Last Updated:October 24 @ 08:39 am

Chicago teacher strike poses test for unions

By Sam Hananel

WASHINGTON (AP) - The massive teacher strike in Chicago offers a high-profile test for the nation's teacher unions, which have seen their political influence threatened as a growing reform movement seeks to expand charter schools, get private companies involved with failing schools and link teacher evaluations to student test scores.

Union leaders are taking a major stand on teacher evaluations, one of the key issues in the Chicago dispute. If they lose there, it could have ripple effects around the country.

The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association — the nation's two largest teacher unions — have been playing defense in jurisdictions around the country as Republicans and Democrats alike seek greater concessions in a bid to improve ailing public schools.

After decades of growth in membership and influence, the unions now are in a weaker position, said Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

"They are playing on more hostile terrain and they are facing opponents the likes of which they have not had to face before," Hess said.

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union — the AFT's oldest local — walked off the job Monday for the first time in 25 years over issues that include pay raises, classroom conditions, job security and teacher evaluations.

They are pitted against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a powerful Democrat — and former chief of staff to President Barack Obama — who wants to extract more concessions from teachers while the school district faces a nearly $700 million deficit.

Major teacher strikes have been rare in recent years, compared with the 1960s and 1970s, when teachers went on strike frequently for better pay and improved bargaining rights. While unions generally got what they wanted in the past, they face a tougher climate today.

With the weak economy, unions have seen massive teacher layoffs, increased class sizes and school districts unable or unwilling to boost teacher salaries. Like other public employee unions, they are also under attack from Republican governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who signed a measure last year to curb collective bargaining rights and limit benefits for state workers.

The 2.2-million member NEA has lost more than 100,000 members since 2010, as fewer public school teachers are hired and more charter schools open, most of which are not unionized. At the 1.5 million-member AFT, years of steady growth have leveled off.

"They certainly are on the defensive," said Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. "They are under attack. A lot of times they are demonized. On the other hand there's really smart and progressive elements in the teacher's movement who want to get out ahead of this and do it in a way that's fair."

In the past, teachers unions could count on a Democratic White House to fight back on their behalf. But Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, is a former head of Chicago Public Schools who has pushed for many of the changes that unions oppose.

"In many ways the Obama administration has signed onto the very conservative set of reforms that the education community is imposing on teachers," said Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

Both the NEA and the AFT have strongly endorsed Obama's re-election despite his administration's support of policies to expand charter schools, weaken tenure and base teacher evaluations on how much student performance improves. The Chicago strike could test that alliance, as Obama declines to take a public stand supporting the union.

Evaluating teachers on how much their students improve is a key component of Obama's education policy. His administration has approved waivers freeing many states from the most onerous requirements of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law. In order to get a waiver, each state had to promise to show in other ways that its students and schools are improving, and to more closely link teacher evaluations to student test scores.

The Chicago union argues that the new teacher evaluation system relies too heavily on standardized test scores without considering outside factors such as student poverty, violence and homelessness that can affect performance.

Hess said the Chicago strike has become an important test case after unions lost their effort to recall Wisconsin's governor.

"If it looks like the union folds, especially on the heels of Wisconsin, it's a huge blow for the unions," Hess said. "If the union seems to win, that's going to be a blow to reform-minded mayors and puts some wind into the sails of unions."

There are major differences, though, between the cases in Wisconsin and Chicago.

While Walker effectively challenged public employee unions' collective bargaining rights, both sides in Chicago have been negotiating over traditional labor-management issues. The district proposed a 16 percent raise over four years and the two sides have essentially agreed on a longer school day. But job security and a new teacher evaluation system remained in dispute.

AFT President Randi Weingarten said the union didn't want to strike, but did so only as a last resort after negotiations "that left CTU members feeling disrespected." Among the issues she cited was the mayor's decision this year to strip teachers of an agreed-upon 4 percent raise.

