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Sep 23

Reflections on the Chicago Teachers’ Strike

This past Wednesday, an overwhelming majority of delegates for the Chicago Teachers Union (“CTU”) voted to end the union’s ten-day strike.[1] The strike was the CTU’s first in over twenty-five years,[2] and many spectators believe it has fundamentally changed the national conversations about education policy and labor alike.

The negotiations that have paved the way for a new contract between the city and the CTU led both parties to make concessions. The teachers did not receive as substantial a raise as they had hoped, but they successfully resisted several significant changes that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel sought to impose, including a new teacher evaluation program, and they instituted a new recall policy for top teachers who are laid off as a result of school closings.[3] Mayor Emanuel counted his efforts toward implementing a longer school day among his successes during the negotiations.[4] Although the CTU President, Karen Lewis, has expressed some dissatisfaction with the substance of the new agreement, she regards the strike as successful and anticipates that the delegates will approve it during the coming weeks.[5]

As the Chicago teachers’ strike drew to a close, many questions remained unanswered. Some continued wondering whether the essential questions underlying the dispute, like the propriety of tying teacher evaluations to students’ standardized test scores or the specter of increasing competition from charter schools, were adequately resolved. Because both the city and the union made concessions in the new contract, others queried who “won.”[6] One facet of the strike that especially captured the popular imagination is assessing what impact this strike will have during these crucial weeks leading up to the presidential election,[7] especially in view of President Obama’s conspicuous silence during a dispute that has special salience for the President.

Because the Chicago public school system is the third-largest in the country,[8] onlookers have viewed this strike as something of a referendum on the troubled state of public education and the continuing role of public sector labor unions.[9] In light of the ongoing fight between Wisconsin public employees and Governor Scott Walker, it is perhaps not an exaggeration to say, as Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers Union did, that the strike in Chicago was an “epic battle.”[10] Labor leaders like Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, have applauded the teachers, emphasizing that they have the right to reframe the conversation about education policy because of their unique perspective on what kinds of change are necessary to improve education.[11] It seems likely that the CTU will galvanize teachers’ unions across the country in speaking out on behalf of their needs and the best interests of students as the debate about education policy grows ever fiercer.

 


[1] Monica Davey & Steven Yaccino, Teachers End Chicago Strike on Second Try, N.Y. Times, Sept. 18, 2012, at A1.

[2] See id.

[3] Ellen Jean Hirst & Jennifer Delgado, It’s Back to School Again for Chicago Students, Chi. Tribune, Sept. 19, 2012, available at http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-09-19/news/chi-todays-assignment-seal-deal-with-chicago-teachers-20120918_1_chicago-teachers-union-chicago-students-first-day.

[4] Davey & Yaccino, supra note 1.

[5] Id.

[6] Valerie Strauss, Who Won the Chicago Teachers Strike?, Wash. Post, Sept. 19, 2012, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/who-won-the-chicago-teachers-strike/2012/09/18/974b5efa-020b-11e2-b257-e1c2b3548a4a_blog.html.

[7] See Lyndsey Layton, Peter Wallsten, & Bill Turque, Chicago Teachers Strike Places Obama at Odds with Key Part of Political Base, Wash. Post, Sept. 11, 2012, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/chicago-teachers-strike-places-obama-at-odds-with-key-part-of-political-base/2012/09/11/df89a776-fc2a-11e1-b153-218509a954e1_story.html.

[8] Davey & Yaccino, supra note 1.

[9] Monica Davey & Steven Greenhouse, School Days Resume in Chicago as the Lessons from a Strike Are Assessed, N.Y. Times, Sept. 19, 2012, at A19.

[10] Layton, Wallsten & Turque, supra note 7.

[11] See id.

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