Strike Out

ChicagoTeachersStrike

While union members man the picket line, some Chicago students remain in class; the city’s charter schools aren’t taking part in the strike. (Photo credit: AP)

Chicago’s teachers are on strike, demanding fair pay and a just contract. It sounds like they don’t know what they already have—or what’s at stake.

While private enterprise has long enjoyed a “privileged position” in American society, organized labor has never been so fortunate. Surging in the early 1900s, union membership and influence have waned in the 21st century despite mounting corporate power. Public sector unions in particular are targets of conservative ire, blamed for state budget deficits and lagging standards. Organized labor enjoys the support of over half the country, but a plurality of Americans (41%) say they’d prefer its influence waned further. Not helping matters is the Chicago Teachers Union, which went on strike this week after failing to strike a contract deal with city officials. The union claims its fighting for teachers’ rights and the good of their students, but the facts don’t add up.

Considering recent efforts to blunt organized labor’s power and benefits, Chicago’s teachers are doing better than well. With a median base salary of $67,974 and an average salary of $74,839, they’re paid significantly more than the national average of roughly $54,000. The national figure is a systemic problem—according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), U.S. teacher salaries aren’t keeping pace with those of other developed nations—but the local ones are surprisingly high outliers. Nonetheless, the union is demanding a 16% pay increase with a $320 million price tag.

The good fortune isn’t limited to salaries. In the event of a school closing or layoff, the city’s Board of Education has proposed a truly exhaustive system aimed at reassignment or identifying new work within the district. The city is also prepared to offer paid maternity leave for the first time, in addition to a “short-term disability” system that would allow some ill employees paid recovery time without the use of sick leave. Many of the Board’s proposals sound more like playing catch-up with 21st Century norms than novel reform ideas, but they’re sizable concessions given existing policy.

Whatever the proposals, the situation in Chicago bears little resemblance to the all-out assault on the public sector in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Nor is Mayor Rahm Emanuel, formerly White House Chief of Staff under President Barack Obama, a homegrown Scott Walker. But according to union president Karen Lewis, Emanuel is a “bully” and “liar,” telling supporters assembled a block from his office that “the only way to beat a bully is to stand up to [him]!” While unions nationwide face very real foes in conservative governorship and legislatures, alienating a less-combative administration caught between a rock and hard economic times seems politically suicidal.

Despite the strike, the mayor has his eye on reform and appears determined to get it. While Chicago’s teachers undoubtedly do better than many, their school distract remains in dire straits; Chicago Public Schools is looking at a $3 billion budget shortfall over the next three years. Where Emanuel can’t win financial concessions, he’s turned to structural ones instead. Extending the city’s abnormally short school day to 7.5 hours and demanding an overhauled evaluation system cost substantial political capital, however, and the strike was quick to follow.

Emanuel isn’t backing down, and all signs say he shouldn’t. He wants to give principals and other school officials more power in hiring and firing their staff, arguably the policy suggestion that finally pushed the union to strike. While the impasse is understandably difficult on students and parents, Emanuel isn’t wrong. Teachers let go—often for poor performance—should not, as the union demands, receive first pick of new positions. The harsh realities faced by school administrators in 2010’s Waiting for Superman haven’t been remedied, leaving administrators across America paralyzed by easy tenure and strangling union influence. Superintendent Michelle Rhee learned that the hard way when she tackled crumbling public education in the nation’s capital, but she went significantly farther than Emanuel without invoking the wrath of a strike.

That wrath may prove to be the union’s undoing. While tougher on labor than many Democrats, Mayor Emanuel’s proposals are driven by necessity, not spite. Given the relative reasonableness of his demands and the financial pit in which the district finds itself, the strike appears less selfless by the hour. Teachers deserve high pay, good working conditions, and reward for performance, all of which Chicago’s union enjoys. There are concrete deficiencies in the district, namely large class sizes, though a 16% pay increase, lack of instructor accountability, and administrator helplessness won’t fix them.

As American students lag ever-farther behind their international peers in math, science, and other subjects, time may prove the teachers’ Achilles’ heel. Though 47% of Chicago’s voters support the strikers, days or weeks without school will likely sour public sentiment. Even if the union wins in the Windy City, teachers are losing the national battle to save the status quo.  The country desperately needs a bold solution to its education crisis. The union claims it’s marching for just that, but it’s difficult to see how their demands help the 350,000 students watching from the sidelines.

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