- - Friday, September 21, 2012

In the wake of the strike by the Chicago Teachers Union, many people wonder what the union is complaining about.

After all, Chicago teachers make an average of $76,000 for a nine-month year, 60 percent higher than the average annual income for a family in Chicago and 58 percent more than the average yearly pay for a Chicagoan with a bachelor’s degree. They get a huge package of benefits on top of that.

Their level of compensation seems especially generous given that nearly 80 percent of their students are below grade level in reading; that just 58 percent of high school freshmen eventually graduate; that just 3 percent of black males in the ninth grade go on to graduate from a four-year college; and that, according to a Southern Illinois University study, Chicago public school teachers scored below the state average on the ACT exam, which Illinois requires all high school juniors to take.

Union members dislike reforms that include lengthening the school day and increasing the importance of students’ test scores in teacher evaluations. But before they struck, they turned down a 16 percent pay raise over four years. Given the current economy, wasn’t that enough?


In fact, perhaps no offer from the city could have prevented the strike. Union President Karen Lewis is a firebrand, elected on her promise to get tough with the city. Last October at a meeting of Northwest Teachers for Social Justice, she ridiculed Education Secretary Arne Duncan: “Now, you know, [Duncan] went to private school ‘cause if he had gone to public school he would have had that lisp fixed,” she sneered. “I know — that was ugly, wasn’t it?” Many observers think Ms. Lewis is angling to become a national figure. If her allies perceive the strike as a success, it will make her a leading opponent of reform.

This may be a good time for Ms. Lewis, but it’s a dangerous time for teachers unions, for other public-sector unions and for unions in general.

Politically, they have almost all their eggs in one basket. Once upon a time, unions sought positive relationships with both major parties. The AFL-CIO under George Meany, for example, stayed neutral in the presidential race between Richard Nixon and George McGovern. Unions sometimes backed Republicans against Democrats. But times have changed. Teamsters President James Hoffa Jr., who once had cordial ties to President George W. Bush, recently likened the Republican Party to the Khmer Rouge communists who murdered millions of Cambodians.

Today, formerly moderate groups like the AFL-CIO are run by liberals of the sort who once denounced Harry Truman as a capitalist tool and warmonger. Almost all union political activity today directly or indirectly supports Democrats, with support heavily weighted to the party’s far left — even though exit polls show 42 percent of people in union households voted Republican in 2010.

Meanwhile, unions are rapidly becoming creatures of the public sector. In 2011, government employees had a unionization rate of 37 percent, five times that of the private sector, and accounted for the majority of union members overall. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the highest unionization rate of any occupation group (counting public and private workers), was 37 percent among education, training and library workers.

The problem for unions is that even as they become increasingly dependent on the public sector for members, much of the public is fed up with the results of public-sector unionism: government employees (including teachers) who can’t be fired for incompetence, pensions and benefit packages that are bankrupting local and state governments across the country, and unyielding opposition to any reforms.

Want proof of taxpayers’ growing opposition to government unions? Look at the Tea Party movement, the 2010 election, the unions’ failure in June to persuade Wisconsinites to recall Gov. Scott Walker (who had pushed through limitations on those unions) and the current best-seller status of Mallory and Elizabeth Factor’s expose “Shadowbosses: Government Unions Control America and Rob Taxpayers Blind.”

The pushback is having an effect. The National Education Association’s membership is projected to fall 16 percent during 2010-2014.

Teachers unions’ political power has been rooted in their near-monopoly status among education activists. On school issues, only teachers unions had access to real-time information, money for advertising and public relations, get-out-the-vote efforts, and a cadre to pack school board meetings, city council meetings and legislative hearings. Now, for the first time, that monopoly is threatened by emerging coalitions of taxpayers and public school parents.

Even if the Chicago strike looks successful in the short term, it will inspire reformers seeking to free public education from union control. Karen Lewis and the Chicago Teachers Union may yet learn arrogance has a price.

Terrence Scanlon is president of the Capital Research Center.