The Chicago Teachers Union announced this morning that 75 percent of its members voted to authorize a strike, the first step in a potential walkout to open the 2012-13 school year. "The vote has well surpassed the 75 percent threshold required by state law," CTU said in a news release.
Teachers are probably closer to a walkout than they have been at any time since the 1980’s – when, during a pre-Mayor Richard Daley period, the union actually went on a number of strikes.
The last strike was a record 19-day walkout in 1987 – arguably the nadir for Chicago Public Schools in terms of public perception. President Ronald Reagan's Education Secretary, William Bennett, declared at the time that Chicago schools were the worst in the nation, alleging it would take “a man or woman of steel” to fix the system.
There were several walkouts that preceded the 1987 dispute – a 2-day strike in 1985, 10-day strike in 1984, a 15-day strike in 1983, and a 10-day strike in 1980. Issues surrounding these strikes included teacher salaries but also medical benefits and, in 1980, delayed paydays that resulted from declining enrollment.
So the appropriate question today might not be why CTU would consider a strike, but why there was labor peace for 25 years. This period coincided with Daley as mayor, and Barbara Radner, director of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University, argues that Daley was always able to eventually placate CTU.
“Daley would suddenly show up with this pot of money, and say ‘Okay, let’s not strike people,’” Radner says.
New Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has not cultivated such relationships – for example, a CTU rally two weeks ago largely demonized the mayor for actions such as trying to lengthen the school day without going through the collective bargaining process.
“No question, Emanuel has done a lot to make them angry,” Radner says.
Besides Daley fostering relations with the union, a 1995 state law gave the mayor central power of the CPS Board.
The last 25 years included tense negotiations and narrow votes by CTU members approving contracts. But Daley and CTU also made five-year contracts a habit, averting the nearly annual labor crises of the 80’s.
A state law passed last year intended to further minimize the possibility of a strike. It stipulated that 75 percent, not a simple majority, of CTU members must approve a walk out.
But the provision has arguably back fired – the 3/4 barrier set in motion CTU President Karen Lewis calling for a vote now, before teachers leave for summer vacation. The vote comes as an independent fact finder reviews each side’s proposal.
A strike authorization does not necessarily mean a strike, but it will definitely be used as leverage, says Zev Eigen, an assistant professor of law at Northwestern University who focuses on labor issues.
“Mature, experienced people understand that the strike authorization vote is just that – you are not pulling the trigger,” Eigen says. “But the threat is on the table of a walkout.”