Chicago Teachers Learn How To Hold ‘Em…And Possibly Fold ‘Em

A couple of years ago, I was interviewed for a position at a public school in Cincinnati. The job was some bizarre franken-mesh of an English teacher and an IT guy that sounded as if it had been pulled out of the thin blue nothing by the school’s administration because they had two holes to fill and only enough cash for one plug. It wasn’t my place to question why, as I had just graduated from college and was desperately seeking work that wasn’t within the single-digit per hour pay grade. I had a lot of things going in my favor, namely that I had been working at the school with The Boys & Girls Club for over a year, so I already knew many of the kids I would be teaching and was on good terms with the staff. The interview process went by without a hitch and I was soon scheduled to start teaching that coming August. I would make the base salary for new teachers in the Cincinnati Public School system, which was around $34,000 at the time along with all of those magical benefits, and set about preparing my lesson plans for the first weeks of school. Within a few days my short teacherly career was over as the woman who had hired me informed me that, actually, they couldn’t hire me because of complications with the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. Apparently our local teacher’s union had a deal with CPS where all newly opened teaching positions would have to be offered to union members first, before they could be made available to scabs like myself.

Oddly enough, I hold no animosity towards either the school administrators who hired/fired me or the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. I understand why they did what they did. If I were an out of work teacher with 25 years experience and I found out a school had hired some kid fresh out of college without bothering to interview any more qualified applicants, then I’d want my union to do something too. It was clear even to me during the interview process that the school was hiring me as much for my low price tag as for any educational value I might bring to the table. Even though it is below the national average, the median teacher salary for Cincinnati’s public school teachers was around $46,000, which represents a 40% increase in salary over what I would have made as a new teacher. I fully support unions fighting to keep their well-qualified, experienced and effective teachers at the front end of the hiring process, even if it didn’t benefit me personally.

The only reason my individual experience is in any way prescient is that the Chicago Teachers Union has just this morning gone on strike after a series of unproductive contract negotiations with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration. It is the first time in 25 years that Chicago teachers have gone on strike and the first time that they’ve done so in the age of 24-hour cable news. I bring the fourth estate into it because there will be a level of scrutiny on the motivations and machinations of both parties that haven’t factored into the history of organized labor in this country much until now. Rahm Emanuel is a very shrew politician and, as a former White House Chief of Staff, he is a man who knows how the game is played. My gut feeling is that Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis thinks she can win the battle of public perception with the Mayor’s office and my gut also tells me that she’s dead wrong.

They may honk now, but what about in two weeks time?

I can think of plenty of reasons why it’s hard to think of a worse place to hold a nationally televised teachers strike than Chicago, but there’s one that stands head and shoulders above the rest: $74,389. That’s the amount of money the average Chicago public school teacher makes per year. In the spirit of contrast, the average teacher salary nationally is around $42,0001, which is about $2,000 more than the average wage among all Americans in 2010. To go on strike when you’re making almost double the rest of populous is not wrong, it’s just short-sighted. I’d bet the farm that millions of Americans who aren’t sure which way to lean in this whole mess will take an anti-union stance after they get fed that little tidbit of information. Oh, and the people will be fed. If you were playing a drinking game where you pounded a shot of Jameson each time Fox News mentioned the CTU’s average salary you’d be passed out before they broke to commercial. The narrative of this whole strike isn’t going to be about teacher’s rights or workplace discrimination. It’s going to be about money and 400,000 kids that aren’t in school because the adults in their life can’t play nice.

Teachers, along with the rest of the human services professions, have a unique challenge when it comes time to strike. If you’re working at a steel mill and you go on strike, the ramifications are primarily monetary. For each hour you don’t work, the company you work for is hemorrhaging millions of dollars as the result of lost productivity. Their customers will be inconvenienced, but no real harm will come to them as they can always go to another supplier for their product. With teachers, their product is the intellectual growth of their students. There’s nowhere else for those kids to go to substitute the knowledge they’re losing each day their teachers strike. Put another way, a steel worker’s strike has no effect on the steel he works with, but a teacher’s strike has a tremendous impact on the students they teach. Because of this, there is a compressed time frame within which to get negotiations done and the longer the strike carries on, the more hostile the general public will become to all of the parties involved. Many teachers were seen carrying placards outside of their schools saying things like, “honk if you support our teachers”. There was plenty of it today, but if this strike lasts for a couple of weeks, I have a feeling you will hear significantly fewer honks.

Cash is not, in fact, the primary reason why the teachers are on strike. While there is a dispute over pay raises which has contributed to this mess, most of the friction has come from a proposed increase in the influence of standardized testing scores in teacher evaluations and the city’s policy on the re-hiring of laid off teachers. The first point, is one which would seem to have been decided on in favor of the teachers, at least if national trends are any indication. Just yesterday the bastion of socialist thought known as Texas opted out of the No Child Left Behind program that their prodigal son created back in 2000, becoming the 41st state to do so. No Child Left Behind, which put intense pressure on raising standardizing testing scores and discouraging pesky things like critical thinking and pedagogy, has proven to be a resounding failure, which begs the question as to why Emanuel would want to increase the influence standardized testing has on his educational system? The simple answer is that he, along with many Americans, want an empirical method by which to quantify the value of teachers based on the effects they have on their students, no matter how educationally crippling that method is.

The other big reason for the strike centers around exactly the type of situation that I described at the beginning of the article. The teachers union wants a provision in their contract that makes it so that union teachers who were laid off would be automatically placed in the next job opening that was made available. To be clear, laid off teachers are not people who exhibited poor performance in their previous job and were fired as a result. Laid off teachers are men and women who were let go based on external circumstances, like a shortage in funding or a drop in student population. It is only natural and right that people who lost their jobs through no fault of their own should be provided with the first opportunity to rejoin the workforce. Mayor Emanuel has said that he would allow laid off teachers to apply for other teaching jobs, but wouldn’t provide them with preferential treatment. The teachers union is so concerned with this issue because there are talks that the city plans to close more than 100 schools over the next few years. Were the city’s plan to carry the day, it would amount to forcing thousands of teachers to re-apply for jobs that they were “laid off” from through no fault of their own.

Hopefully, I’ve made it clear that I am not against any of the demands of the Chicago Teachers Union. I believe all teachers in our country should be paid more and the idea that a union should stop advocating for its members because they are already paid well by their profession’s standards is ludicrous. I am for eliminating the bilious scourge that is standardized testing from our schools and I firmly believe that people who were let go from their job for no good reason should get the first crack at any new position that may come about. What I am not for is this strike, because I believe it’s a strike that will be broken and at great expense to teachers unions all across the nation. Chicago is the 3rd highest paying city in the nation for teachers, yet their schools rank well below the big city and national average for proficiency in math and reading2. And, while the union teachers are striking, the non-union charter school teachers are still in the classroom, teaching their students for a whole lot less. We have entered a whole new frontier in the battle for labor in the classroom in this country and I’m beginning to think the teachers unions haven’t gotten the memo. They’re not the only game in town anymore and they need to start acting like it before their grandkids end up graduating from Wrigley’s Doublemint High.

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1I basically tried to pick a middle point among all of these averages as there are variations of a couple thousand dollars in salary based on where they teach (elementary, middle, high school, etc…): http://www.payscale.com/research/US/All_K-12_Teachers/Salary

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Categories: Social Justice, US Politics

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