Monday, September 17, 2012


As a relative newcomer to the Chicago area, I've been reluctant to wade into the minefield of local politics, which are intensely complex and more than a little vicious.  Not to mention corruption, which is the norm here--not to mention it, just accept that it exists.  Things are very deep here--how deep, I don't know, because they are unfathomable.

That being said, I have to weigh in a little on the teachers' strike, because it is threatening to become an issue on the national stage and because it is so close.  Not as close as it could be, as there is no direct personal stake for me or my family members, but it is close in the sense of being not far away, close enough I can almost hear the noise.

The background story is fairly easy to describe quickly.  New Mayor Rahm Emanuel made a longer school day one of his promises when inaugurated, something very popular with most observers.  As for those most closely involved, the teachers could hardly object:  the school days were unusually short, the need of the students for more and better education blatantly obvious; I doubt the opinions of the students themselves were considered.  Anyhow, this major change in the terms of employment was absorbed fairly readily:  the Chicago Public Schools' authorities were willing to pay more, the teachers willing to work more.

After that adjustment, things should have gone smoothly.  The initial reason for the strike had to do mostly with job security, initially in the form of resistance to a change in the terms under which teachers and schools would be evaluated.  Essentially, the extremely low odds of a Chicago Public Schools teacher ever being dismissed due to ineffectiveness had to change, and evaluations based on the students' performance on standardized tests were going to be the vector of change.

Now, I have heard the objections from those who back the teachers in this dispute.  Most of them center around the fact that the teachers have many factors which are beyond their control, and to make their jobs depend on overcoming those difficulties would be unfair.  This is tough, but the facts are that students must be educated better, and there needs to be an objective standard of measurement of that progress.  It is entirely appropriate to take into account the starting point for students each year, and to make targets realistic based on those circumstances, but it will not do to say that there are no expectations.  

Somehow, there was something like a tentative agreement on the subject by the end of last week between the negotiators for the school system and the Chicago Teachers Union.  There was hope that school would start back on Monday.  But no--the Union insisted that they have time to consider the proposed deal and said they would vote on Tuesday (Monday being Rosh Hashanah).  Not too auspicious, but not a disaster.

It is at this point that Mayor Emanuel seemed to lose his bearings, seeking an injunction from the courts against the strike which would force the teachers back to work.  The argument was that state law specifically prohibits the CTU from striking on non-economic issues, and teachers' pay was not the issue. 

I don't want to argue the merits of the suit; the city has a point, but it appears the real issue is one that is at least partly economic:  a hidden agenda to close some of the schools--either the poorer-performing ones or ones that are under-attended.  Teachers would lose jobs, and then the question of the evaluations of the laid-off teachers would come into play as to whether they would ever be rehired. The CPS denies there is such an agenda, but it hardly seems improbable, and the CTU is reluctant to agree to go back to work and then get the shiv in the back.

My point is that Emanuel's move, and its timing, will undoubtedly antagonize the union, and I would be surprised if they vote to accept the agreement in the newly re-charged atmosphere.  The question now is whether the union had negotiated in good faith, and whether the city had done so.

The broader issues are whether public unions like the teachers' are something states and municipalities should tolerate--do they provide value to education or harm it, and is it appropriate to limit the right of these employees to organize?  This is an issue that is coming up time and again--recently, in Wisconsin, in Ohio, and elsewhere.  The Democrats have fairly consistently backed the right of public employees to organize, and the Republicans have looked to limit that right.  In Chicago, the pragmatic Emanuel is breaking with that stereotype, taking on the teachers; he doesn't challenge their right to organize, but is challenging the scope of what they can effectively bargain about with their employers.

There is another angle that affects the national election:  Emanuel is one of President Obama's key people, his former Chief of Staff, and a very public backer and fundraiser (up until the strike), and this is Obama's city.  It's not just that Obama is answerable for the settlement of the strike; it's that it seems that in the public eye he's responsible for everything that happens in the country (in fact, in the world, as last week's strife in the Middle East showed), in particular for that involving his people, his party, his city. 

If the strike drags on, it has the potential of upsetting the positive momentum he and the Democrats have been enjoying since the conventions.  So, I expect some discreet calls to Emanuel to cool it and settle it.  Emanuel will have to swallow the bile he apparently felt when union agreement to the settlement was not assured, and he will either drop his suit in a show of goodwill, or, if his suit should succeed Wednesday, be magnanimous in victory and offer the same terms in victory that his people negotiated last week in the bargaining stage.  If he should lose the suit, though, there will be enormous pressure on him to concede something to the CTU to get them back to the table, and then back to work.

1 comment:

Chin Shih Tang said...

CST -- The deal was made that day. Rahm gave a bit on the recall of laid-off teachers and it was done. Now, he just has to figure out how to pay for it (the school closings that the teachers were--rightly, it seems--concerned about). Ends reasonably well; Rahm was on a bit of a bad streak (the strike, the continuing gang problems, the judge who said he could only give speeding tickets in a school zone with cameras if there is a kid in the picture); I still wish him well.