For a second day, class is not in session at public schools across Chicago as a result of a teacher’s strike that’s having far-reaching implications. The work stoppage — the first in 25 years — is affecting about 350,000 students in that city. According to Washington Post editorial writer Charles Lane (who rails against the striking teachers), 85 percent of these students are African American or Latino (about 42 percent are black, according to Reuters). And just about the same percentage receive reduced-price or free meals, meaning they live at or near the poverty line.
The average public school teacher earns $76,000 per year according to the school board and the school system is currently running at a $700 million deficit. The union had asked for a 29 percent pay raise over the next four years. The district, after negotiating, offered 16 percent over that same period of time.
But it’s not just a case of the big, bad, self-serving unions making obscene demands. While politicians are talking up the benefits of a shift to charter schools away from “dismal urban schools,” reports Reuters,” teachers see themselves fighting for their livelihoods now and into the future.
“Many teachers… see the new policies as a brazen attempt to shift public resources into private hands, to break the power of teachers unions, and to reduce the teaching profession to test preparation,” Reuters reports.
While the unions have been willing to bend on pay, they have been rigid about certain provisions that speak to a level of job protection, such as giving principals more authority over hiring and firing and the “last in, first out” policies. (Lengthening the school day was among some of the other changes on the table.) The Reuters story goes on to say that teacher demographics in that city have already changed with the rise of charter schools, decreasing the number of minority teachers.
“Today, just 19 percent of the teaching force in Chicago is African American, down from 45 percent in 1995, the union says; organizers fear that shift means fewer teachers have deep roots in and passion for the communities where they work,” the story says.
Moreover, they argue that tying a teacher’s job to student performance is unfair, as many students have socioeconomic issues outside of the school system’s control that impact their education. The discussion about school reform is one that many school districts across the country are having.
The situation also raises political questions for Chicago’s Mayor (and former chief of staff to President Obama) Rahm Emanuel, as well as the President himself. Mayor Emanuel and the teacher’s union have had a tense relationship over the past few months. A separate Washington Post article calls the strike ”the boldest confrontation yet involving one of a growing number of Democratic mayors who have been pressuring unions to accept policy changes.” And in an election year, when the President needs the support of unions, this could create a chasm between the two. A number of major union organizations, including the SEIU, have donated millions to Priorities USA Action, a super PAC that supports the President’s re-election effort.
It’s important to note the benefits to the black community that unions have afforded. The “union premium,” which ThinkProgress defines as “an increase in wages for workers who belong to a labor union compared to workers who are not organized,” has bumped up the pay of black unionized workers by a significant percentage – $2.60 per hour. That increases their pay by 17.3 percent over black non-union workers.
“Black men who belong to a union see a 20 percent increase over the normal wage; for black women, the increase is 14.8 percent,” the article says. The gains are even more significant for Latino workers.
Moreover, the site (which, it should be said, is a liberal blog) credits unions with aiding the black community through already tough economic times in which it has experienced higher-than-average unemployment rates.
Seeing an opportunity, Mitt Romney has released a statement against the unions, a stance which has proven successful for other Republican politicians, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. “Teachers unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children, and today we are seeing one of the clearest examples yet,” the statement says. “President Obama has chosen his side in this fight.” The President hasn’t made a statement.
Finally, of course, there are the parents and students, who find themselves struggling to make do with alternative arrangements. Some parents have taken their kids to schools offering activities in lieu of classwork, but other parents don’t want to cross the picket line. Some parents have had to take the day off to look after their kids. Others take their kids to work with them. Talks continue, but there’s no word of a resolution.