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October 25, 2011
September 03, 2009
Chicago’s more than 350,000 public school pupils finally went back to class yesterday, after seven missed days due to the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike. They were thus deprived of about four percent of the school year—and these are kids who need more schooling, not less. (One big issue in the labor-management dispute was Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to lengthen Chicago’s famously bobtailed school day and year.)
The Chicago strike was a useful reminder that teacher unions are fundamentally selfish.
Photo by RachelD.
Thanks a bunch, CTU.
This strike—the first big one by teachers in ages—will be examined every which way for months to come, and the contract that was finally agreed upon will be carefully autopsied. (If you’d like to see a careful analysis of a previous Chicago teacher contract, download Fordham’s Leadership Limbo report and flip to page fifty. If you’d like to inspect the contract that was in force until a couple of months ago—be warned that it’s 176 pages long!—you can access it from the National Council on Teacher Quality’s website.)
As for the new contract, my friends at NCTQ are more bullish than I am. Rick Hess’s take seems closer to the mark. Yes, it contains a handful of features from Rahm’s reform shopping list. But every one of them was weakened, diluted, deferred, or made very expensive for a city that can ill afford the added cost.
Here is what the CTU said to its own members in advance of Tuesday’s ratification vote:
And here’s what AFT president Randi Weingarten said in hailing the ratification:
But of course that’s precisely what this episode did not demonstrate. What it demonstrated was that what teacher unions care about has practically nothing to do with what’s good for the kids and everything to do with what teachers want for themselves. They are fundamentally selfish.
You can say that’s what unions exist to do. I don’t know for sure if the late Albert Shanker actualy did declare that “when kids vote in union elections, that’s when I’ll worry about them” or words to that effect. But yes, it’s a fact that unions look after their members.
Let them then not pretend otherwise, despite all this talk by Randi Weingarten and Karen Lewis about the new CTU contract being in the best interest of Chicago’s schoolchildren. It’s not. Rahm’s original proposals were—and were more affordable, to boot.
We’ve seen a few instances in recent years of labor unions eventually realizing that the health of their industry and the quality of its products actually bear, in the long run, on their own jobs and well-being. The United Auto Workers eventually figured that out with regard to the U.S. auto industry. But not until Detroit’s “Big Three” were collapsing. And other major industries actually did collapse—“Big Steel,” for instance—in large part because their unions never got the message that it was bad for them to have those jobs move to Korea or Brazil.
Other industries—look at the airlines—have to declare bankruptcy in order to get out from under labor contracts that are, in fact, helping to bankrupt them. That’s because their unions were (and are), like the CTU, attending only to the interests, priorities, and preferences of the employees who belong to them.
By week two of the Chicago strike, I suspect, residents of the Windy City were figuring this out. At the outset, they tended to blame Rahm, not the CTU, for the walkout. But when a compromise was struck by district and union representatives—a compromise, I repeat, that is about the employees’ interests, not the kids’ or the taxpayers’—and the union still continued to strike for two utterly unnecessary days, Chicago’s parents and voters must have realized that this was indeed about selfish employees, not provocative mayors.
And that, I believe, is the principle long-term good that may come out of this for the country as a whole. Whitney Tilson got it right when he commented the other day that
Let’s hope he’s right. Then let’s make the most of it.