Teaching Profession

Teachers’ Strike Continues Amid Wrangling in Chicago

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 17, 2012 10 min read
Chicago public schools social worker Marie Smith waits with fellow union members for the start of a demonstration outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office in Chicago's City Hall on Sept. 17.
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Hopes that students in Chicago could return to school Monday after a weeklong teachers’ strike were dashed after the union’s 800 delegates on Sunday deferred a vote to end it.

Amid reports of a membership deeply divided over a preliminary agreement struck late last week with the school district, the union’s delegates said they needed more time to seek feedback on the deal from rank-and-file members.

“Our members are not happy,” Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said. “They want to know if there is anything more they can get.”

The strike has kept 350,000 students out of classes for a week and seems unlikely to end before Wednesday at the earliest.

Rather than serving as a first step toward mending the troubled relationship between the Chicago Teachers Union and the district, the latest developments seemed guaranteed to ratchet up tensions.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel turned to the courts to try to end the strike, suing the CTU under a clause in the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act that states that only wages and economic issues are subject to collective bargaining. Under the act, issues of class size, school day, and layoff and recall rights are “permissible,” rather than mandatory, subjects of bargaining. The union has framed its strike in terms of many of those issues.

Ray Elementary School kindergarten teacher Jamie Madsen does jumping jacks while she and fellow striking teachers picket outside the school in Chicago on Sept. 17. When in session, the school does a morning fitness workout every morning to boost brain function.

In public filings, the city’s board of education cited that clause, in addition to another that permits the court to enjoin a strike if it becomes “a clear and present danger to the health or safety of the public.”

The union, however, disputes the basis for the suit. “The Chicago Teachers Union is striking over mandatory subjects of bargaining such as compensation, evaluation procedures, and the conditions within our classrooms,” said CTU spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin. “If this was an illegal strike, the Chicago public schools would have sought injunctive relief on day one.”

On Monday, a Cook County Circuit Court judge denied the city an immediate hearing on a strike injunction, instead scheduling one for Wednesday morning, said Sarah Hamilton, Mr. Emanuel’s spokeswoman.

That would put it a day after CTU delegates are again scheduled to vote on the contract provisions.

Details Questioned

The strike by some 29,000 teachers and support staff has pushed long-simmering tensions over deeply divisive school improvement ideas—including changes in teacher evaluation and the takeover or closure of underperforming schools—into the national spotlight.

Both the union and the district had sought, in public releases over the weekend, to display elements of the proposed contract agreement in the most favorable light for their constituencies.

Strike Zones

Teacher strikes, while considered increasingly less common, have occurred in a number of districts since 2000.

Key issues: Salary increase, teacher evaluations, recall rights for laid-off teachers, extended school day
Duration: Began Sept. 10

Tacoma, Wash.
Key issues: Transfer rules, salary cuts, class-size limits
Duration: 8 days

Bethel Park, Pa.
Key issues: Salary increase, benefits, school schedules
Duration: 6 weeks

Oakland, Calif.
Key issue: Salary increase
Duration: 1 day

Capistrano, Calif.
Key issues: Pay cuts, furlough days
Duration: 3 days

Hayward, Calif.
Key issue: Salary increase
Duration: 10 days

Key issue: Proposed pay cut
Duration: 16 days

Marysville, Wash.
Key issues: Salary-scale changes, added workdays
Duration: 7 weeks

Maple Heights, Ohio
Key issues: Teacher layoffs, class-size increase
Duration: 3 months

Hawaii (statewide)
Key issue: Salary increase
Duration: 19 days

Middletown, N.J.
Key issue: Health-insurance contributions
Duration: 1 week

Key issues: Compensation, instructional time
Duration: 1 weekend

Buffalo, N.Y.
Key issues: Salary increase, class sizes
Duration: 2 separate days

SOURCES: Education Week; local news media

Among the provisions agreed to in principle:

• Teachers’ salaries would increase by 3 percent in the first year of a new contract and by 2 percent in each of the succeeding two years, in addition to step-and-lane increases for experience and for holding advanced degrees.

• Measures of student-achievement growth would count for the minimum 30 percent in teacher evaluations, as required under state law, though the district and union could jointly agree to a higher threshold in later years. Teachers would also be able to appeal their ratings.

• In the first year of implementation, the teacher-evaluation system would not carry consequences.

• Principals would have to hire staff from a new “hiring pool” for teachers that would include at least half laid-off and half new teachers. Teachers displaced because of school closures would be permitted to follow their students to other schools.

• The district would hire approximately 600 additional teachers for arts and enrichment classes.

• The school year would be lengthened by 10 days.

• The contract would be for three years, unless the two parties agree to extend it to a fourth.

Those issues were among the most divisive at the bargaining table.

“This isn’t about pay, and strikes typically aren’t about pay; they’re about other, more complicated issues,” said Julia Koppich, a San Francisco-based independent consultant and expert on teachers’ unions.

At least some observers felt that the CTU had come out of negotiations with the upper hand by winning some new rights for teachers with respect to evaluations and job security.

