The Chicago Strike’s Silver Lining

Chicago’s more than 350,000 public school pupils finally went back to class yesterday, after seven missed days due to the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike. They were thus deprived of about four percent of the school year—and these are kids who need more schooling, not less. (One big issue in the labor-management dispute was Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to lengthen Chicago’s famously bobtailed school day and year.)

Thanks a bunch, CTU.

This strike—the first big one by teachers in ages—will be examined every which way for months to come, and the contract that was finally agreed upon will be carefully autopsied. (If you’d like to see a careful analysis of a previous Chicago teacher contract, download Fordham’s Leadership Limbo report and flip to page fifty. If you’d like to inspect the contract that was in force until a couple of months ago—be warned that it’s 176 pages long!—you can access it from the National Council on Teacher Quality’s website.)

As for the new contract, my friends at NCTQ are more bullish than I am. Rick Hess’s take seems closer to the mark. Yes, it contains a handful of features from Rahm’s reform shopping list. But every one of them was weakened, diluted, deferred, or made very expensive for a city that can ill afford the added cost.

Here is what the CTU said to its own members in advance of Tuesday’s ratification vote:

Cities everywhere have been forced to adopt performance pay. Not here in Chicago! Months ago, CTU members won a strike authorization vote that our enemies thought would be impossible- now we have stopped the Board from imposing merit pay! We preserved our lanes and steps when the politicians and press predicted they were history. We held the line on healthcare costs….

And here’s what AFT president Randi Weingarten said in hailing the ratification:

CTU President Karen Lewis and her leadership team, with whom the AFT worked closely throughout this process, have represented their members well and made clear that their concerns go beyond wages and benefits to include all the issues affecting their students’ education. They demonstrated that collective bargaining is an essential tool to strengthen public schools.

But of course that’s precisely what this episode did not demonstrate. What it demonstrated was that what teacher unions care about has practically nothing to do with what’s good for the kids and everything to do with what teachers want for themselves. They are fundamentally selfish.

You can say that’s what unions exist to do. I don’t know for sure if the late Albert Shanker actually did declare that “when kids vote in union elections, that’s when I’ll worry about them” or words to that effect. But yes, it’s a fact that unions look after their members.

Let them then not pretend otherwise, despite all this talk by Randi Weingarten and Karen Lewis about the new CTU contract being in the best interest of Chicago’s schoolchildren. It’s not. Rahm’s original proposals were—and were more affordable, to boot.

We’ve seen a few instances in recent years of labor unions eventually realizing that the health of their industry and the quality of its products actually bear, in the long run, on their own jobs and well-being. The United Auto Workers eventually figured that out with regard to the U.S. auto industry. But not until Detroit’s “Big Three” were collapsing. And other major industries actually did collapse—“Big Steel,” for instance—in large part because their unions never got the message that it was bad for them to have those jobs move to Korea or Brazil.

Other industries—look at the airlines—have to declare bankruptcy in order to get out from under labor contracts that are, in fact, helping to bankrupt them. That’s because their unions were (and are), like the CTU, attending only to the interests, priorities, and preferences of the employees who belong to them.

By week two of the Chicago strike, I suspect, residents of the Windy City were figuring this out. At the outset, they tended to blame Rahm, not the CTU, for the walkout. But when a compromise was struck by district and union representatives—a compromise, I repeat, that is about the employees’ interests, not the kids’ or the taxpayers’—and the union still continued to strike for two utterly unnecessary days, Chicago’s parents and voters must have realized that this was indeed about selfish employees, not provocative mayors.

And that, I believe, is the principal long-term good that may come out of this for the country as a whole. Whitney Tilson got it right when he commented the other day that

the outrageous, selfish, greedy behavior by the union is an absolute godsend to we [sic] reformers. Parents in Chicago – and everyone else who’s paying attention across the country – are so mad that they can’t see straight – and it’s now 100% directed at the union. This will benefit us in Chicago and nationally for years to come. This type of behavior isn’t an outlier of course: so many teachers unions in cities and states all over the country are so disconnected from reality, so arrogant, and so used to bullying everyone that they do self-destructive things like this regularly, greatly diminishing whatever public support they might have. It may well be the greatest asset we reformers have.

Let’s hope he’s right. Then let’s make the most of it.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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