"This is a long-term battle that everyone's going to watch," said Eric Hanuskek, a senior fellow in education at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. "Other teachers unions in the United States are wondering if they should follow suit."

Teacher unions also are growing nervous about how they are portrayed in an upcoming Hollywood movie called "Won't Back Down," set to open in theaters on Sept. 28. The film tells the story of a mother's quest to take control of her daughter's failing elementary school.

Weingarten has blasted the movie as "using the most blatant stereotypes and caricatures I have ever seen" and unfairly blaming unions for the nation's school woes. Union leaders were even more outraged that the movie was screened at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., and that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — the convention chairman — attended the screening.

Villaraigosa is a former union organizer who has spoken out in favor of greater accountability for schools and teachers.

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15 Comments

  1. billwvComment by billwv
    September 11, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

    Since these people do not want the 16% pay raise the course of action should be to pull a Ronald Reagan air controller manuever. Fire every one of them and rehire some people that want to work and teach our children. What a fiasco to deal with these domestic terrorists and try to appease them.

    Fire the whole bunch and start over!

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    Rating: 4.8/5 (26 votes cast)
    • SAnnComment by SAnn
      September 11, 2012 @ 2:27 pm

      Thank you billwv you said exactly my thoughts but I will add this…. BREAK the NEA! No more support to this organization of liberal leftist who rule and are destroying our schools that our tax $$ support. For parents: Take your children out and home school or work two jobs and send them to private schools.

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      Rating: 4.7/5 (15 votes cast)
    • freethinkerComment by freethinker
      September 11, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

      Since Illinois is NOT a right to work state, we would just end up with more union Knuckleheads

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  2. Regina WeinerComment by Regina Weiner
    September 11, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

    As a former teacher, I left the NEA because I did not want my dues paying for political candidates. I joined a professional association that did what it was supposed to do for a lot less money. Rahm Emmanuel is having to deal with the monster he helped create: these spoiled brats who call themselves teachers are embarrassing him publicly to obtain their incredible demands while offering nothing of value in return. They will bankrupt their city, and then wonder why it is being assailed by the kids they never bothered to teach.

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    Rating: 5.0/5 (20 votes cast)
  3. Jeff BonsteelComment by Jeff Bonsteel
    September 11, 2012 @ 3:53 pm

    My prediction: The Chicago teachers strike will be settled quickly and in favor the lions share of the teacher’s demands. It appears they have already agreed to a 16% increase over 4 years, while most other Chicagoan s can probably expect 3 or 4 percent over the same period – if they are lucky.

    With the election fast approaching, the liberals in Chicago and Washington will not want this obvious travesty of union greed and abuse high-lighted in the national discourse any longer than absolutely necessary. They need to shut them up quickly on this one.

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  4. camzComment by camz
    September 11, 2012 @ 4:20 pm

    Perfect, I hope this goes on for about 2 months.

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    Rating: 5.0/5 (7 votes cast)
  5. librabobComment by librabob
    September 11, 2012 @ 4:30 pm

    If Mayor Rahm Emanuel cared anything about the Chicago children and their parents effected by this strike, he would order the striking teacher back to work within 24 hours. Failure to comply should result in their immediate employment termination. I’m sure there are thousands of unemployed teachers nationwide who would love to take those $75K a year jobs and would do so on a non-union basis.

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    • daveevad1Comment by daveevad1
      September 11, 2012 @ 4:42 pm

      Emanuel, like the rest of the Obama Administration, is owned by the unions. The likelihood that he would permit striking employees to be replaced is less than nil.

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    • aretiredgiComment by aretiredgi
      September 12, 2012 @ 12:41 am

      Why would you expect Emanuel to respond any differently to this situation, than his former boss has responded to other major problems?

      Rule #1 in business or any other major organization is to surround yourself with successful people. The current police commissioner and the school superintendent are successful?

      Emanuel is strangely absent from these meetings. The local media seems to think he is too involved with getting his former boss re-elected in November.

