For the third time in a row and the eighth time in 16 years, Chicago public schools are closed because of a labor dispute. In many respects, this year's walkout in Chicago fits the pattern of previous school strikes. Teachers are demanding more money while the school board pleads poverty.
As Chicago teachers formed picket lines, 19,000 Philadelphia teachers yesterday avoided a strike by accepting a three-year contract with wage increases totaling 16 percent. In Chicago, the 3.5 percent raise offered teachers was not enough to get classes going today for the system's 430,000 schoolchildren.
But a few new wrinkles have been introduced into this year's negotiations that could lead to a fairly quick resolution.
Budget surplus. This year, for the first time since a near financial collapse in 1979, the school board started with a projected surplus instead of a deficit. The reason: an Illinois education reform package brought Chicago schools $86.3 million in new money this year.
Because of the new money, many observers expected that the board would be able to meet teacher demands. These observers did not expect a strike.
``I don't think anybody did,'' says William Adelman, labor and industrial relations professor at the University of Illinois. ``It's not something you can predict.''
A possible mediator. At time of writing, Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson was convening both sides to explain a proposal of his own, which would allow the union to get a multiyear contract -- one of its goals in this year's negotiations.
The contract talks have stalled because both sides were far apart in terms of a raise. The board is calling a 3.5 percent raise its final offer. Union president Jacqueline Vaughn called the offer ``business as usual.'' She claims that, as in other years, more money is will be found for teachers. She calls for a 9 percent raise. A 1 percent raise costs about $9 million.
The board so far has remained firm in saying that some of the money should go for new staff and new programs. Since the near collapse in 1979, ``we haven't come up with any major [new] programs for children,'' says school Superintendent Manford Byrd Jr. ``The interest of the children must be protected.''