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Chicago teachers strike ends, but political fallout is just beginning

With the strike, teachers fought back against reforms that they say come hand-in-hand with vilifying teachers. But the strike also exposed rifts in the Democratic Party over education policy that had never been put in such stark relief.

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Some reforms that the city did win on – such as strengthened teacher evaluations – were mostly due to new state mandates. “It shows that state battles are still politically important,” he adds. “They set the context for what can be bargained over at the local level.”

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But the Chicago strike was also notable for criticism of the union from national voices on the left. While celebrating the union's stand, some union supporters worry that it was a poor strategic decision, allowing them to win a battle but setting them up to lose the war.

“I’m happy that there are good things in this contract. Do I think they could have had them without a strike? Yes,” says Zev Eigen, a law professor at Northwestern University who specializes in labor issues. “So you have to weigh the cost.”

In the long term, Professor Eigen suggests, this strike may encourage people to legislate away union bargaining rights, as Wisconsin did, because the media, in covering the strike, didn’t distinguish between private- and public-sector unions. 

“Public-sector unions are the very weakest case for collective-bargaining rights there is,” says Eigen, who worries that the public’s taste for dismantling union rights will extend beyond the public sector into the private sector.

Major voices from the left, including The New York Times editorial board and several high-profile columnists, wrote articles criticizing the union and supporting reforms.

“There’s been a shift going on in the Democratic Party since 2005,” says Rebecca Nieves-Huffman, Illinois state director for Democrats for Education Reform, a group that is critical of unions. “Democrats are supposed to be supporting the little guy. In education, literally and figuratively, the little guys are the kids.... We’ve seen this shift where [some Democrats] are saying, 'I don’t know if taking the support of the union is in the best interest of kids.' ”

Chicago teachers, of course – many of whom were angry about large class sizes, lack of air conditioning and textbooks, and inequities they see across the system, along with the proposed reform measures – also believed they were holding students’ best interests at heart. And – at least until the second week the strike dragged on – they were fairly successful in getting the support of Chicago parents.

“It appears the collective-bargaining process is still a very important and dynamic process for both addressing the reform issues around teacher accountability and the culture in the public schools, and at the same time protecting teachers’ interests,” says Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

Moreover, says Professor Bruno, the union’s success in staring down the school system over some of the reform issues, and getting a relatively favorable contract in the end, suggests “that teachers unions can actually fight and win.”

But many observers saw students as the big losers over the past week, sitting idly as big personalities flexed their muscle.

“I was of the view that this was a strike that didn’t need to happen,” says Knowles at the University of Chicago. “Seven days out of school is real…. One could say this was an incredible opportunity to learn about civic engagement, but it was done on the backs of parents and kids, and that seems like a loss.”


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