Chicago Teachers’ Strike: Last Straw for Voters?

Chicago Teachers’ Strike: Last Straw for Voters?

REUTERS/Jeff Haynes

Those who followed the political war in Wisconsin that erupted in February 2011 with a public-employee union reform bill and ended with the unsuccessful attempt to recall Governor Scott Walker might have figured that the battle over public employee unions would fade, especially as an issue in this election cycle.  The public-sector unions took a beating in Wisconsin, pouring millions of dollars into the state to punish Republicans for limiting their collective-bargaining privileges and imposing control over benefits costs in order to balance the state budget.  Instead, the scene has merely shifted south – to Chicago – and the issue of public union reform is back in the national spotlight.

This time, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has taken the initiative, walking out as the new school year started for their first strike in 25 years.  To call this a strange choice is actually an understatement.  The school district, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), offered a 16 percent pay hike over four years in its new contract.  Considering how median household incomes have fallen nationally over the last four years by over 7 percent, that seems like a pretty good offer. 

That didn’t satisfy CTU, obviously, which claims that their teachers get less pay “per pupil” than teachers in other large urban areas.  However, that claim hides the fact that Chicago teachers are among the highest-paid teachers in this group.  CPS says that its teachers earn an average salary of $76,000 per year, while CTU says it’s $71,000.  That either makes them #1 or #2 in the nation, as CBS’ Chicago affiliate noted three months ago when CTU authorized the strike. 

“By comparison, teachers in New York City earn an average of $73,751,” Diana Kozlov reported.  “That would be less than the average $76,000 average salary for Chicago teachers cited by CPS, but more than the $71,000 average cited by the union.” Compare that to the Los Angeles Unified School District average salary of $67,600 and the $52,000 average in Miami, and that looks like quite a good deal – even without a 16 percent increase over four years.

When one compares it to the household income level of its clients – the citizens of Chicago – it looks less like a good deal and more like robbery.  Even the lower level claimed by CTU is 39 percent higher than the June 2012 national median household income of $50,964, determined by a Sentier Research report last month derived from Census Bureau data.  That $71,000 average is 45 percent better than the average earned by a Chicagoan with a college degree ($48,866), and 51 percent better than the 2010 median household income in the city ($46,877).

Why didn’t CTU chief Karen Lewis take the deal?  First, the dispute got heated months earlier, when newly-elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel took unilateral steps to deal with the graduation crisis in the city.  Three months ago, the local NBC affiliate reported that CPS had raised its graduation rate to 60.6 percent, which meant that four of every ten students dropped out – and this was their best year on record.  Emanuel expanded CPS school days by 90 minutes (they had been the shortest in the nation among the largest urban districts) and cancelled a pay increase for teachers to conserve cash, while hiring some previously-furloughed teachers to pick up the slack. 

That led to increased bad blood between CTU and CPS, but that had started years earlier with the election of Lewis as CTU’s leader in 2010 with a mandate for militancy.  Education reporter Mike Antonucci wrote at the time that the Caucus Of Rank and File Educators (CORE) that backed Lewis “did campaign on taking a harder line against the district administration, and that's how it won.” This was Lewis’ first opportunity to put that mandate in action, especially against the expansion of charter schools and performance metrics for teachers.

If so, the timing, the context and especially the optics could hardly be worse.  While the parents of almost 400,000 children abandoned by teachers earning perhaps 50 percent more than their own income struggled to find alternatives, teachers went to the streets to party. EAG News captured one striker claiming that “this is the best I’ve felt in my entire career teaching!”  Another striker posed in a Che Guevara T-shirt and insisted that the revolutionary was “a role model standing for the people.”  Another insisted that the strike would go until the city capitulated entirely to their demands.

This union fight looks a lot like the one in Wisconsin over the last two years.  The city of Chicago and its school district are in “dire” financial straits.  Emanuel had to fill a $635 million budget deficit almost a year ago without hiking taxes any further than Governor Pat Quinn had hiked taxes for the entire state of Illinois – by as much as 67 percent in some cases.  The estimated budget deficit for the public school system exceeds even that large gap; it’s expected to grow to $861 million by 2014, thanks in part to contributions to the pension fund for CTU teachers. 

The $400 million increase in the CPS offer over the next four years would have made the situation even worse.  Yet rather than accept that while the city and state try to find other ways to balance the budget and improve performance, the teachers walked out on hundreds of thousands of students, many poor and disadvantaged – not least by their own public school system – and stuck to what the late Mike Royko often insisted was the city’s true motto: Ubi est mea?  Where’s mine?

That attitude ended up breaking the political strength of public-employee unions in Wisconsin.  It may do the same in Chicago, especially with parents.  The bêtes noires of the CTU, charter schools, have stayed open during the strike, and they’re reporting an upsurge of interest from parents since the CTU first started threatening a strike a few months ago.  Teachers may be fighting for their right to party on the public dime today, but the party may be over sooner than they think – and the push to reform public unions will gather even more strength.