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2012 teachers strike not a template for 2019

A lot changed over the last seven years since the last work stoppage.

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey, with union members and staff, at a news conference.
David Roeder/Sun-Times

Much has changed in the seven years since the Chicago Teachers Union last went out on strike in a historic work stoppage that reinvigorated the labor movement nationally and boosted progressive politics locally.

And if among those changes were much needed staffing boosts at Chicago Public Schools for nurses, librarians and other important support personnel, we might not find ourselves in the situation we are now, looking at another potential walkout.

Still, the changed landscape can’t be overlooked.

From the obvious fact that there’s a new mayor in town to the more easily overlooked improvements in state funding for education, there are differences that will have to be considered before Chicago Teachers Union leadership takes its members out on strike.

Before I write another word, let me emphasize I have no interest in giving CTU any “bulletin board material,” as they say in the sports world, which refers to inflammatory quotes in news articles that coaches use to motivate their players. You know, like a headline that says, “Take the Deal.”

I respect teachers. I’m a supporter of unions.

Chicago teachers have every right — and plenty of reasons — to authorize a strike, set a strike date and take it right down to the wire, if necessary, to force the best deal possible.

Unfortunately, that’s how labor negotiations work, which is why there is no surprise in a reported 94 percent of union members voting this week in favor of a strike.

What else were they going to do: Cut the legs out from under their negotiators at the bargaining table?

That’s not to suggest a strike authorization vote isn’t serious business. Once workers hand that power to their leaders, they have to trust those leaders to act wisely, and be prepared to back them up if the time comes.

I recall the 2012 strike almost fondly (easier for me because at the time I was still living in the suburbs) as an important moment for organized labor and a turning point for Chicago politics.

An argument could be made Mayor Lori Lightfoot was an indirect beneficiary of that 2012 strike, when Chicagoans got a taste of the possibilities of standing up to their elected leaders — and found they liked it.

That’s ironic, of course, because the CTU chose up sides squarely against Lightfoot in the mayoral election, backing Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and ever since has continued pushing the narrative that the new mayor is just another version of her predecessor Rahm Emanuel.

Emanuel had a low opinion of Chicago public school teachers, a bias shared by one of his top education advisers at the time, some guy most of us hadn’t heard of yet named Bruce Rauner.

That attitude bled into Emanuel’s entire antagonistic approach to the teachers union and contract negotiations, exemplified by his famous, if overblown, F-you to then-CTU President Karen Lewis.

There is nothing to indicate Lightfoot holds similar attitudes. While I doubt she is particularly fond of CTU leadership at this point, she has been nothing but respectful of teachers throughout the process.

In fact, anybody who has watched the new mayor in her first months on the job has probably observed she is going out of her way to avoid saying anything even the least bit negative in response to CTU’s obvious efforts to bait her, not her usual approach.

But the mayor’s office isn’t the only important personnel change since 2012.

Instead of banker-businessman David Vitale at the helm of the Chicago Board of Education, we have former state Sen. and City Clerk Miguel del Valle, whose background is Latino grassroots politics.

Instead of New York import Jean-Claude Brizard holding the job of schools’ CEO, with another New York import, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, pulling the strings from off stage on her way to a federal prison, we now have home grown educator Janice Jackson running the show.

In 2012, teachers unions were under attack nationally and the charter school movement was in its heyday. Emanuel withheld a teacher pay raise and was among many seeking to trim teacher pensions. The tide has turned in all those areas, not to suggest the fights are over.

And then there’s the CTU itself, where Jesse Sharkey has replaced the charismatic Lewis as president. I don’t doubt Sharkey’s ability to lead his members, but I’m not sure he shares Lewis’ talent for winning the support of the rest of the community.

I guess all I’m saying is that I understood the strike of 2012 a lot better than I’d understand a strike in 2019.