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Chicago schools strike incites teachers unions

- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2012

With Chicago's ugly strike behind them, teachers unions are regrouping with a public relations blitz, meant to both repair a tarnished image and rally members who are under more fire than ever.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the parent organization of the Chicago Teachers Union, will hold town halls, workshops and other events in the coming weeks in New York, Philadelphia and nearly a dozen other major cities, the labor group announced Friday.

The move, analysts say, shows that unions aren't backing down after the Chicago strike, which lasted more than a week and grew out of a bitter battle with Mayor Rahm Emanuel over teacher evaluations, salaries and other issues.

Rather than unions' Waterloo, the Chicago walkout likely was a precursor of things to come.

"Unless the balance of power changes, there will be another strike," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform and critic of teachers unions. "Just because [Chicago] was the first strike in a while does not mean they're less interested in sticking to their guns. It's not yet to the point where there's outrage [among the public] to spark a revolution against this."

The strike was first time in more than 25 years that Windy City teachers walked off the job. The standoff with Mr. Emanuel, a former chief of staff for President Obama, was resolved with concessions from both sides.

Teachers will get an average 17.6 percent pay raise, significantly less than the 30 percent hike initially sought, over the next four years. The union successfully fought off Mr. Emanuel's efforts to have student test scores count for as much as 45 percent of teacher evaluations, negotiating the number down to no higher than 30 percent, according to terms of the deal.

Teachers also succeeded in resisting merit pay and maintaining seniority systems, while Mr. Emanuel pushed through an extended school day and year.

Labor may not have gotten all it wanted in the deal, but it still views the outcome in Chicago as a victory and an opportunity to reinforce its control over public education.

"What's happened in Chicago has changed the conversation and shown that, by communities uniting and acting collectively, we can transform our schools and guarantee every child the high-quality public education he or she deserves," said AFT President Randi Weingarten. "Now let's hope this turns the page to a new chapter in education reform."

Building public support is crucial to teachers unions' long-term strategy for two reasons. One, states and local governments simply can't afford to push through controversial reforms -- such as Mr. Emanuel's teacher evaluation effort, backed by the Obama administration -- by offering lucrative pay increases.

Two, the Democratic Party now includes a number of voices openly opposed to the power of unions.

"People have short memories. Everybody will get over [the Chicago strike]. The problem is, this is just a terrible time for unions," said Terry M. Moe, an educational policy scholar and senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "The financial crisis has made life very difficult for them because districts and states are strapped. But the deeper thing is a reformist movement within the Democratic Party. The fact is, there are a number of Democrats who are increasingly willing to stand up to these unions."

Los Angeles Mayor and Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, for example, offered strong words of support for Mr. Emanuel during the strike. Former D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, also a Democrat, did the same.

At the federal level, President Obama, while still relying on the AFT and the National Education Association for grass-roots political support and organization, has taken steps opposed by labor.

The president's signature Race to the Top initiative promoted teacher evaluation methods tied to student test scores. Unions have vehemently opposed such efforts.

Groups such as Democrats for Education Reform continue to grow in stature and influence, and are among the loudest critics of the power that teachers unions have over education policy in the U.S.

Public-sector labor groups also have come under attack by governors, most notably Wisconsin's Scott Walker, a Republican. He successfully eliminated most of the collective-bargaining rights for teachers, though a judge has thrown out most of those changes. Mr. Walker has vowed to appeal.

As a place to make a stand against that tide, labor saw Chicago as a natural choice, said Justin Wilson, managing director of the Center for Union Facts.

"You've got a different set of facts on the ground there. Chicago was the best place for this to happen because there's an expectation that unions are treated well in that town," he said. "There are a lot of other cities where it's unclear if unions could gain the upper hand."

But whether it be in Chicago or elsewhere, reform efforts will continue — and will continue to meet stiff resistance from labor, Mr. Moe said.

"Moving forward, they will continue to resist reform and undermine it to the extent that they can," he said. "Then the question becomes, how powerful can the reformers be?"

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