Waukegan strike shows need for labor law reform

Paul Kersey

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

Paul Kersey
/ Labor
October 24, 2014

Waukegan strike shows need for labor law reform

Waukegan Public Schools have been closed for more than three weeks because of a teacher strike called by the Lake County Federation of Teachers. At this point, the acrimony between the union and the administration must be severe; and the children who attend the district’s schools, along with a lot of teachers, are stuck in...

Waukegan Public Schools have been closed for more than three weeks because of a teacher strike called by the Lake County Federation of Teachers. At this point, the acrimony between the union and the administration must be severe; and the children who attend the district’s schools, along with a lot of teachers, are stuck in the middle.

The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act is supposed to create a positive relationship between teachers and administrators. But as Waukegan’s example proves, it’s not.

The school district, Waukegan Community Unit School District 60, was serving families poorly long before the teacher strike began. Only a quarter of Waukegan 11th graders passed the Prairie State Achievement Exam (compared to over 50 percent statewide), and only 16 percent of Waukegan’s graduating seniors were considered ready for college by the American College Test (compared to 46 percent statewide). Chicago Public Schools performed better than Waukegan’s district on both measurements. And their teacher strike, ugly as it was, only lasted seven school days.

Nonetheless, the union is demanding big raises in a district where the median family income is only $52,000 and the average worker makes less than $25,000 according to the U.S. Census. The Lake County Federation of Teachers, while being evasive on the details, is demanding that Waukegan teachers, who earned an average of $57,000 in 2012, receive pay hikes in the 25 percent range over the next three years.

One can argue that teachers deserve the raises, and that the educational failures of Waukegan and Chicago and other districts are more the fault of administrators than teachers. But looking at what is happening in public schools, it becomes clear that the state’s labor law is not working like it’s supposed to. The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act was intended to – in the act’s own words – “promote orderly and constructive relationships between all educational employees and their employers.” The General Assembly that passed the law realized that “[u]nresolved disputes between the educational employees and their employers are injurious to the public” and sought to “minimize” them. But all too often the law aggravates disputes.

There are a number of reasons this is so: union power coupled with unaccountability, a secretive bargaining process and union officials who are all too prone to make bad economic decisions.

Illinois families deserve better than to have schools shut down because union officials and school administrators cannot work out their differences. Illinois should take long-term and short-term steps to minimize the harm caused by labor strife. First, families should be offered more educational choices. Families can then reward schools – and teachers – who maintain good relations, and punish those that are prone to disruptive strikes. One suspects that the strike in Waukegan either wouldn’t have happened or would at least have been settled a lot faster if both sides knew they were liable to lose students every day the strike went on.

Second, the labor law needs to be rewritten to make the process more open and union officials more accountable for their actions. The public deserves to know what is being negotiated before they are stuck paying the bill, and teachers should not be forced to pay dues to a union that they don’t believe in and whose demands may actually be hurting them over the long haul.

Waukegan is just one more example of the Illinois labor law’s failure. It’s time for a change.

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