Chicago teachers strike threatens to become protracted struggle

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 September, 2012, 8:17pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 September, 2012, 8:17pm

Chicago teachers stayed away from public schools for a third day on Wednesday in a strike over Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s demand for tough teacher evaluations that US education reform advocates see as crucial to fixing urban schools.

With some 350,000 children from kindergarten to high school age out of school, the patience of their parents began to fray as hopes were dashed for a quick resolution to the biggest US labour strike in a year.

Fiery union president Karen Lewis, who has called Emanuel a “liar and a bully”, said the two sides had agreed on only six of nearly 50 provisions of a new teacher contract.

An exasperated Chicago School Board President David Vitale said that he would not be back to the negotiating table on Wednesday until the union made a comprehensive proposal to resolve the strike.

Lewis led the walk out on Monday of more than 29,000 teachers and support staff in the nation’s third-largest school district, saying that the union would not agree to school reforms it considers misguided.

The dispute jolted the United States, where a weakened labour movement seldom stages strikes and even less frequently wins them. Organised labour has lost several fights in the last year including Wisconsin stripping public sector unions of most of their bargaining power, Indiana making union dues voluntary and two California cities voting to pare pensions for unionised workers.

The strike in Barack Obama’s home city has put the US president in a tough spot between his ally and former top White House aide Emanuel, and labour unions he needs to win the presidential election on November 6.

Obama has said nothing in public about the dispute, allowing administration surrogates to urge the two sides to settle.

“The president has said what is appropriate to be said, which is that it is a local issue,” said Randi Weingarten, national president of the union that represents Chicago teachers. “It has national implication, but it has to be settled at the bargaining table.”

Obama’s own Education Department has championed some of the reforms Emanuel is seeking, and a win for the ambitious Chicago mayor would add momentum to the national school reform movement.

The first poll of Chicago voters since the strike showed 47 per cent supporting the teachers union, 39 per cent against the strike and the rest uncommitted, according to the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper. But that could change as the strike drags on and parents are forced to find childcare or stay away from work for days.

Both sides agree Chicago schools need fixing. Chicago students consistently perform poorly on standardised maths and reading tests. About 60 per cent of high school students graduate compared with 75 per cent nationwide and more than 90 per cent in some affluent Chicago suburban schools.

The fight does not appear to be over wages, with the school district offering an average 16 per cent rise over four years and some benefit improvements.

They are at loggerheads over Emanuel’s demand that teacher performance be evaluated in part on the results of their students on standardised tests. He also wants school principals to have more autonomy in hiring teachers.

The union is fiercely opposed to evaluations based on standardised tests because it says teachers have no control over the conditions in which students live such as crime-ridden neighbourhoods, poverty and disengaged parents.

More than 80 per cent of Chicago public school students qualify for free lunches at school because they come from low-income households.

“We are miles apart because this is a very serious ideological difference here,” Lewis said of the dispute over evaluations.

John Kugler, a union activist representing school staff such as nurses and social workers, demonstrated outside the Chicago Public Schools headquarters on Tuesday in support of the strike because he said schools in poor areas need more resources.

“We’re talking about some of the poorest communities, some of the most at-risk communities. That’s what we’re fighting for,” he said.