But whether the agreement, as it currently stands, will be accepted by the whole membership remains an open question. In January, Hawaii teachers rejected a tentative contract deal. And in 2010 in Baltimore, teachers rejected a tentative contract on a first round. (It was approved on a second vote a few weeks later.)

Mounting Tensions

At the center of the clash in Chicago has been the volatile relationship between two powerful city players: Mayor Emanuel, the famously combative former chief of staff for President Barack Obama, and Ms. Lewis, the equally outspoken president of the Chicago Teachers Union. The two have squabbled for months over Mr. Emanuel’s desire to lengthen the school day, which was until recently among the shortest in urban school districts.

The strike has also raised delicate political questions for the White House during the tense run-up to Election Day. As in 2008, Mr. Obama is counting on the support of teachers, but his own education agenda has pushed for many of the ideas contested at the bargaining table in Chicago.

“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.

Such divisions were on display last week, as educators, clothed in CTU red, picketed in front of their schools after the walkout began on Sept. 10. Many motorists honked in support as they drove by. In the afternoon, thousands of the teachers flooded the city’s downtown Loop area to attend rallies.

Chicago Schools:Selected Milestones

1983-84 Amid ongoing district budgetary turmoil, the Chicago Teachers Union holds two separate multi-week strikes over compensation issues.

1985 Study finds that nearly 50 percent of Chicago’s high school students fail to graduate.

  • “Half of Chicago Students Drop Out, Study Finds” (Education Week, March 6, 1985)

1987 Chicago teachers again strike for 18 days for salary increase. U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett calls Chicago the worst system in the country.

  • “No Progress in Chicago Strike” (Education Week, Sept. 30, 1987)
  • “Chicago, Detroit Teacher Strikes Continue” (Education Week, Sept. 16, 1987)
  • “Districts News Roundup” (Education Week, Nov. 25, 1987)

1988 Gov. James Thomson signs the Chicago School Reform Act of 1988, decentralizing control of schools via Local School Councils and changing funding allocations.

  • “Illinois Awaiting Governor’s Pen On Chicago Plan” (Education Week, Aug. 3, 1988)
  • “Chicago School Reform Act Highlights” (Chicago Catalyst)
  • 105 ILCS 5/34-2.1

1991 District faces $315.8 million budget deficit, attributed largely to 7 percent raises granted to teachers by an interim school board.

  • “Chicago Board, Chief Face Criticism Over $316-Million Deficit” (Education Week, May 29, 1991)

1993 Start of the school year is delayed by one week due to continued budget shortfalls.

  • “Parents, Officials Scramble When School Doors Stay Closed” (Education Week, Sept. 15, 1993)
  • “Job Freeze Cited as Chicago Delays Opening of Schools” (Education Week, Sept. 15, 1993)
Paul G. Vallas, Chicago’s first schools CEO after the system was placed under mayoral control in 1995, implemented numerous measures to tighten school accountability.  —Stephen J. Carrera/AP-File

1995 Gov. Jim Edgar signs landmark legislation giving control of Chicago public schools to Mayor Richard M. Daley. Paul G. Vallas, the city’s budget director, is appointed chief executive officer of schools.

  • “Governor Signs Bill Putting Mayor in Control of Chicago Schools” (Education Week, June 7, 1995)
  • 105 ILCS 5/34-3.3
  • “Daley Names Team in Takeover of Chicago Schools” (Education Week, July 12, 1995)

1996 Vallas implements new curriculum standards, puts 109 schools with poor test scores on academic probation.

  • “109 Chicago Schools Put on Academic Probation” (Education Week, Oct. 9, 1996)

1998-99 Chicago recognized for gains in test scores and graduation rates.

  • “Increase in Test Scores Leaves Chicago Officials Jubilant” (Education Week, June 4, 1997)
Arne Duncan led the Chicago schools from 2001 to 2008. He oversaw a controversial program to replace underperforming schools with small schools run by private operators.—Brian Jackson/Chicago Sun Times/AP/File

2001 Arne Duncan replaces Vallas as schools CEO, continues accountability emphasis.

  • “Chicago Chief Named Amid Urban Turnover” (Education Week, July 11, 2001)

2004 Duncan launches Renaissance 2010, a plan to shutter underperforming schools and convert them into small schools run by private operators.

  • “Chicago to ‘Start Over’ With 100 Small Schools” (Education Week, July 14, 2004)

2007 District sees jump in students’ college-attendance rate.

  • “Chicago District Focusing On Pathways to College” (Education Week, July 11, 2008)

2009 Duncan is appointed U.S. Secretary of Education by President Obama.

  • “Duncan Confirmed as Secretary of Education” (Education Week, January 21, 2009)
Rham Emanuel, the Chicago mayor, left, and his schools chief, Jean-Claude Brizard, right, have sought to extend school days and increase the role of student test scores in evaluations. —Paul Beaty/AP-File

2011 Rahm Emanuel, former first chief of staff for President Obama, is elected Mayor of Chicago. While facing a budget gap, the district implements plans to extend school day and revamp teacher evaluations, and cancels a negotiated 4 percent salary increase for teachers.

