Chicago teachers walk out, schools close

Parents in Chicago had to scramble today as teachers walked out last night after weeks of contract negotiations, launching their first strike in 25 years.  Already the nation’s first- or second-best paid teachers among urban school districts, the union rejected an offer from the school board that would have increased their pay by 16% over four years:

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis announced late Sunday night that weekend talks had failed to resolve all the union’s issues.  “We have failed to reach an agreement that will prevent a labor strike,” she said. “No CTU members will be inside of our schools Monday.”

After an all-day negotiating session Sunday, school board President David Vitale told reporters the district had changed its proposal 20 times over the course of talks and didn’t have much more to offer.

“This is about as much as we can do,” Vitale said. “There is only so much money in the system.”

The district said it offered teachers a 16 percent pay raise over four years and a host of benefit proposals.

“This is not a small commitment we’re handing out at a time when our fiscal situation is really challenged,” Vitale said.

CBS correspondent Rebecca Jarvis notes the hardship that teachers in Chicago endure already (via Katie Pavlich):


The strike does not affect charter schools — which is one of the reasons the CTU has taken such a hard line in negotiations.  However, the strike might end up backfiring on them:

Leslie Daniels enrolled her son in a Chicago charter school three years ago because she didn’t like the education he was getting in his local neighborhood school.

In the back of her mind, she also knew the school was less likely to be affected by labor problems because its teachers are not members of the Chicago Teachers Union. That’s an added benefit now that the union has called for its first walkout in 25 years. All of the city’s charter schools will remain open Monday.

“I’m glad I made the switch,” said Daniels, 55. “I feel for the other parents because a lot of them are working. What are their children going to be doing?” …

The Chicago Teachers Union has fought the growth of charter schools because the majority of teaching staffs are not members of unions and none belong to CTU. Union leaders argue that charters devalue the profession by paying their teachers less, and that public money is diverted from struggling neighborhood schools to support charters, even when charters don’t perform significantly better.

Charter operators said more parents have been asking about the schools in the last several weeks since union teachers first threatened to strike, and charter supporters are capitalizing.

Something tells me that rejecting an offer for a 16% increase over four years won’t exactly sit well with a public that has seen median household incomes decrease by more than 7% over the last four years on a national basis.  The CTU wants Chicago to weaken its teacher evaluation process and clamp down on charter school expansion, which they say threatens their job security.  However, as the numbers above show, it’s the parents/taxpayers that want an option outside the CTU stranglehold on education — and the CTU’s own delivery of education that threatens their standing.  Going on strike will only reinforce the perception of need on the part of parents to find alternatives to the union fiefdom of regular public education.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel blasted the CTU for its walkout, calling it “a strike of choice”:

Mayor Rahm Emanuel says the teachers strike is “not necessary” because the two sides were close.

“I believe this is avoidable because this is a strike of choice,” Emanuel said at a hastily called news conference at the Harold Washington Library Sunday night

Emanuel sought to cast the negotiations as hinging on two remaining issues: a new teacher evaluation system and principals’ ability to get rid of teachers. Chicago Teachers Union officials said there are more remaining issues than that, although they conceded the strike is not primarily about money.

The strike on Emanuel’s watch could cut against the narrative the mayor is trying to craft as a leader who’s a problem solver moving the city forward. It also could set the tone for his somewhat fractured relationship with labor, with his first major union contract negotiation ending in a strike.

Emanuel’s aggressive posture in pushing for a longer school day and year, while also cutting the pay raise teachers were supposed to get last year, galvanized the union. With negotiations being watched carefully on a national basis, the soured relationship may have led union leadership to strike as a way to take a stand against Emanuel’s tactics.

Well, maybe.  It’s also possible that Chicago parents will appreciate the surprise of a Democrat standing up to a union that has until recently been a key part of the Democratic stranglehold on Chicago and Illinois politics.  Don’t underestimate the anger of parents who look at the eye-popping raise rejected by the union for the already-well-paid rank and file, and don’t be surprised if that anger gets directed to the CTU.  Meanwhile, the CTU will keep maneuvering themselves out of jobs as those parents who can move their children into charter and private schools begin a massive shift away from CTU control.