Why Chicago Teachers Are Really Striking (Hint: It is Not About Money)

Let’s start with this thesis: nobody likes a strike. In this day and age, unions don't strike capriciously. In Chicago it’s been 25 years since teachers last struck and you can be sure the 26,000 of the teachers and support staff walking picket lines today aren’t happy about it. It may be that the time frame, during the closing days of a major election cycle, played a part in the timing. It has certainly elevated the strike and the teacher’s concerns to a national issue. But the teachers' concerns are real.

They are important enough that strikers are giving up wages they would have made if they had stayed on the job and leaving the parents of a third of a million students wondering where their kids can safely go while the city’s schools are closed. Nor can Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel be happy butting heads with the Chicago Teachers’ Union.

So why? It is not greed as some union detractors suggest; both sides, the union and the schools, say they are close to agreement on wages. Moreover, though the schools claim to be broke, last year they diverted about $70 million to payments to the Chicago police department for services that should have been paid for under prior years’ agreements. The schools did so to avoid paying teachers a promised 4% contractual raise last school year, the union claims. That money came largely from teacher salaries and unemployment benefits.

It’s not a disconnect between teachers and students’ families. A recent poll showed that three quarters of Chicago voters have a strong positive opinion of teachers and 57% have a positive opinion of the union. Many parents have been joining teachers on picket lines.

So if it’s not money, what are the issues that drove the two sides to impasse and put teachers out on the street? The most important is job security. Teachers rightly fear job evaluations based largely on the scores their students make on standardized tests. Yes, the tests are valuable, but without considering demographics, poverty and social factors, the test scores cannot fairly dominate. Teachers are equally frustrated at a proposal that would give new teachers priority over laid-off teachers for job openings in the schools.

The schools are also proposing to make the school day 20% longer without providing additional educational support or adequately compensating teachers for the longer day. Increased costs to teachers of health benefits, increased classroom crowding and dilapidated schools without air conditioning are also among the serious concerns that finally pushed teachers over the edge into a strike.

As to the issue of whether or not market forces should govern teacher jobs, it has to be a two way street, with schools and teachers jointly working out the best structures for wages, hours and working conditions. Unions provide a balance to employers in ensuring worker rights and job fairness. Moreover, teaching is a moderately paid profession. Yeah, you top out at about $70,000 in Chicago, but that is after how many years of service? And considering the high cost of living in America's third largest metro area, even that's hardly munificent.  

We have seen private sector union strength in the U.S. dwindle to nothing and it is hardly coincidence that we have seen a similar dwindling of the American middle class, loss of pensions, stagnant wages, and a declining standard of living. Public sector workers have been more secure, but pressures on them are growing.

That’s a lot of the reasons Chicago teachers are on strike today.