Reform v. Rights: The Windy City’s Teachers Walk Out

The teachers say they want more job protection and more money. The school-board president said there’s “only so much money.” The mayor says the teachers should have stayed at the bargaining table. And parents of Chicago public school students are left holding the bag. After weeks of negotiations, Sunday night the Chicago Teachers Union called it quits, its president declaring, according to the Chicago Tribune, “No CTU members will be inside of our schools Monday.”

Some 140 of the district’s schools will remain open from 8:30 to 12:30, but without any of their 25,000 teachers, according to a CPS contingency plan. That leaves more than 500 schools empty in the nation’s third-largest school district (serving over 400,000 students).

According to the Tribune,

  • CPS had offered a 16 percent salary increase over four years, but the CTU said it wanted more health care benefits and bigger first-year increase to compensate for longer school days.
  • With rumors that CPS might close 100 schools, the CTU wanted guarantees that laid-off teachers would be recalled.
  • There was disagreement over the role of student performance in teacher evaluations.

These are all very familiar issues in public education. But teacher strikes have become rare. (See Rick Hess and Marty West’s 2006 Ed Next story.) Strikes are a risky business, especially in an era when teacher unions have been on the defensive, if not on the ropes, and parents now have options they never had before; there are 114 charter schools in Chicago, all of them open today. There hasn’t been a teacher strike in Chicago since 1987, a very different era in public education, several years before the choice movement took off and long before the standards movement began to shine a spotlight on school responsibility—and, by extension, teacher responsibility—for student performance. In fact, 1987 might be a high-water mark in teacher union power (though Hess and West write that, nationally, a strike high-water mark came in 1975); after all, “before that 1987 strike,” reports the Tribune,

the threat was a near-annual event; from 1969 through 1987, there were nine work stoppages, ranging from two days in 1985 to the 19-day marathon in 1987. Classes didn’t resume until Oct. 5. Teachers generally fought for higher pay, better benefits, smaller class sizes and sometimes a school holiday. In the 1985 stoppage, the teachers won a 6 percent raise—and Casimir Pulaski Day.

Though CTU teachers have been practicing the strike for a couple of months, this is a new era for the unions. In fact, Chicago’s charter schools, which are not unionized and enroll over 50,000 students, stand as a hugely visible reminder that there are schooling options; that the union’s power to shut down Chicago’s public schools does not have the sting it once did. As Mike points out in his post this morning, “This drama is playing out in Chicago but how it’s reported in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Columbus could very well impact the election.”

Given the national spotlight, there will be tremendous pressure to resolve this labor dispute quickly. After all, both President Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, are from Chicago; and the city’s new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, remains a key Obama advisor. Public-education reform makes some of the strangest of bedfellows in these politically partisan times.

My prediction: The walk-out will be brief and, in the end, will tell us more about the power of politics than about the issues facing our nation’s schools.

-Peter Meyer

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Board’s Eye View blog.

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