Andy Shaw: A Labor Day tense with talk of a teachers strike

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Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, joins teachers and supporters outside King College Prep in Chicago on April 1 during a one-day strike aimed at halting education funding cuts. The union remains in tense contract negotiations.| Brian Jackson/ For Sun-Times

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I’ve always approached Labor Day with mixed feelings.

Upside, when I was young: A holiday featuring fun, food and family.

Downside: A carefree summer of baseball and hanging out giving way to the rigors of school and winter.

Mixed feelings continued for different reasons when I was a reporter on the education beat, first at the Sun-Times and then at NBC 5, at the same time my mother was teaching English at Lane Tech High School.

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Three-day holiday weekends were frequently interrupted by news assignments: Covering late-night negotiations between the Chicago School Board and its teachers union, which led to strikes in 1975, 1980 and 1983.

Those 18-hour workdays were hard enough, but the added burden was my mother’s lament that her colleagues frequently complained about my news coverage.

I told her emotions run high in these situations, and I was doing my best to be fair and objective, but that’s not always enough to change perceptions.

So it goes.

Fast forward to the next strike, in 1984, when I was at ABC 7 covering politics, not education.

Mom had nothing to complain about but my wife and I did: Our first daughter was entering kindergarten, and her introduction to Chicago’s public schools was a 10-day strike, followed by a two-day walkout the next year.

We survived those interruptions, but the scramble to find learning opportunities for her and a younger sister was really challenging in 1987, when teachers struck for 19 days — nearly four weeks.

We had a third daughter by then — a two-year old — and the long walkout tempted us to bail on public education, but we hung in and thankfully there were no more disruptions while the girls finished CPS.

Years later I realized the key to that era of labor peace — this was before we had strong transparency laws — was creative accounting. “Cooked books” that disguised debts, deficits, underfunded pensions and financial chicanery.

That, along with arguably insufficient state funding, gave us the CPS crisis we face today.

I’m paying attention now as a Better Government Association watchdog, and also because one of my daughters recently took a job in the CPS system, and her daughter — our granddaughter — is starting kindergarten at a public school this week.

Yes, we’re finishing another Labor Day weekend on the eve of another school year with another strike threat, and here’s what the current landscape looks like:

+ CPS is temporarily off the fiscal cliff, thanks to several hundred million new city and state dollars, massive borrowing and a promise of more state aid next year.

+ Mayor Rahm Emanuel is working with the City Council to free up a pot of unused Tax Increment Financing dollars — TIF money — for CPS.

+ Teachers still blame the mayor for the 2012 strike, the 2013 school closings, his harsh rhetoric and last year’s budget cuts.

As a result, teachers are demanding raises that more than offset increased pension contributions; the rehiring of librarians, social workers and special ed teachers; and better working conditions in the schools.

From a political standpoint, a mayor who was badly damaged by police scandals needs labor peace to pacify minority parents whose kids make up 80 percent of the public school system.

But Emanuel is also under pressure to hang tough if he hopes to maintain the grudging financial support of anti-union Governor Bruce Rauner.

Those are the complex ingredients of another Labor Day weekend that is sparking another set of very mixed feelings, and for very good reasons.

Happy Holiday!

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association.


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