The Agenda

Brief Note on the Chicago Teachers’ Strike Part II

1. Rather sensibly, Andy Rotherham assumed that the strike would end over the weekend, and so he offered a number of thoughts on its significance, e.g.:


The strike was unavoidable. Some political theater is to be expected in contentious teacher contract negotiations. Sophisticated union leaders and school administrators understand that politics sometimes requires a public dance – read attacks and counterattacks – even when the outline of a deal is already clear.  That’s because all sides have political constituencies to appease.  It’s important to remember that teachers union leaders are elected by their members.  In many places if you allow yourself to be perceived as too cozy with management and you’re going to lose your job – that’s how current CTU President Karen Lewis won her election.  The union leader in Washington, D.C. who made a deal with Michelle Rhee to reform that city’s teacher contract?  He’s not a union leader anymore. It’s a pattern.

Given CTU President Karen Lewis’ contentious relationship with the mayor and political need to show her members – many of whom are very frustrated with the status quo – that she was fighting hard for them, short of complete capitulation by the city I doubt there was any chance Chicago kids would have been in school this week under any circumstance. It’s pretty clear the union needed at least some strike and realized that one would be good for them.

He also noted that allies of the Chicago Teachers Union should root for a negotiated settlement, as a failure to reach a compromise would help make the case that the costs of collective bargaining in the public sector are unacceptably high:

Wisconsin was fundamentally about whether teachers should be able to bargain collectively while Chicago was about specific demands for a new contract. That’s no small distinction (and see this news about Wisconsin’s law).  But, if the teachers unions can’t show that collective bargaining doesn’t mean unchecked or irresponsible demands expect Walker’s approach to move from the margins to the mainstream as more and more cities and states are forced to confront the dual challenge of lousy schools and a shrinking public purse just as Chicago was.  And that might be the biggest lesson of the strike – it’s a prelude to hard issues that will emerge elsewhere and if they’re not careful the unions will lose the war by winning these battles.

On hearing the news that CTU members had rejected the deal reached by the CTU’s lead negotiators, Rotherham points to “disagreement and disorganization within the union.”

2. Matt Yglesias argues that teachers unions represent the interests of their members. This shouldn’t be a controversial observation. The political scientist Terry Moe’s Special Interest offers a careful look at how teachers unions operate in practice. Daniel DiSalvo briefly discussed the book a few months back:

The main reason teachers unions exercise such power is the asymmetrical incentives to mobilize.  Parents, taxpayers, business, civic associations, and other groups have at best a fleeting interest in the politics of education.  So reformers have great difficulty overcoming collective action problems in creating a coalition for educational reform.  The unions suffer no such problem.  Changes to the status quo directly impact them, which provides a huge incentive to remain vigilant about education policy.  Unlike the reform coalition, Moe shows, the teachers unions are organized, have lots of money, access to information, and activists in the trenches. No other groups even come close to possessing such resources.

One of Moe’s fascinating findings is that teacher pay (base salary) has not increased that dramatically over the last few decades because the number of teachers being hired has increased and the student-teacher ratio has fallen.  If fewer teachers had been hired, salaries would be greater.  Despite persistent cries that teachers are “underpaid,” the unions are responsible for this outcome because they have competing motivations. One is to secure greater compensation for current members; the other is to get more teachers hired, which increases the unions’ power.  The goal of increasing pay thus collides with government unions’ incentive to expand public employment. [Emphasis added]

Indeed, the Chicago Teachers Union has called for both a sharp reduction in class sizes and a substantial increase in compensation. That these goals are in tension should be obvious. The city, to be sure, wanted Chicago teachers to work hours comparable to teachers in other large urban school districts as part of the deal.

3. Rick Hess of AEI sees the Chicago Teachers Union as having gained the upper hand, and indeed as having run roughshod over Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has profited in the past from his formidable reputation:

[T]he CTU is looking like it might come out of this astonishingly well. Karen Lewis is becoming the anti-Michelle Rhee for teachers who’ve yearned for a fire-breathing anti-evaluation, pro-LIFO champion. Despite losing even the New York Times editorial page last week, and with a confused initial message that seemed to suggest the strike was mostly about personal pique, with the grab bag of demands (air conditioning, retaining a short school day, social workers, etc.) mostly a rationalization, the striking teachers are holding fast–and seem to be in no hurry to get this done. The longer they hold out, and the more desperate Chicago families become, the more serious the CTU starts to look. Indeed, I’m now hearing murmurs that Lewis may be angling to challenge Randi Weingarten for AFT president. Real or not, such whispers may force Randi to guard her flank and make it harder for her to find common ground with “reformers” and the Obama administration.

That is, the resistance of the CTU to fairly minimal reforms to the terms of employment may have already emboldened public employees across the country. This in turn poses a challenge to the concept of “reform unionism” championed by many center-left education reformers:

[D]evelopments in Chicago threaten to put Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and their allies in an uncomfortable place. If you remember, DFER president Joe Williams, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and other prominent education reformers attacked Wisconsin governor Scott Walker in 2011 for pushing to narrow the scope of collective bargaining. Williams, Duncan, and similar reform-minded Democrats denounced Walker as an anti-union extremist, and said they believed in working with unions. The Dems insisted that you could get dramatic reforms without changing the rules around collective bargaining. Well, the more painful the Chicago fight becomes, the more the CTU digs in, and the less Emanuel ultimately gets for hundreds of millions in new pay, the less credible the DFER line becomes.

The Obama administration has been far friendlier to the interests of teachers unions than is commonly understood, e.g., “buy-in” from teachers unions was a key criterion for securing federal funds under the Race to the Top initiative. It seems likely that a second Obama term will see a shift away from the DFER approach to the approach championed by the AFT and the NEA.  


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