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Chicago teachers vote to authorize a strike—as if the mayor didn't have enough problems

Mayor Rahm went to battle with Karen Lewis. Now the teachers' empire strikes back.


  • Bobby Sims

Word broke Monday that Chicago teachers had overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike. I'd like to note that Mayor Emanuel could have avoided all of this by agreeing to a one-year deal that wouldn't have cost the schools any more new money in teacher salaries.

But he walked away from that deal over—of all things—the issue of teacher evaluations.

That was back in June—which seems like a billion light-years ago given all the tumult of the past few weeks.

So now, as if Mayor Emanuel didn't have enough to worry about with the fallout over his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting, he's made matters worse for himself by bringing on a possible teachers' strike.

Get ready for an eventful 2016, Chicago.

OK, a few reminders: In 2012, after an eight-day strike, the teachers signed a three-year deal that expired this past June.

Mayor Emanuel's negotiators met throughout the spring with Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, his old adversary, trying to reach an agreement that would enable them to avoid another strike—which neither side seemed to want.

Indeed, in those days it looked as though Lewis and Emanuel had patched things up. They let it be known they had exchanged texts and calls and even, for all I know, shared favorite lines from Tarantino films.

By June, Lewis predicted that they would soon ink a one-year contract in which the teachers would agree to forgo a raise if the mayor modified CPS policies on teacher evaluations.

If nothing else, the deal would have bought them time to go, hand in hand, to Springfield to persuade the governor and legislative leaders to send more money to Chicago. If that didn't work—and it was a long shot—they could try to agree on a new source of revenue. Or to agree on some new source of revenue to pay off the ever-escalating pension obligation CPS has been forgoing for the last few years.

Or at the very least to put off any strike for another year.

Anyway, the potential deal died on June 24 when the mayor's team walked out of a negotiating session declaring that they wouldn't budge on the teacher evaluation policy.

With that, Lewis and Emanuel went back to the tough talk—though to his credit the mayor has refrained from throwing out the F-bomb this time around.

"Initially, we thought we might be close to a deal," Lewis told reporters in June. "But today we have found out that their bargaining rhetoric is as empty as their bank account."

To which the mayor responded: "After years of our academic gains, now is not the time to shortchange our children by eliminating evaluations for tens of thousands of employees or lowering teachers' performance standards."

People, I've got to tell you—of all the stupid, trivial things to go to the mat on, teacher evaluations head the list.

First of all, teachers were not demanding that evaluations be eliminated. They just wanted the formula changed so they wouldn't automatically be fired if they got a bad evaluation.

I know, I know, education reformers insist that the secret to transforming public schools—so that Chicago does as well as, say, New Trier—is to fire all the bad teachers.

As if income and poverty play no role in how kids perform in school.

But really, getting rid of teachers hasn't been an issue in Chicago since 2010, when Mayor Daley effectively abolished tenure by enacting a system called redefinition.

That enables principals to get rid of teachers by redefining their job descriptions. So it's not hard for principals to dismiss teachers—good or bad—virtually anytime they want.

I'd go so far as to say that the real problem in Chicago is not getting rid of bad teachers so much as convincing the good ones to stay.

And I don't know how we plan to recruit more teachers—or get them to stay—if we're making their working conditions less tolerable.

That brings me to the current state of negotiations.

At the moment, Mayor Emanuel wants Lewis and the union to sign on to a contract that would effectively cut pay by more than 10 percent by freezing salaries and hiking health and pension costs.

Yeah, that ought to bring the best and the brightest flocking to Chicago's public schools.

In any event, there have been no meaningful negotiations since June.

And last week—as the mayor was apologizing for his mishandling of the McDonald video—the teachers began the three days of their strike vote.

The results? Well, it depends how you look at it.

Of the union members who voted, roughly 96 percent opted to authorize a strike. If you include the employees who didn't bother to vote, "only" 88 percent voted to authorize a strike. That's an important distinction, since state law requires a yes vote from 75 percent of all eligible voters to authorize a strike.

Imagine if we had that method for electing mayors. We could add the 60 percent of the eligible electorate who didn't vote to the people who voted for Jesus Garcia and, voila, Mayor Rahm Emanuel would be out of office.

And we wouldn't have to pass a new state law allowing us to recall the mayor, as several legislators have proposed.

To make things even more complicated, the strike vote isn't really a vote to go on strike. It's a vote to start the clock on going on strike.

There's a bunch of other time-consuming things that have to happen—like a fact-finding process featuring three mediators—before teachers could take to the streets.

The process can take up to four months. So the earliest the teachers can strike is March. Or they could wait till next school year. Or they could just not strike at all.

Got it?

You know, Mr. Mayor, you'd have done everybody—yourself included—a big fat favor had you just signed onto that one-year deal back in June. v

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