By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
“I think a lot of the issues are the same, a lot of the issues involved in the strike and the issues that led to the collective bargaining changes,” said Will Powell Jones, a labor-relations expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They have to do with really dramatic reductions in school funding and how that funding will affect students, and also staff and teachers in the school.”
About 29,000 Chicago teachers, members of the Chicago Teachers Union, began striking Monday after contract negotiations with the Chicago Public School board broke down, leaving 404,000-plus children locked out of class. The strike entered its second day on Tuesday
It’s the first time Chicago teachers have gone on strike in 25 years.
Wisconsin teachers have been legally barred from striking since 1971, although that hasn’t always kept teachers from walking out, according to the state’s largest teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council.
Last year after Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators pushed through reforms that, among other things, limited most unionized state public employees’ collective bargaining to cost-of-living salary hikes, teachers from across the state converged on the Capitol for several days of protests. Some of the teachers later were disciplined and some had their paychecks docked.
“There’s also a broader context of a national trend in school reform that focused on a greater reliance on quantitative measures for measuring student performance and teacher performance,” Jones said. “In both cases, the teachers unions in Wisconsin and Illinois have resisted some of those changes.”
Chicago teachers and school district management seem to have agreed on a proposed 16-percent raise over four years and a longer school day. But they can’t yet come to terms on job security and a new teacher evaluation system.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants teachers to give more concessions at a time when the school district’s deficit is nearing $700 million.
WEAC President Mary Bell said the union’s members would be supporting their Illinois brethren.
“We will stick together and speak with one voice – because based on what we’ve witnessed in Wisconsin, what happens in our various communities and states impacts the profession as a whole,” Bell said in a statement
The strike is the rare instance of a political party being pitted against one of its core voting blocks.
Emanuel is a well-known Democrat and President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff.
Teachers unions, a reliable constituency for the Democratic Party, are backing Obama’s re-election bid – but nevertheless are concerned about his policies that would, for example, weaken tenure and make student improvement a factor in teacher evaluations.
“I guarantee you the White House is on the phone with City Hall saying, ‘Settle this now,’” said Steve Gunn, editor-in-chief of the Education Action Group Foundation, Inc., a Michigan-based nonprofit that supports education reforms.
Last March, the EAG published a report titled, “The Bad Old Days of Collective Bargaining: Why Act 10 Was Necessary for Wisconsin Public Schools.”
The fact that Emanuel already has conceded on issues such as teacher raises leads Gunn to believe that the strike will end soon – and in the labor union’s favor.
“I think that the (American Federation of Teachers), which is the parent union obviously of the (Chicago Teachers Union), decided to draw a line in the sand there because of situations like that in Wisconsin where they lost badly,” he said.
“Before (teachers unions) got any further behind in this game, they decided to pick a major union in a major city and take a stand,” Gunn said.
The Chicago union’s victory, if it happens, will embolden unions across the country, in places like Detroit, to take similar action, he predicted.
“And that’s too bad, because big city districts are where most of the reforms are needed,” he said.
Jones, for his part, expects more labor conflicts to arise in Wisconsin — as a result of the collective bargaining changes.
Limiting strikes was the actual goal of the collective bargaining process, he said.
“The argument was that if the parties could sit down and negotiate an agreement without it leading to a conflict, then it would largely prevent strikes,” Jones said.
The Chicago strike, he said, “is an outcome that nobody wanted to see. But it points to the need of having formal and more rational ways to deal with these kinds of conflicts.”
Contact Kirsten Adshead at firstname.lastname@example.org