Chicago Teacher Strike: A Collective Scream

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.