The members of the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike this morning. It’s difficult to call this a surprise after virtually every voting member of the rank-and-file authorized it in June.

I am not best situated to opine on what exactly caused the strike, but it appears that those “in the know” have widely diverging accounts of what the sticking points actually are. Alexander Russo, who runs the Chicago-centric District 299 blog, suggests that maybe one side or the other, or both, wanted a strike for their own purposes.

That’s not to say this is all a stage play – just that some of this stuff only rose to the level of a “strike-able” issue because of the political climate and the personalities involved. As Arne Duncan will testify, negotiations between the Chicago Public Schools and the union have often been acrimonious, but they never quite reached the exploding point. Few remember now that CTU members authorized a strike in 2003, but a contract settlement was reached soon after.

What’s different now is that we live in a post-Occupy world where any occasion for the airing of grievances is the occasion for the airing of any grievance. Some CTU members are upset about pay. Some about class size. Some about standardized tests. Some about Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Some about Evil Corporate Puppetmasters. Since going out into the street and screaming is normally frowned upon, a strike is the perfect solution. Instead of going to work and subjecting yourself to the things that make you angry, you line up with your buddies and yell at the boss all day.

The stars aligned when CTU members elected Karen Lewis and her CORE slate to power. Lewis stood for genuine union militancy at a time when previous regimes were considered to be sellouts.

I wrote back then that “Lewis’s election may have large implications for the Chicago Public Schools. Her politics are significantly to the left of the machine Democrats who run the city and the school system. ‘What drives school reform is a single focus on profit. Profit. Not teaching, not learning, profit,’ she said in her post-election press conference.”

I believed that Lewis would join a long list of union outsiders who quickly became insiders. I was wrong about that. Oh, she almost did, but she learned that her muscular activism filled a niche left empty by Illinois and national teacher union leaders. She may be AFT’s most well-known local president.

In the short-term, strikes favor the union. Parents don’t have any pull with the union, so when they are inconvenienced they complain to the district and the city. The pressure on “management” to settle up is strong. But as the days extend into weeks, and the first paycheck is missed, teacher enthusiasm drops at the margins and the rank-and-file starts looking for an acceptable offer. Regardless of the outcome, both sides will declare victory – even if the strike ends up costing both sides money.

In 2001, the Hawaii State Teachers Association went on strike for three weeks and ultimately accepted an offer that netted teachers an additional $148 per year over the final offer before the strike. The California Teachers Association still remembers Wayne Johnson this way:

The watershed nine-day strike by United Teachers Los Angeles in May 1989 was “a breakthrough for the professionalization of teachers,” said UTLA’s then-president Wayne Johnson, who went on to become president of CTA. As CTA Action reported, UTLA members won “revolutionary reforms,” along with a 24 percent salary increase over three years.

What the union doesn’t remember is that the district’s final offer before the strike was for 21.5 percent over three years. When you subtract out the money lost by teachers during the strike, they barely broke even.

A settlement will be reached in Chicago when the financial costs of the strike exceed the psychic benefits. The last Chicago Public Schools pay day was Friday, September 7, which helps explain why CTU didn’t go out until today. The next pay day is September 21. If there were a betting pool on this, I’d put my money on a deal being reached next weekend.

Update (Ed): The Illinois Policy Institute put together this video of the demonstration, overlaid with five key facts about education in Chicago:

1. Chicago public school teachers are already well compensated. By CTU’s own figures an average teacher earns a salary of $71,000 (CPS reports the number is $76,000 without benefits). Even if we only compare CPS teachers to others with college degrees, they still do well. According to the US Census American Community Survey, the median annual wage for persons with a college degree is $48,866 in Chicago. CPS teachers earn nearly half again as much as an average worker in Chicago with a college degree.
Note: Average teacher pay at Urban Prep Academy, the Chicago charter school that has sent 100% of its graduates to college for the third consecutive year is $47,714.

Note: CTU walked away from a $400 million package that include a 16 percent raise.

Note: CPS is currently offering a 16% pay increase.

Dispelling longer school day myth: Under the interim agreement, teachers will continue to work roughly the same hours they do now. Instead of requiring teachers to work a 20 percent longer day, the Chicago Public Schools have agreed to hire more teachers to fill the extra instruction time with such classes as art, music and physical education.

2. Four out of every ten kids who start freshman year at a public high school in Chicago do not graduate. While poverty and crime certainly complicate instruction, this is not a system where anyone, including the administration, teachers or the union, can rest on their laurels.

3. Chicago public schools expect to drain their cash reserves in the upcoming year and are likely facing another shortfall of as large as $1 billion the year after that. It is doubtful that the district can afford across-the-board pay raises.

Note: CPS had to return a $35 million federal grant — Teacher Incentive Fund — because CTU refused to implement merit pay. CTU called CPS’ acceptance of the grant a “fraudulent action.”

4. Chicago receives almost $2 billion in funding from the state tax funds. That means almost 35 percent of Chicago’s total funding for education comes from state taxpayer funds. The entire state, not just Chicago, is paying for the failures of CPS and CTU.

5. CPS has the shortest school days and year in the nation when compared to the ten largest cities in the nation.

That’s quite an education.

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