Chicago teacher strike poses test for unions


If the Chicago Teachers Union loses its fight with the district, it could have ripple effects around the country. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

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 education reform movement seeks to expand charter schools, get private companies involved with failing schools, and link teacher evaluations to student test scores.

The unions 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.

Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are “a bit weaker,” said Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning 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.”

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union—the AFT’s oldest local—walked off the job Sept. 10 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.

For more news about labor-management relations, see:

Seeking respect, Wisconsin teachers go abroad

School groups craft seven-part plan for improving teaching

New teacher evaluation framework promises to serve students, and educators, fairly

ED to unions, districts: Can’t we all just get along?

How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration

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 [school reform issues] 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 the 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 progressive-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C.

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 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.

For more news about labor-management relations, see:

Seeking respect, Wisconsin teachers go abroad

School groups craft seven-part plan for improving teaching

New teacher evaluation framework promises to serve students, and educators, fairly

ED to unions, districts: Can’t we all just get along?

How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration

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.

“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.”

Teachers have been on the defensive in recent years amid what they see as a rising tide of anti-teacher sentiment nationwide, fueled partly by public resentment of unions. Teachers also feel they are being singled out unfairly for students’ poor academic performance—something that is largely a result of societal factors beyond their control, they argue, such as parents’ attitudes at home and a public school funding system that is inequitable because it relies largely on a community’s local tax base.

Teachers also are frustrated at how they have been portrayed in recent movies, such as the documentary Waiting for ‘Superman,’ which blamed unions for the problems plaguing U.S. public education. Teachers are worried about a similar portrayal 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.

AFT President Randi 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.

Teachers’ union leaders have been trying to change the public’s perception that they stand in the way of education reform. At the AFT’s annual meeting in Detroit in July, Weingarten promoted what she called “solution-based unionism,” a new kind of activism that “focuses on solving problems, not on winning arguments.” She said that’s how the AFT must respond to years of cuts to public education funding and attacks on collective bargaining rights.

Rampant cuts in education have hurt both teachers and students, she said, “and they’ve made it impossible to maintain the same level of quality we have tried to provide.”

“More than ever, we need to act in innovative, creative, and new ways—simultaneously refuting our critics, advancing our values, connecting with community, and proposing solutions. That’s solution-driven unionism,” she said.

The Obama administration has pushed for unions and school district administrators to work together to tackle tough problems, convening an annual Labor-Management Relations summit for the past two years. The summit has highlighted examples of successful labor-management collaboration in districts nationwide.

The Chicago strike has become a political rallying cry for the Republican Party. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said that striking Chicago teachers are turning their backs on thousands of students and that President Barack Obama is rooting for the absent educators. Obama’s top spokesman said the president has not taken sides but is urging both the teachers and the city to settle quickly.

For more news about labor-management relations, see:

Seeking respect, Wisconsin teachers go abroad

School groups craft seven-part plan for improving teaching

New teacher evaluation framework promises to serve students, and educators, fairly

ED to unions, districts: Can’t we all just get along?

How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration

Emanuel called Romney’s statement “lip service” as the contract dispute in the nation’s third-largest school system inserted itself into the hard-fought presidential campaign.

Romney said he chooses to side with the parents and students, echoing his oft-repeated campaign speech claim that teachers’ unions are out for themselves.

“We ought to put the kids first in this country, and the teacher’s union goes behind,” Romney, in the Chicago area for a fundraiser, told conservative syndicated radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt in a telephone interview. “As president, I will stand up and say, look, these teachers unions are not acting in the—with the best interest of the kids in mind.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama was monitoring the situation in his hometown but was not itching to get involved.

“We hope that both sides are able to come together to settle this quickly and in the best interests of Chicago’s students,” Carney told reporters.

Obama political aides in Chicago criticized Romney for seeking advantage and pointed to his repeated campaign statements that class size does not affect a student’s education.

“Playing political games with local disputes won’t help educate our kids, nor will fewer teachers,” said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.

Emanuel, Obama’s former White House chief of staff, was more direct in dismissing Romney.

“While I appreciate his lip service, what really counts is what we are doing here,” Emanuel told reporters. “I don’t give two hoots about national comments scoring political points or trying to embarrass—or whatever—the president.”

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