The big news during the start of the 2012-13 school year has been the Chicago teachers’ strike. By now, we're familiar with the key players—and how they're portrayed: The district officials, led by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the “famously foul-mouthed mayor,” are pressing for a longer school day. Then there's the union, run by the “pushy, witty, unwavering” Karen Lewis, calling for better salary, benefits, and working conditions.
The media and the think tank analysts love a kerfuffle of this brand, often portraying district officials as doing what is best for children, while the union works for its own self-interest. Granted, on the surface, this does seem to be the case—with the average teacher in Chicago earning more than $70,000 a year.
But what is not often revealed is that, under the mayor’s leadership, class sizes have soared. Schools continue to operate without air conditioning and heat, and social work positions are not funded. All the while, the district continues to find ways to divert funds into non-unionized charter schools. Monica Davey of The New York Times has done a good job of providing a more balanced view of Emanuel and Lewis, as well as the politics behind the strike—the first in 25 years.
What's Missing? Context.
Few of today’s pundits point to the ways that yesterday’s conditions have led to the mistrust that abounds today. The historical dynamics among politicians, district administrators, and union leaders frame today's debate, and the actions and words that have led up to them.
Since the 1960s (when teachers began to get collective bargaining rights), unions have often been characterized as focusing on their adult issues, and—led prominently by Al Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—sought to change the conditions that undermined their ability to teach effectively.
In fact, Shanker argued that school conditions—like the ones the Chicago teachers describe today—were demoralizing teachers. Fifty years ago, Shanker pointed to non-teaching duties, inadequate textbook supplies, and rote lesson plans as extra burdens that got in the way of teaching. He advocated on behalf of teachers who sought professionalism—not to pad their pockets, but to allow them the preparation, support, and autonomy required for them to teach effectively.
It's About Working Conditions
Today, Chicago teachers point to their current working conditions that have appeared to have substantially deteriorated—conditions that hurt students and their ability to learn. As Chicago teacher Xian Barrett writes:
"When you make me cram 30-50 kids in my classroom with no air conditioning so that temperatures hit 96 degrees, that hurts our kids.
When you lock down our schools with metal detectors and arrest brothers for play fighting in the halls, that hurts our kids.
When you take 18-25 days out of the school year for high stakes testing that is not even scientifically applicable for many of our students, that hurts our kids.
When you spend millions on your pet programs, but there’s no money for school level repairs, so the roof leaks on my students at their desks when it rains, that hurts our kids."
But the fact of the matter is that, since the 1960s, union leaders and administrators have engaged in industrial-style, adversarial, collective bargaining. This bargaining has resulted in periodic labor-management tensions, but also standardized work rules. Collective bargaining has worked well for union leaders who wanted equal treatment of teachers who have varying degrees of skill and marketability, as well as administrators who sought uniform rules for their growing school bureaucracies.
For a host of economic and political reasons, district officials and unions have focused their bargaining efforts on teachers as industrial or craft workers, not professionals who enforce standards among their own ranks.* While teachers during the Shanker era did not trust administrators to evaluate them fairly, they also wanted “no part of judging their fellow union members.”** They still do not in Chicago — primarily because they do not the trust the politicians and administrators.
And the lack of trust is what is really behind the Chicago strike and current impasse on how schools should be funded, who is hired and paid what, and how teachers are supported in the best interest of students.
For those interested in digging into the various positions on the strike, I recommend starting with the New York Times' current Room for Debate discussion—reasonably titled "Must Teachers and School Officials Be Foes?"
*Kerchner, C.T., & Koppich, J. (2007). Negotiating what matters most: Collective bargaining and student achievement. American Journal of Education, 113, 349-365.
**Angus & Mirel (2001).