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Education Fri Jun 15 2012

Reactions to Chicago Teachers Union Strike Authorization

A bit about Chicago's teachers voting to authorize a strike should talks with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) break down:

First, a strike authorization is not a call for a strike. Unions are, by statute and traditionally, democratic institutions. Leadership is elected and by-laws approved by the membership. Some organizational decisions require a direct vote by membership (e.g., election of the union leadership) and some through representative bodies--in the case of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), the House of Delegates, composed of delegates elected by members. Because public sector employees are not covered by federal labor law, they are regulated by state laws. So state statutes give public sector workers the right to organize and determine the rules by which they operate. Thus, members delegate authority to the union leadership and other bodies--for example, negotiations are conducted by a negotiation committed chosen by the membership. Similarly, the membership delegates authority to call a strike action by vote. That is what happened; the membership voted to permit leadership to call a strike should one become necessary.

Chicago's teachers voted nearly unanimously to permit a strike should negotiations fail. Ninety-two percent of members voted, and ninety percent of members (but ninety-eight percent of those voting) expressed support for a strike should one be necessary. The analog would be Congress voting to give the President authority to conclude a trade treaty (called "fast-track") without having to return to Congress for ultimate approval; except the strike authorization was more democratic, since all members were permitted to vote.

CPS was obviously not thrilled. CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, somewhat bizarrely, accused "the Union" of offering a false choice between a strike or nothing. Had the vote been close, this would have made more sense. But the authorization was not about wanting to go on strike, but about giving the negotiation team leverage: in other words, the teachers not trusting that CPS would treat their demands seriously. Given the last year of aggressive moves by CPS leadership--unilaterally trying to force through a longer school day, rescinding raises negotiated in good faith, plans to great expand the privatized sector of the system, and turnarounds passed over the objections of the community--this tactic is hardly a surprise. Characterizing it as a result of pressure from the union, rather than a reaction to teachers' treatment by CPS, lacks source in fact.

This was the sentiment expressed in editorials by Greg Hinz of Crain's Chicago Business and Carol Marin in the Sun-Times, that at the very least, teachers had little choice given CPS' aggressive posture.

Marin:

Teachers in this town have been demonized, demoralized, and disrespected. No profession is beyond criticism and no public school system is without significant problems. But taking a sledgehammer approach to CPS teachers and their union has backfired on the Emanuel administration and his schools CEO, Jean-Claude Brizard. And all the radio ads and robo calls funded by out of town, union-busting billionaires doesn't alter that fact. And let's be clear. That strike authorization vote is in no way a statement that Chicago teachers want a strike. They do not. It would be horrible.

Even the Tribune was fairly sympathetic in describing the strike authorization vote as a "roar" of angst from teachers put-upon by demonization, layoffs, and givebacks. The Trib, not incorrectly, focuses on the potential damage actually going on strike would cause for students, parents, and teachers. There's no doubt that nobody wants a strike; but given the practical unanimity of the vote, there's also no doubt that teachers feel like they're against the wall.

Here's Progress Illinois on the strike vote, Fred Klonsky on the same, national education activist and scholar Diane Ravitch; The Ward Room blog and the Trib report on CPS's reactions; Slate reports on it, too; and a plea from a Huff Post blogger not to actually strike.

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