Chicago Teacher Strike as an Emblem of Change

Stephen Sawchuk at EdWeek has a great piece out on the Chicago teachers’ strike, which involves over 25,000 teachers and staff and 350,000 students. It’s pitted the Chicago Teachers Union against Democratic mayor and macher Rahm Emmanuel and synthesizes many of the issues currently roiling teacher unions and education reformers.

According to Sawchuk, “The district initially offered teachers an 8 percent raise over a four-year period, which the union deemed unacceptable. CTU seeks a 19 percent wage increase in the first year alone of a new contract.”

But it’s more than money. In addition to the impasse over appropriate salary increases, the Chicago school board also wants to lengthen the school day (Chicago has one of the shortest in the country), use student test scores to inform teacher evaluations, and curtail automatic annual increments, or pay increases given for each additional year of service.

The union has fought lengthening the school day unless teachers are compensated. It also wants to reinstate the right of laid-off teachers to have first dibs on available jobs, a practice that ended in Chicago in 1995, to hire more teachers to reduce class size, restore arts, and hire more social workers and nurses.

Sawchuk concludes,
The Chicago strike also appears likely to have national ramifications. Teachers' unions are among the top donors, especially at the state level, to Democratic candidates, and their members are crucial to get-out-the-vote activities.
"If labor prevails or is perceived as prevailing, it's probably going to motivate more [American Federation of Teachers] affiliates to take a harder line in negotiations," [Timothy Knowles, the director of the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute] said. "And if the mayor prevails, it may motivate mayors to push for more aggressive reforms. The jury is out, in large measure."
The New York Times coverage today includes comments from various education luminaries. Chester Finn of Fordham says, “It’s probably about the dumbest thing they could do from a national standpoint. It will remind everybody that teachers’ unions are about teachers, not kids.” Randi Weingarten, AFT President, reiterated the progress that unions have made in working with school boards, and argued that Chicago was an aberration: “Everyone is focused on Chicago, but we have reached 10 different agreements in the last month,” she said, pointing to San Francisco, Albuquerque and Central Falls, R.I. She added that the union had agreed to more flexible rules on tenure at the state level in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. “

Dr. Diane Ravitch blames the Chicago strike on an unfair attack on teacher unions:
“Clearly the teachers’ unions are under attack and under siege,” said Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University who often defends the unions. “There is almost this full-court press by the right against the teachers’ unions.”
She said many conservative groups, like the American Legislative Exchange Council, were eager to weaken teachers’ unions because they view them as powerful political supporters of Democrats and bothersome opponents of budget cuts.
But Rahm Emmanuel, an emblem of the enemy in Ravitch’s construct, is a precise representative of President Obama and the Democratic Party’s consensus on education reform, including the Chicago school board’s call for data-informed evaluations, longer school days, and accountability.  The “attack” on Chicago’s teacher union is not from the right. It’s from the left. It’s certainly not driven by “conservative groups” eager to undermine Democrats. The old paradigm of “Democrats = expansion of union power” and “Republicans = diminution of union power” doesn’t work any more.

As Knowles of Chicago says, "the Democratic party has become much more open to reforms, whether they be charters or merit pay or teacher accountability that historically labor hasn't supported. Now you have in Chicago [teacher union leader] Karen Lewis and Rahm Emanuel who are playing out that drama, with a lot of eyes on them."