory topics of bargaining to economic issues, leaving many of the key working conditions and educational issues as non-mandatory, though permissable,” bargaining subjects. 

The union, under this law, can strike only on money issues, putting teachers in a political bind: If they strike, they appear only to be interested in personal gain, not educational improvement. On Wednesday, however, the union filed unfair labor practice charges against CPS on several grounds, from intimidating union members exercising their rights to failing to follow terms of the existing contract, which guarantees teachers annual step” increases in pay to reflect gains in experience. Now any strike would be an unfair labor practice strike, and CPS could not hire permanent replacements.

Money is important, however, including a 4 percent contractual increase due last year that the financially strapped system did not pay. The union is determined to protect step increases, which CPS wants to suspend, and to win an increase pay commensurate with the roughly 20 percent increase in hours worked (as a mandatory fact-finding commission recommended in July). The CPS offer of a 2 percent annual increase for four years (to cover a rise in the cost of living) is unacceptable,” Lewis said.

CPS board president David Vitale, after joining the talks Thursday, also expressed optimism about reaching an agreement without a strike. Much as Mayor Emanuel might relish a fight with the union to show he is tough and to intimidate other public employees, he faces constraints. The teachers seem unified and have strong support, from their national union (despite some internal conflicts) and from other unions, as was exhibited by a Labor Day rally of roughly 10,000 teachers and supporters in Daley Plaza. By provoking a strike, the mayor risks public disapproval, and – as a key fundraiser now for a pro-Obama super-PAC – hurting the Obama campaign. Although the Obama administration supports most of Emanuel’s school policies, it can’t risk alienating unions in such a close election.

Yet the teachers’ resentment against what they see as high-handed treatment by Emanuel and school administrators, along with educationally misguided policies, has primed most of them for a strike. And Emanuel, who wants to be seen as a tough guy, may find it hard to back down. That could lead the now-rare phenomenon of a large-scale local strike, with national implications.

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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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