Chicago Teachers Union Strike

Back to October 2012 Ed Reporter

Chicago Teachers Union Strike

What could be more improbable than the Chicago Teachers Union demanding a 30% pay increase over the next two years when the Chicago Public School District already faces a $700 million deficit this year? How about expecting Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s strategist, fundraiser and former chief of staff, to allow a protracted strike to occur during an election year?

The Chicago strike was resolved after just seven days. The real question is why the strike happened in the first place. The main issues were salary increases, teacher evaluations, job security, and school day length.

Some of the highest-paid teachers in the U.S., who also have the shortest workday, were striking for more money, no accountability, and better job security. The strike also served to distract attention from the elephant-in-the-room issues facing Chicago Public Schools: failure to educate, near bankruptcy, and even total collapse under the weight of previous union victories over salaries, benefits, and pensions.

Polls showed that just over half of CPS parents supported the union’s decision to strike. Once the strike was underway, “Many [families] described a week of chaos behind them: missed days of work, a patchwork of pleading for baby-sitting favors, and children who seemed confused and out of sorts to suddenly be missing what for many of them [was] the second week of a new school year.” NY Times, 9-14-12

District and union negotiators were not very far apart on the issues once the process started, leaving many Chicago residents wondering why the teachers took to the streets. Mayor Emanuel called it “a strike of choice.” Leftist author Rick Perlstein wrote at, “The CTU stumbled at negotiations out of the gate, asking for a 30% raise that made them look just like the mercenary self-seekers right-wing critics always claim municipal unions are: a cash-extorting cartel against the taxpaying public.”

The CTU was already angry with the mayor for trying to halt their 4% salary increase last year, for calling for more charter schools, and for grumbling about the length of the school day. Personalities played a role with Mayor Emanuel and CTU President Karen Lewis posturing for TV cameras, leading Steven Greenhut to write in Human Events online, “The only enjoyable aspect of the Chicago-strike spectacle is watching two bullies – Emanuel and the leader of the union – battle it out in front of the TV cameras.” He fatalistically added, “And, whatever progress Emanuel makes under the settlement, the system will slog along in its current shape, one way or another.”

The Issues

Salary: The CTU asked for a 30% salary increase for teachers over two years. This is laughable when the average Chicago teacher already makes $76,000 a year, before benefits, while the average Chicago family earns $47,000 annually. The union rejected a 16% salary increase over four years and ended up accepting a 17% increase at a time when most American families are praying to keep current jobs or struggling to find work. This is before benefits, which remarkably includes paying only 3% of their medical premium.

Teacher evaluation: The CTU was satisfied with no accountability for teachers but student test scores will be phased in over three years to become 30% of each teacher’s evaluation (with a healthy appeals process and the first year being a trial run). Teacher accountability was already mandated by Illinois state law so this was a dubious victory.

CTU President Karen Lewis said, “After the initial phase-in of the new evaluation system it could result in 6,000 teachers (or nearly 30% of our members) being discharged within one or two years. This is unacceptable.” She seemed to be admitting that almost one-third of teachers are underperforming.

Job security: Emanuel pushed for principals to have sole discretion over hiring for their own schools, but the settlement will force them to draw from previously laid-off teachers to fill some positions. CTU wanted priority re-hiring for laid-off teachers based on seniority regardless of their previous effectiveness or performance record.

School day: The 350,000 students in Chicago attend school fewer hours than any student in the top ten U.S. metro areas. The settlement changes the school day for 350,000 Chicago students to seven hours from under six.

Just how successful are Chicago Public Schools, which employ highly paid teachers and spend $13,000 per student? There is a 56% graduation rate and in 2010-11 only 31% of CPS high school students met or exceeded Illinois state academic standards. In 2011, only 21% of Chicago public school 8th-graders ranked proficient or better overall in the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) and only 20% of Chicago 8th-graders rated proficient or better in math on NAEP tests.

Perhaps most telling of all is that 39% of the 26,000 CPS teachers send their own children to private schools; they have the funds to do so and perhaps this signifies their own fear that CPS cannot adequately educate.

In addition to its other troubles, CPS faces a growing pension crisis. Out of every dollar set side for public education in Illinois in the past 5 years, a full 71 cents have gone to teacher retirement costs, according to the National Review. The Illinois State teacher pension fund is less than 20% funded. In order to cut budgets, the school district has only partially funded teacher’s pensions and even skipped contributions completely in some years. According to the Illinois Policy Institute, Chicago Public schools’ contribution to teachers’ pensions will jump from $231 million to $684 million between 2013 and 2014, as state law forces them to catch up on delinquent pension contributions.

“There’s a huge [pension fund] crisis and the problem does not get easier by waiting. The problem gets bigger, and starts to become an insurmountable obstacle.” said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a nonpartisan research organization in Chicago that works on fiscal issues.

On Saturday, Sept. 15, a large rally in Chicago included numerous teachers and labor members from out of state, emphasizing the strike’s importance to teacher unions and school districts nationwide. Both unions and municipalities elsewhere could be emboldened by the Chicago strike. Teachers around the country have grievances. States and school districts are facing budget shortfalls. Timothy Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, told Education Weekly that, “If labor prevails or is perceived as prevailing, it’s probably going to motivate more AFT [American Federation of Teachers] affiliates to take a harder line in negotiations.”

Michelle Rhee, former head of the Washington school system and an advocate of changes in education, said that Emanuel standing up to the union signaled “a new day.” She continued, “When someone like that is willing to take those issues on in a lot of ways it gives cover to other mayors.”

One parent summed up the Chicago strike and settlement this way: “I feel like [the children] were completely used as pawns in this.” For now, Chicago schoolchildren are back in school. But in Wisconsin a lower court judge has struck down the anti-union law championed by Gov. Scott Walker even after a strike, huge demonstrations, and a recall election. Could similar judicial intervention unhinge the settlement deals made in Chicago?
As Mike Antonucci stated at before the final vote, “Every member of CTU will get an opportunity to vote up or down on any tentative agreement. The voters of Chicago will not get that privilege, but they will still have to pay for it.”