A Guide to Chicago's Ongoing Teachers' StrikeS

That back-to-school chill is in the air, except in Chicago, where 26,000 public school teachers and support staff are on strike and more than 350,000 students are just fucking off all day instead of learning. Even though Chicago is a dull provincial city of little national import, everybody is talking about the strike because Rahm Emanuel is mayor and Obama used to live there. What's the story?

Chicago's public schools are a grim, decaying warehouse system for futureless children, unless you live in a rich white neighborhood or are smart enough to test your way into a magnet school, in which case there are a couple really good schools (go Northside College Prep!). Generally, though, they've been in crisis for years. The system ended last year with a $1.2 billion deficit. Fingerless ghoul Rahm Emanuel is determined to fix that by, essentially, crushing the teachers union—opening hundreds of charter schools that don't employ union teachers, instituting merit pay, and tying performance evaluations to hard metrics like test scores.

The union, quite reasonably, doesn't want to be crushed. So, after lengthy negotiations failed to come up with a new contract prior to the start of the school year on Monday, they walked out.

Is this about money?

Oddly enough, not really. Though critics of the union have been throwing around the eye-popping average salary of $76,000 for teachers in the Chicago public school system as evidence of their greed, the salary issues have been largely solved—the city has proposed a four-year contract with a 16% average salary increase that the union has basically accepted, saying "we are not that far apart on compensation." That's a big win considering the fact that Emanuel dropped his original insistence on a merit pay plan that would allow principals to distribute raises based on performance. He backed down, basically agreeing to the automatic raises.

So what are they fighting about?

There are a couple issues, but the biggest are "replacement pools" and teacher evaluations. Replacement pools would basically force principals at charter schools to hire laid-off union teachers before hiring any non-union employees. Emanuel has made clear his intention to shut down hundreds of failing schools and open up charter schools in their stead in the coming years, which is a roundabout way of firing failing teachers (or just union teachers he doesn't like) and replacing them with younger, cheaper, non-union hires. The union wants to tie his hands—close all the schools you want, but you have to rehire the teachers from our replacement pools before you go outside the union.

The other big issue is evaluations. Emanuel and the school board want test scores to account for 40% of a teachers' evaluation; the union wants to keep it at a minimum (a new Illinois state law that has not yet been implemented mandates that scores account for between 20% and 40% of evaluations, so that's the margin between the two positions).

That doesn't really sound like a lot.

I know, right? They are legitimate disputes, but if you're a parent trying to figure out what the fuck to do with your kids all day, the "great 20% v. 40% of teacher evaluations based on test scores debate of '12" seems...underwhelming. There are other issues: The union wants the city to commit to installing air-conditioning in all classrooms (a not insignificant issue for a city where people routinely die in heat waves), wants a commitment from the city to reduce class sizes, and is fighting to keep two school holidays that the city wants to eliminate. There's also the matter of the sick day bank: As it stands, teachers can bank unused sick days almost indefinitely, accumulating up to 325, which have to be paid out by the city on retirement. The city wants to end that practice, which the union calls a "draconian" cut.

So why the confrontation?

Probably because charter schools and evaluations are daggers at the heart of the union. The new evaluation scheme proposed by the city will result, according to the union, in up to 6,000 teachers being fired for non-performance within two years (assuming, as the union does, that teachers won't be able to raise test scores significantly). Likewise, charters, as previously mentioned, are convenient ways to replace schools wholesale when union rules bar you from replacing teachers one-by-one. The concessions being demanded by the city aren't so much about how to best distribute scarce resources, they're about how to reconfigure the public education system at the margins in such a way as to reduce the power of the union over time. It's not really a debate about whether replacement pools and scoreless evaluations are better for students—it's about whether a powerful teachers union is better for students. At a time when public sector unions have been under persistent attack, it's not surprising that Chicago teachers would buckle down for a fight.

There's also the small matter of Emanuel and teachers union president Karen Lewis hating each others' guts.

What are people doing with their kids?

Whatever they can. The city has opened some schools and other sites as drop-off points for parents to drop off their kids to be cared for all day by non-union staffers. The kids love it! "Vicente Perez, the parent of 4th and 6th grade boys, had planned to drop them off at one of the contingency locations CPS is keeping open half days during the strike," wrote the Chicago Tribune. "But they stopped short when they arrived at William Ray Elementary this morning and saw they'd have to walk through a line of picketing teachers. His children were afraid. 'I don't want to go there,' his youngest son, Kahlil, 9, said." And the parents love it, too! "I don't know who these people are who will be watching him and that concerns me," one mother dropping her kid off told the Tribune. "But I have to go to work and we can't afford to pay for him to go somewhere else all day."

Should teachers even be allowed to strike? Jacob Weisberg doesn't think so.

Of course they should be allowed to strike. Whatever the policy differences are, Chicago's teachers are participants in a labor market. They are free to organize and to withhold their labor if they don't like the deal they're getting. They will either get what they want, or they won't. This is how things work.

Will they get what they want?

Who knows? According to polls, Chicagoans support the strikers 47% to 39%, which is remarkably high given the opaqueness of the issues at stake and the fact that even the most union-friendly parents are probably cursing them under their breath. But that number may not hold if it drags out too long. Of course, the decision to go on strike in the first place was practically a nuclear bomb, politically speaking—a demonstration by the union that it's willing to take things up to the edge. Dragging this thing out would be catastrophic for the city, and the union isn't actually accountable to anyone but its members. Rahm, on the other hand, has to answer to the voters. The longer it goes, the more parents will be focused on getting their kids back in class and not how their teachers are evaluated. The advantage in that power dynamic goes to the union.

Why did you say all those mean things about Chicago?

Because I lived there.

[Image via Getty]