The strike carried political implications, too, raising the risk of a protracted labor battle in President Barack Obama’s hometown at the height of the fall campaign, with a prominent Democratic mayor and Obama’s former chief of staff squarely in the middle. Emanuel’s forceful demands for reform have angered the teachers.
The teachers walked out Sept. 10 after months of tense contract talks that for a time appeared to be headed toward a peaceful resolution.
Emanuel and the union agreed in July on a deal to implement the longer school day with a plan to hire back 477 teachers who had been laid off rather than pay regular teachers more to work longer hours. That raised hopes the contract would be settled before the start of fall classes, but bargaining stalled on other issues.
Emanuel decried the teachers’ decision to leave classrooms, calling the walkout unnecessary and a “strike of choice.”
Chicago’s long history as a union stronghold seemed to work to the teachers’ advantage. As they walked the picket lines, they were joined by many of the very people who were most inconvenienced by the work stoppage: parents who had to scramble to find babysitters or a supervised place for children to pass the time.
To win friends, the union engaged in something of a publicity campaign, telling parents repeatedly about problems with schools and the barriers that have made it more difficult to serve their kids. They described classrooms that are stifling hot without air conditioning, important books that are unavailable and supplies as basic as toilet paper that are sometimes in short supply.
Wilonda Cannon, a single mother in North Lawndale, a West Side neighborhood beset by gang shootings and poverty, was relieved to know her two youngest kids would be returning to their grammar school after spending much of the strike in the care of their grandfather.
Cannon hoped the deal would “get all the schools, or at least some of them, to a place where the atmosphere is more conducive to learning” and that it would put “more support structures in place for both the students and the teachers.”
As the strike entered its second week, Emanuel turned to the courts, filing a lawsuit to force teachers to come back to work.
The clash upended a district in which the vast majority of students are poor and minority. Administrators staffed more than 140 schools with non-union workers so students who are dependent on school-provided meals would have a place to eat breakfast and lunch.
When the two sides met at the bargaining table, money was only part of the problem. With an average salary of $76,000, Chicago teachers are already among the highest-paid in the nation. The district’s final proposal included an average 7 percent raise over three years, with additional raises for experience and education.
But the evaluations and job security measures stirred the most intense debate.
The union said the evaluation system was unfair because it relied too heavily on test scores and did not take into account outside factors that affect student performance such as poverty, violence and homelessness.
The union also pushed for a policy to give laid-off teachers first dibs on open jobs anywhere in the district. The district said that would prevent principals from hiring the best-qualified teachers.
When he took office last year, Emanuel inherited a school district facing a $700 million budget shortfall. Not long after, his administration rescinded 4 percent raises for teachers.
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