A child holds a sign at a Chicago Teachers Union rally during the strike.

A child holds a sign at a Chicago Teachers Union rally during the strike.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Teachers, you won. Show us our kids have won, too

Let’s see how this pans out over the next few years. Let’s see if test scores and graduation rates continue to improve. Let’s see, that is to say, whether the teachers deliver.

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C
hicago can breathe a sigh of relief: The teachers strike is over and 300,000 students are headed back to school on Friday.

It was a historic negotiation, even for this staunchly pro-labor city, partially redefining the scope of what contract talks are all about.

When before has a labor union demanded more affordable housing?

Editorials bug

Editorials

From Day 1, the Chicago Teachers Union was determined to advance its social justice agenda beyond the usual bread-and-butter issues such as pay and benefits. The union flexed every bit of its political muscle doing so, finding support among working Americans who are increasingly troubled by economic and social inequality.

We were frequently critical of the CTU during this strike. The union was offered a generous deal before the strike even began. We always had a suspicion they kept rolling out new demands because they were determined to walk.

Who won this strike?

We’d have to say the teachers came out of this fight in terrific shape, and maybe the kids, too. The new contract gives the teachers considerably more resources to do their job, such as more support staff and limits on class size.

But before anybody truly declares victory, let’s see how this pans out over the next few years.

Let’s see if student test scores and graduation rates continue to improve. Let’s see if more kids pass Advanced Placement tests. Let’s see if more graduates go to college — prepared to do the work.

Let’s see, that is to say, whether the teachers now deliver.

There are serious questions, as well, as to what the final tab for this contract will be — and how Chicago will pay the bill. Labor peace did not come cheap. The school district’s precarious finances are intertwined with the city’s precarious finances, and the threat of another property tax hike is real.

Through it all, Mayor Lori Lightfoot articulated her values and priorities, which ironically closely align with those of the union, and she never insulted the teachers.

There are serious questions, as well, as to what the final tab for this contract will be — and how Chicago will pay the bill. Labor peace did not come cheap. The school district’s precarious finances are intertwined with the city’s precarious finances, and the threat of another property tax hike is real.

Even when the CTU sandbagged her in the closing hours of negotiations, making a last-minute demand that she add 10 or 11 paid days to the end of the school year so that the teachers could make up money lost to the strike — she bit her tongue and argued only the issues.

At least in public.

We are concerned, though, that Lightfoot has set an overly generous precedent for negotiations with other city unions. Does the teachers’ big pay raise — 16 percent over five years — set a floor for wage increases for other public employees? How can the city ask cops and firefighters to pay more for their health insurance when the teachers are paying virtually nothing more?

In a recent meeting with the Sun-Times Editorial Board, Lightfoot insisted that all union contract negotiations are separate and distinct.

We sure hope she’s right.

A deal for better or worse

A mayor, in our view, should approach every union negotiation as an opportunity. The union will have its list of demands, but so should the city.

We saw little of that here.

Lightfoot, to her credit, refused to budge on several of the CTU’smore inappropriate demands. She would not agree to support a CTU-backed bill in Springfield to create an elected school board, and another bill that would loosen restrictions on what CTU can strike over.And she brushed past the union’s demands on more affordable housing.

Most significantly, the mayor did not budge on the CTU’s demand to cut 30 minutes of teaching time from the elementary school day in order to give those teachers more prep time. That time belongs to kids.

But consider all that the mayor and her team conceded, for better or worse:

  • In five years, that 16% pay raise will result in an average teacher’s salary of almost $98,000. Nobody should begrudge a good paycheck for a good teacher. But we believe the mayor’s negotiating team agreed to that 16% far too early, losing leverage. Teachers were free to push harder on more extraneous demands.
  • Teachers will pay only 0.75% more for their health insurance, though the city initially asked for an increase of 1.5% over five years. Again, our sense is that the mayor’s team caved early.
  • The contract includes $35 million per year for lower class sizes. The money will be distributed via a new CPS-CTU council that will assess overcrowding issues on a case-by-case basis. That’s a smart approach, given that overcrowding is spread unevenly among schools and the best research shows that smaller classes matter most in the primary grades. But this was an expensive concession.
  • The city agreed to hire a full-time nurse and social worker for every school by July 2023. The district will also hire more librarians and other staff. These are undeniable wins for schools and kids — but again, expensive for taxpayers.

A mayor’s trial by fire

Mayors are made, not born. Our suspicion is that Lightfoot entered these negotiations with an expectation, or at least a hope, that the CTU might work with her because she generally shares their values and social justice goals. Instead, the union tested the new mayor at every turn.

Now, having undergone this trial by fire, Lightfoot could emerge a more steeled chief executive, better set for negotiations to come.

There’s a lot on the line. Lightfoot needs to work with Gov. J.B. Pritzker and lawmakers in Springfield to help plug Chicago’s massive budget deficit. She needs to work with aldermen to get her budget passed.

Kids are going back to school, but Chicago’s challenges remain.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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