  • “Chicago Reaches Deal on School Day Length” (Education Week, Nov. 16, 2011)

2012 Chicago teachers strike.

Picketers stationed a giant, inflatable rat outside the school district’s headquarters. They held up signs protesting large class sizes, too much standardized testing, and the perceived capitulation by Democrats to the education agenda of influential foundations and interest groups. One sign read: “Democratic Party, where are you?”

But above all, the teachers took aim at their city’s mayor, a testament to their frustration with his leadership of the schools, which the mayor controls under authority granted by a 1995 state law.

“Hey hey, ho ho, Rahm Emanuel’s got to go,” they shouted.

Enmity between the CTU, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, and Mr. Emanuel, who took office in May 2011, had been building long before teachers walked off the job, with their differences centering largely on wages and longer school hours.

Last year, the union had dismissed Mr. Emanuel’s bid to extend the school day in exchange for a minimal pay increase—a proposal that came just months after the school board canceled a previously negotiated 4 percent increase for teachers. When that plan failed, the mayor attempted an end run around the union by getting individual schools to adopt the longer day voluntarily in exchange for teacher bonuses.

In June, the union flexed its muscle through a strike-authorization vote affirmed by more than 90 percent of its members. The victory was symbolic as well as functional: A 2011 state law had raised the union’s strike threshold to 75 percent, a figure some of the law’s supporters had painted as unattainable.

The district and the union struck a bargain in July to rehire 477 teachers to create the longer school day without extending current teachers’ work hours. But that agreement didn’t lead to a breakthrough in negotiations on other issues that had festered since the previous fall.

For its part, the union had pushed for hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes, for restoring arts and other programming, and for adding more social workers and nurses. On the picket lines, many teachers cited those elements and other working conditions as reasons behind their protest.

“We’re showing Rahm Emanuel we’re strong, we’re united, and we’re getting what schools need, not just what teachers want,” said María Ramírez, a 1st grade bilingual education teacher.

Topping her wish list: working air conditioning, a school playground, and the art and music teachers promised as part of the longer school day.

Thorny Issues

As the volatile negotiations continued, issues surrounding teacher evaluation and job security arose as the primary sticking points. District officials had wanted to exceed the state-set percentage of each teacher’s evaluation based on growth in student achievement, but the union steadfastly opposed that idea.

The union contended that teachers instructing disadvantaged students would be penalized under such a system.

The fallout from the district’s past reform efforts also shaped the union’s demands for more job security. Many of those initiatives were launched during U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s tenure as the Chicago schools’ chief executive officer, from 2001 to 2008.

“The contract negotiations have been going on since November, but the disrespect of teachers and parents and poor communities has been happening since 2004,” said Jitu Brown, an education organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, which has a long-standing relationship with the CTU.

Mr. Brown was referring to the district’s Renaissance 2010 initiative, which aimed to shutter underperforming schools and convert them into smaller schools run by private operators. He said the program had led to school closures that displaced students and cost teachers their jobs.

Fearing the district plans to continue such policies, the union pressed officials to restore “recall rights,” under which teachers who are laid off or displaced through school closures or shake-ups would get priority for rehiring. Recall rights were eliminated in Chicago in 1995.

Other urban districts, including Baltimore and New York City, have whittled down seniority as a factor in placement decisions.

Challenges for Parents

While the teachers walked, churches, community organizations, and recreational facilities scrambled to put together programming to keep children occupied. The city’s board of education approved some $25 million to keep 147 schools open as a contingency plan for parents unable to find other alternatives.

The union had tried to cultivate support from parent groups, and many parents turned up for rallies, some with their children in tow. Local polls showed a plurality of the public at large, and slightly more than half of parents specifically, supporting the union’s decision to strike.

Yet many parents found the issues behind the strike difficult to parse, or were worried about more immediate matters, such as making child-care arrangements.

Outside Jacob Beidler Elementary School, in the Garfield neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, a woman who would identify herself only as Ms. Ambrose said she wasn’t sure how she would balance child care for her 5-year-old daughter with work commitments and a degree she is trying to complete.

“I didn’t know how serious it was,” she said of the strike. “This is at every school. I don’t know about everybody else, but if the teachers don’t get their money, it’s trouble; the babysitter can’t pick [my daughter] up at this hour.”

As the strike continued, observers of various stripes tried to offer perspectives on what the outcome would mean for education policy and politics generally.

“If labor prevails or is perceived as prevailing, it’s probably going to motivate more AFT affiliates to take a harder line in negotiations,” Mr. Knowles of the University of Illinois said. “And if the mayor prevails, it may motivate mayors to push for more aggressive reforms. The jury is out, in large measure.”

Mayors in cities such as Boston, New York, and the District of Columbia have pursued education policies similar to those in Chicago.

But Ms. Koppich said she was less sure of the Chicago strike’s wider impact.

“Strikes come about, and are settled, by individual circumstances; what’s true in Chicago may not be true in another district,” she said.

Still, she added, “I do think it is reflective of a lot of pent-up tension among a lot of teachers who are tired of being beaten up, who are tired of being told, ‘You’re not good enough.’ ”

The Associated Press also provided reporting.
A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2012 edition of Education Week


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