HR Management & Compliance

Chicago teachers end strike

by Brian J. Kurtz

On what should have been the second Wednesday of the school year, Chicago teachers ended their strike against the city and returned to work. The bitter dispute brought national attention to Chicago and to the issue of education reform. The last teachers strike in Chicago took place 25 years ago. Apparently, a lot of acrimony can build up over a quarter century. So was it worth it? Who won? These questions are far more simple than their answers.

The final version of the three-year contract is reportedly still being drafted, so all the details are not yet public. As we wrote last week, the two biggest issues were the city’s proposed teacher evaluation system and whether laid-off teachers would have automatic recall to vacancies at other schools. Information published by the parties themselves and reports in the media suggest — not surprisingly — that neither side got everything it wanted in the negotiations.

Report card
The city reportedly settled for an evaluation system that is a departure from the prior system but less weighted toward the new factors it was proposing. The parties also reportedly agreed that a small percentage of laid-off teachers will have automatic recall rights. The union backed off its initial proposal for a 30% raise over a 2-year contract, settling instead for a reported 12% increase over 3 years.

This being such a high-profile battle, both sides were quick to claim victory. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis praised the union’s membership for not backing down. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel claimed the new contract will bring fundamental change the city’s school system needs. In practice, the potential success of the new evaluation process appears to depend on whether the individual school principals are enforcing it. One suspects the union will be aggressive in challenging any adverse action to teachers based on the new system.

There will be a test
The union may want to brace itself for a different kind of fundamental change that it cannot solve at the bargaining table. The new contract is projected to result in a $369 million gap in next year’s school budget. The city reportedly plans to address the shortfall by closing 80 to 120 schools in the near future and investing those savings in more charter schools. There is no consensus on whether charter schools result in better outcomes for students.

Ah, students. So easy to forget about them when unions and politicians wrangle over their own agendas. There are 350,000 students currently attending Chicago public schools. The effect on them of the strike and settlement may not be apparent by June 2015, when the contract expires. Add the possibility of more school closings, teacher layoffs, an underfunded pension, and the proliferation of charter schools and the 2015 negotiations could be one for the history books.

Brian J. Kurtz is a partner with Ford Harrison LLP in Chicago and an editor of Illinois Employment Law Letter.