Opinion: Is teachers union on suicide mission?

SHARE Opinion: Is teachers union on suicide mission?

The Chicago Teachers Union prides itself on being a democratically elected organization that fights for its members. Too bad the members had no say on a very generous contract offer from the Chicago Public Schools that the union leadership summarily rejected.


By all accounts, the deal that Chicago Teacher’s Union President Karen Lewis presented to a 40-member bargaining committee was more than fair to teachers, even if it was less than ideal for parents and students. It avoided teacher layoffs, protected pensions, provided across-the-board raises based on seniority rather than performance and even limited charter school growth.

In exchange, the district would stop paying the so-called “pension pick-up,” under which the districts covers most of the employee pension contribution. Teachers would also pay a little more for health care but the deal is still a net financial gain for teachers.

Yet, the bargaining committee rejected it, denying the rest of the membership a chance to weigh in. Instead, layoffs are now inevitable and the 105-day clock starts ticking, after which the teachers can go on strike.

So who wins? Not the kids and families who face more uncertainty, larger classes and fewer resources in the schools. Not the teachers, some of whom will lose their jobs and all of whom will lose their raises. Moreover, the district will unilaterally eliminate the pension pick-up anyway, so teachers will lose even more in take-home pay.

The taxpayers would lose either way because the deal included another $200 million in property taxes. Without the deal, the city will still raise taxes and will most likely have to borrow at higher interest rates than they would have if they had a deal with the union.

The deal could have united CPS and CTU behind a strategy to force Springfield to finally pay its fair share to Chicago. Alas, with CPS and CTU at odds, there is little hope of bringing enough pressure to bear to force the state to take action.

What is the CTU’s strategy? President Karen Lewis framed this as a “serious” offer, and her team didn’t articulate any substantive objections. Instead, they simply said they just don’t “trust” CPS.

So now a teacher strike — either at the end of this school year or the beginning of the next -— is more likely. Do they think a strike will get them a better deal from CPS? Do they think a strike will make Springfield blink and give Chicago more money?

Do they think a strike will somehow restore trust — or will it simply make them feel good to stick their thumb into the administration’s eye? Either way, the hard-liners in the CTU appear to be on a suicide mission to bring the system to its knees.

To her credit, Lewis appeared to bargain in good faith and admirably refrained from pointed rhetoric that endears her to her more strident members. Nevertheless, she is also reaping what she sowed over the last year with saber-rattling strike votes and anti-administration rallies.

Four years ago, the public stood firmly with the union when it went on strike. More recently, enough voted for a CTU-backed candidate against Mayor Rahm Emanuel to force a runoff.

But the mayor turned to his most seasoned adviser, Forrest Claypool, to fix the problem. Claypool took hard steps to shrink the bureaucracy, cut costs and come up with a generous and responsible offer that protects teachers, pensions and children.

The union faces another problem if they strike. The district’s 130 charter schools serving more than 60,000 students will remain open. With thousands of additional parents on charter waiting lists, a strike would further whet their appetites for choice and drive more parents away from traditional public schools.

The CTU leadership should rethink its opposition. At the very least, its members should have a chance to weigh in. If the members vote it down, they can go back to the bargaining table, but they better hurry up. Teacher layoffs begin on Monday.

Peter Cunningham is the executive director of Education Post, a Chicago-based nonprofit working to improve public education.

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