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Chicago’s teacher strike is about more than kids. It’s also about union power

Across the country, teachers’ unions are negotiating contracts that matter more than ever for maintaining membership and political power.

Thousands of Chicago Teachers Union members and their supporters march through the Loop on day two of the teachers’ strike.
Thousands of Chicago Teachers Union members and their supporters march through the Loop on day two of the teachers’ strike.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Classes in Chicago’s public schools were canceled on Oct. 17 when more than 25,000 teachers went on strike, in what they called a fight for “justice and equity” for their students.

The strike comes during a tumultuous year for labor negotiations in urban school districts around the country. In January, 30,000 Los Angeles teachers went on a six-day strike. The next month, approximately 2,600 teachers walked out of the classroom for three days in Denver, and 3,000 teachers picketed for a week in Oakland.

Many of the demands teachers’ unions are making almost certainly would benefit students. But a new reality suggests unions are fighting for something else, too.

In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that workers are free to choose whether to join a union. Since then, we’d argue, teacher strikes have been as much a fight for the soul of the union as for the soul of public education. What the unions want and need is membership.

The deals being negotiated matter more than ever for maintaining membership and political power.

Negotiating for numbers

As education policy scholars who have studied teachers’ unions and teacher collective bargaining for more than a decade, we have read thousands of agreements like those negotiated in Los Angeles, Denver and Oakland, and likely in Chicago.

The new agreements set teacher salaries, restrictions on the length of the workday and other important working conditions. But they also set staffing levels for teachers, librarians, nurses and counselors. In short, teachers are bargaining to increase staff — in particular, staff who can join the union, increase membership and ensure the union’s future.

With a 16% raise on the table, the Chicago Teachers’ Union is asking for a contract that guarantees smaller class sizes and more non-teaching staff, such as nurses, librarians, social workers and counselors. All of this means more hiring and more potential union members.

Consider the three-year deal that the teachers’ union secured in Los Angeles. Along with a 6% salary increase, the deal included staffing guarantees — for 300 nurses, 82 librarians and 77 counselors — and reduced some class sizes. All of this means additional hires, who will be potential union members.

The Oakland teachers’ union followed a similar playbook for their four-year deal. The union secured an 11% raise; a modest reduction in class sizes; lower counselor-to-student ratios; caseload limits for school psychologists and speech and language pathologists; and more staff at schools with 50 or more students who are new to the country.

We estimate that staffing provisions in the Los Angeles contract could add over 1,500 members to the Los Angeles union, about a 5% increase in the current membership of some 30,000. The Oakland teachers’ union could get a similar boost.

In Chicago, a contract with robust staffing guarantees will likely add members as well.

Organizing charter school teachers

Teachers’ unions are also using negotiations to limit non-union schools that pose a threat to their membership.

The unions in Los Angeles and Oakland took a hard stance against charter schools. In Los Angeles, the union called for an eight- to 10-month moratorium, and the Los Angeles Unified School District eventually agreed to endorse the moratorium and lobby California’s governor to that end.

The Oakland teachers’ union secured a nearly identical commitment. A final union-backed bill stopped short of a moratorium but imposed new restrictions, and was signed by California’s governor in October. The Chicago teachers’ union secured a cap on charter school expansion in their last contract negotiations in 2016.

Unions are also seeking to organize charter teachers. Teachers at more than a quarter of Chicago’s 121 charter schools now belong to the CTU. A similar share of 277 Los Angeles charter schools are organized. Only two of Oakland’s 44 charters are unionized.

In a post-Janus world, unions are showcasing the viability of the picket line as a way to win contracts that bolster membership. And because only union members can vote to authorize a strike, union leaders can leverage strike votes to petition, or pressure, non-union members to join.

The Los Angeles union reported adding over 1,000 members during its strike vote; the Denver union says it added 250.

So why are teachers’ unions striking more frequently? We believe they’re fighting for their survival.

Bradley D. Marianno is assistant professor of educational policy & leadership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Katharine O. Strunk is professor of education policy and economics at Michigan State University.

This article was republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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