      Chicago got what they asked for, a pseudo-mayor. But hey, we’ve had that for more years than I can remember.

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      Rating: 4.5/5 (2 votes cast)
    • jetstreamComment by jetstream
      September 12, 2012 @ 4:37 am

      Up front, I have to state that I do not generally support the teachers’ Unions, primarily because their demands are usually ludicrous, and I believe striking hurts only the children. But, as a former State of Illinois employee and high school teacher (second career), I think it’s necessary to point out several things.

      1. The Chicago school system is definitely not one in which most teachers would prefer to work. Many of the schools are in poor sections of the city the average person wouldn’t voluntarily visit, surrounded by decaying buildings. Most of the school buildings are old; equipment and fixtures are out-dated. Local property tax rates for supporting the schools is around 27%, compared to 50+% in collar counties.
      2. There are huge safety concerns in Chicago. Violence, much gang-based, is a daily concern, not only to the teachers but to the students in their care. There is probably a justifiable case for “hazardous duty pay” in many of the schools.
      3. Based on the high cost of living in Illinois, which is even higher in Chicago, $70,000 is not a large salary by any means for a professional educator. And, no, not many of the unemployed teachers in the nation would choose to work here for that wage. (And I submit they’d be gone in less than a semester if they tried to take it on.)

      Outsiders are quick to make judgements, but the truth of the matter is that the State and now the City are trying to overcome major budgetary deficits that have been created by politicians repeatedly dipping into or under-funding retirement systems of public employees. Budgets cannot be balanced by breaking legally binding contracts for salaries and benefits. The other issues of tenure and performance evaluation are ideological battles that simply have to be worked on.

      And, for the record, the teacher picketing with the misspelled sign should be suspended!

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  6. daveevad1Comment by daveevad1
    September 11, 2012 @ 4:44 pm

    The picture is priceless – a picketer holding a sign saying “Unions Our My Cup of Tea”.

    This is the level of idiot who is teaching English in Chicago.

    It speaks volumes about our teacher training and expectations of schoolteachers. It explains why I, as college faculty, am teaching math to my students they should have learned in middle school – clearly, they’re learning nothing in public school because they’re taught by people who know nothing.

    This needs to be fixed by massive housecleaning. Of course, with union-owned politicians running Chicago it will never happen.

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  7. freethinkerComment by freethinker
    September 11, 2012 @ 4:45 pm

    How about this scenario, Strike goes on for 7-10 days, obama comes riding in on his white horse, meets with the city and teachers, and miraculously the strike is over. The rahm-father and the teachers love each other again, obama gets a big publicity boost. AND THE TAX-PAYERS ARE LEFT HOLDING THE BAG. (this strike is not about money, they already have that, it is about accountability, and who will review the teachers performance)

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    • daveevad1Comment by daveevad1
      September 11, 2012 @ 4:47 pm

      The only things Fearless Leader will review is the number of Democratic votes he will garner and the amount of campaign contributions the union will throw at his feet.

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  8. Tonto (USA)Comment by Tonto (USA)
    September 12, 2012 @ 10:17 pm

    I sincerely doubt this event has anything at all to do with the kiddies who flunk out of Chicago schools at a 50% rate or the teachers “wants” since they are the most highly paid and pampered set of badly performing classroom clowns in the nation….it’s about diverting attention from the Presidential race and Obama’s record of failure. It does, very effectively, give all of us a snapshot of who the idiots are that support Obama and what they are really like.

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  9. caoimhe199Comment by caoimhe199
    September 13, 2012 @ 12:31 am

    I don’t understand why the students
    have to do the work of the teachers.

    That a teacher is ONLY as good as the
    student.Why not have separate tests for
    the teachers that they would have to take
    …say,every two years to see if they are
    up to par.

    That way they can get back to actually educating
    the students instead of making the kids into good
    little test takers…and nothing more.

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