Teaching Profession

Chicago Teachers Strike as Education Reform Tensions Boil Over

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 10, 2012 5 min read
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Chicago teachers are scheduled to take to the picket lines today, following the failure of marathon negotiations this weekend with the school district over issues of pay, job security, and evaluations.

The strike, which will involve some 25,000 teachers and support staff, is the first in the city in 25 years, and it will be the largest teachers’ strike since Detroit teachers marched in 2006. About 350,000 Chicago students will be affected.

The clash comes amid a highly volatile education policy environment. Labor unions, including those representing teachers, have seen their numbers decline and their power wane under attacks from Republicans. Deeply divisive school-reform ideas pushed by both political parties have put a strong focus on teacher performance and threaten hard-won seniority and job-security rights. The financial crisis has left additional K-12 financing, the usual lubricant for advancing sweeping education policy changes, in short supply. And the unions themselves have faced difficult questions about whether to compromise and have a say in such reforms, or whether to fight them and deal with the ramifications later.

In Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school district, those tensions are finally coming a head as teachers walk off the job, marking a showdown of sorts between Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former adviser for President Barack Obama, and Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

Emanuel has sought a longer school day and tougher teacher evaluations while simultaneously reducing the beleaguered, cash-strapped district’s debts. Lewis’ opposition to many of those policy changes, steadfast push for teacher job security, and willingness to take on the powerful mayor have thrust her into the national spotlight.

“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,” said Timothy Knowles, the director of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, a group that conducts research on city schools and runs a teacher-training program. “Now you have in Chicago Karen Lewis and Rahm Emanuel who are playing out that drama, with a lot of eyes on them.”

Negotiations between the Chicago Public Schools and the union went nearly until the Sept. 10 deadline. Chicago officials said at a press conference Sunday that they had made over 20 offers to the union over the course of negotiations. CTU officials did not return inquiries in the days and hours leading up to the strike.

It is not clear how long a strike could last; late Sunday, the Associated Press reported that progress had been made over the course of the negotiations, but not enough to avoid a strike.

The Chicago school board planned to keep 144 of its schools open as a contingency plan for parents without other alternatives for their children. Students will be kept occupied with athletic and arts activities.

Thorny Issues

Issues during the negotiations that were sticking points included wage increases, the shape of a new teacher evaluation system, job-security provisions, and annual “step” increases given for each additional year of service, which the school district, under Emanuel’s control, has sought to end.

The district initially offered teachers an 8 percent raise over a four-year period, which the union deemed unacceptable. CTU initially sought a 30 percent raise over two years, though the Associated Press reported that the union later adjusted it to a 19 percent wage increase in the first year alone of a new contract.

The tensions on display in Chicago also reflect disputes over the city’s newly instituted longer school day, one of Emanuel’s top education priorities. The union had instead pushed for the hiring of more teachers to reduce class sizes, restore arts and other programming, and add more social workers and nurses.

Teacher job security and seniority are also key issues. The union wants to restore “recall rights” for teachers, which allow those displaced through layoffs or school closures to get priority for rehiring. Recall rights were eliminated in 1995.

Though a staple of many urban teacher contracts, seniority as a factor in personnel decisions has been whittled down in other urban districts, including Cleveland, Baltimore, and New York City.

The Chicago Teachers Union also has refused to consider using test scores as part of a new teacher-evaluation system, an initiative the mayor favors.

Tense Relationship

Enmity between the CTU and Emanuel has been building for months.

Citing budget pressures, the school board in the summer of 2011 canceled a previously negotiated 4 percent increase for teachers last year. (Teachers still received an average increase of 17 percent overall over the life of the 2007-2012 contract.)

A 2011 law gave the mayor the power to extend the school day in Chicago, which had among the shortest of urban districts. Emanuel did so and, in negotiations last year, tried to get teachers to work the extra hours in exchange for a minimal pay raise. When CTU refused, he sought to get individual schools to adopt the longer day voluntarily in exchange for bonuses, but the state’s labor board nixed that plan.

As contract negotiations languished, an independent fact-finder’s report called on teachers to be paid at least 15 percent more if they were to work the longer hours. Both sides rejected the report’s findings, the district citing untenable costs, and CTU largely because the report did not address job-security questions caused by school closure and turnaround policies.

After a series of symbolic rallies this spring, CTU showed its muscle through a strike-authorization vote affirmed by more than 90 percent of CTU members. That victory was symbolic as well as functional; the 2011 law raised the strike threshold to 75 percent, a figure some of the law’s supporters had painted as unattainable.

Negotiations seemed back on track when, in July, the district and the union struck a bargain to create the longer school day without extending current teachers’ work hours. Nearly 500 additional teachers were hired to provide the extended instruction under the terms of the agreement, and the new teachers also were granted recall rights.

National Fallout

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,” Knowles said. “And if the mayor prevails, it may motivate mayors to push for more aggressive reforms. The jury is out, in large measure.”

(Image: Chicago teachers walk a picket line outside Benjamin Banneker Elementary School in Chicago on Monday after they went on strike for the first time in 25 years. Union and district officials failed to reach a contract agreement despite intense weekend negotiations. --M. Spencer Green/AP)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.