29,000 public school workers and support staff walk out – Chicago’s largest teachers’ strike in 25 years

They say the best negotiations are the ones where all parties involved walk away a little disappointed.

The date is 10 September, 2012 – a Chicago Monday that is blistering with heat.  Karen Lewis, the leader of the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU), stands still for a moment, and breathes in the warm morning air, the weight of what she is about to do making itself fully felt on her shoulders.  She is, in a few minutes, going to successfully lead over twenty-nine thousand workers, most of them educators and support staff for the Chicago Public School system, to strike.  A walk-out of this size and importance has not been seen in the city of Chicago in over twenty-five years, since the historic teachers’ strike in 1987.  A strike of this size not just in the state of Illinois, but in the entire country, has not occurred in almost six years, since the Detroit walkout in 2006.  Lewis, for the magnitude of the event she is about to set flame to, stands tall.  It is no small act, to be sure.  Three hundred and fifty thousand students are about to miss over a full week of school, and many say she is to blame.

So what is behind the strike that had parents scrambling to provide some sort of watch for their children for seven long and trying days, while they were off earning a living for their families?  A multitude of reasons that are not chiefly black and white.

After a long nine days, the issues are still a little muddied, but with time comes clearer water.  Each side has wins and losses, and the system could certainly benefit from the newly laid-out contract should it be formally ratified in the coming weeks.  On the list of victories for the union are a lesser weighting of standardized test results in teacher evaluations (originally the Mayor had pushed for this to count as 45% of their evaluations, which was then brought down to 30%, as mandated by state law), and a 17.6% pay raise over the next four years.  But this plan is not without flaw:  it will add some seventy-four million dollars to the budget over the next four years.  While this $74 million is still much lower than the $129 million cost of the last annual deal, it is still a $74 million that the Chicago Public School system (CPS) simply does not have.

The fact that the budgetary effects of the strike are not yet completely clear certainly puts more pressure and attention of the Mayor to see what he will do next.  But Rahm Emanuel, the Mayor of Chicago, has certainly not walked away from this deal empty-handed, nor without his own victories to tout.  Emanuel certainly did prevail in the salary facet of the deal; as aforementioned the unions won a 17.6% pay raise over the next four years.  Originally, however, the CTU was insistent upon seeking a 30% raise over the next four years.  The fact that Emanuel lowered it almost a full thirteen percent is no small accomplishment.  Beyond budgetary issues, the mayor also walked away with both a longer school day and a longer school year, effectively adding on approximately two entire years of in-school time to a student who were to begin school next year.

The contract deal that was finally endorsed late Tuesday night is “an honest compromise,” said Emanuel, only after the teachers had agreed to return to teaching the next day.  Lewis is less enthused by the outcome of the deal, but she remains optimistic, and focusing on the students.  In response to the mayor’s remarks on Tuesday, she said that “There is no such thing as a contract that will make all of us happy, and we’re realistic about that.  I think this has been an opportunity for people across the nation to have their voices heard, and I think we’re moving in the right direction,” she said.

A good deal is one where everyone walks away a little unhappy, longing for a little more.  It is just as Lewis says – and the losses, the things that each side craves more and more – a more perfect companionship of government and educators; more support for students; more support from government; better pay; more responsibility on educators, will all ultimately lead us down a road that can only be beneficial to everyone involved.  Because if everyone walks away a little unhappy, then everyone wins a little bit each time, too.

Article by Nicholas Knebel

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