The CTU strike, one year later – the battle lives on

Paul Kersey

Labor law expert, occasional smart-aleck, defender of the free society.

Paul Kersey
/ Labor
September 10, 2013

The CTU strike, one year later – the battle lives on

A year ago, schoolchildren throughout Chicago were returning to class as the Chicago Teachers Union, or CTU, and Chicago Public Schools, or CPS, officials reached an agreement, ending a bitter nine-day strike. Looking back on the strike and its aftermath, there were few clear winners; but there were many losers. In the wake of the...

A year ago, schoolchildren throughout Chicago were returning to class as the Chicago Teachers Union, or CTU, and Chicago Public Schools, or CPS, officials reached an agreement, ending a bitter nine-day strike. Looking back on the strike and its aftermath, there were few clear winners; but there were many losers.

In the wake of the generous new contract that emerged from this agreement, about 3,000 CPS employees lost their jobs – including 1,456 teachers. Nearly fifty CPS schools closed their doors.

It shouldn’t be like this. Education isn’t supposed to be a zero-sum game. The system should work so that as long as kids are learning, everyone else wins, too. But it isn’t. In fact, a year after the strike, the contest of wills goes on.

The one clear winner was the CTU and its President, Karen Lewis. They walked away with a contract that was written largely on their terms. They won raises averaging of 17.6 percent over four years for most teachers. They succeeded in watering down performance evaluations, subverting state law in the process. Union officials cemented their reputation as a force to be reckoned with in Chicago.

For teachers themselves, the contract turned out to be a huge gamble. The district was in bad financial shape even before the strike, with its cash reserves close to exhaustion, and staring at a $1 billion deficit the year after. The district’s pension fund was severely underfunded – and it remains that way today, with a debt total of $8 billion.

Chicago families also came out on the losing end, and not just for the obvious reasons. It’s not simply a matter of the union largely preserving the status quo in a district where fewer than two-thirds of students graduate, and those who do are overwhelmingly not prepared for college. Out of 100 entering freshmen at Chicago public high schools, only six will go on to college and receive bachelor’s degrees.

Making matters worse, schools double as the ring in an ongoing political wrestling match between the union and CPS administration. The end of the strike has not been the end of the conflict. The union continues to accuse Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his appointed school board of bad faith and even racism.

All of this turmoil makes it even more difficult to provide an education. A school district is far more likely to succeed when principals, administrators and teachers are all pulling in the same direction. That can’t be said about CPS, where the union is more committed to unseating the mayor than they are to providing a good education. The strike may be over, but a year later the conflict continues, and Chicago’s children are still caught in the middle.

The CTU strike, and its aftermath, is the clearest example of the failure of our labor law in public education. It escalates conflicts more than it resolves them. It is prone to reward radical union officials at the expense of teachers who might prefer a more constructive dialogue. It certainly hasn’t helped CPS manage its operations or deliver quality education. The strife is neither necessary nor productive.

It is time we tried a different approach, one that gives a voice to all teachers and not just those who hold union offices. We shouldn’t assume that all teachers agree with one union, and we should give teachers in particular more choices when it comes to representation. And we should set limits on the bargaining process so that union bosses cannot block needed reforms that would improve the quality of teaching, such as stronger evaluations and merit pay.

There is a better way. It starts by realizing that public schools are not supposed to be battlegrounds.

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