By Emma Irving
Does the agreement between the Chicago Teacher’s Union and the city represent a win for the labor movement? After over a week of striking and a year of contract negotiations, Chicago teacher’s have voted to return to the classroom, accepting a contract agreement that represents partial negotiations on both sides. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has been pushing for a longer school day and a longer school year, has added an hour and 15 minutes of instruction per day in elementary schools and 30 minutes in high schools. The school year has also been lengthened by two weeks. Current teachers will not be working longer hours as originally proposed by Emanuel; instead, teachers that were laid off during the last two years will have the opportunity to be rehired to fill the extra instruction time. Art, music, and physical eduction teachers, as well as social workers and psychiatrists will be hired to create a higher quality school day, not simply a longer one.
While the Chicago Teacher’s Union president, Karen Lewis, has said that though teacher’s are not getting as much as they wanted, they were able to fight increasing class sizes and they gained considerably in their fight for better education for their students. Teacher’s will be receiving a long postponed salary increase, including raises to keep up with the cost of living, and will continue to receive raises for experience and advanced education. Teachers will not be subject to the Performance Evaluation Reform Act, which rewards teachers based on student standardized test scores. In addition, teachers will be able to form their own lesson plans as opposed to using only standardized lesson plans that give little room for adjustments. Finally, the new contract agreement will cost less for taxpayers than the previous contract.
So who has really benefitted from the new contract negotiations? Rahm Emanuel has expressed he is pleased and union leaders have voiced that the strike was successful. Even the mainstream media cannot pick out a distinct ‘winner.’ But both sides have given up much; teachers have been taking pay cuts since the strike has ended while their union continues to collect fees, they are still worried about increasing segregation, the closure of ‘failing schools,’ lack of library services, poor condition of school buildings, and many other issues which were written off as things that will be ‘looked into’ by the city or be addressed when the ‘budget allows for it.’ Emanuel also failed to implement his original contract, which still would have meant the extension of the school day but with no hiring of additional teachers, no increase in pay, and a longer extension than was agreed to.
With the union succumbing to a compromise, what they have truly compromised is the resiliency necessary to mobilize a national labor movement. They gave up too quickly when they had all the cards in their favor and could have easily gained more. They had a broad base of support, they were non-violent and had media attention so the police couldn’t get violent. The biggest things standing in their way were Rahm Emanuel and the bad publicity he spread and supported, the union which did not offer strike pay, instead offering low interest loans, and the oppositions appeal to union members with the argument that the strike was bad for students because they were missing school. Teacher’s and strike supporters failed to keep in mind that the strike’s goals, if reached, would have been a major benefit to the students. Unfortunately the teachers must have believed that this compromise was the best they would get and decided that ending the strike was the most beneficial course of action. I stand to disagree; nothing but their lack of patience prevented them from getting their full list of demands.
Loyal union members have stated they hope the strike will be remembered not for the specific details of the negotiations, but as a battle in the long struggle against school reform policies. With teacher’s pay put on hold since the strike ended, many teacher’s are not as satisfied as their union suggests. Both union leaders and Emanuel appear to be walking away smiling, while teachers and workers all over still have a long way to go in the fight for fair labor practices in this country. I only hope that these negotiations will not hinder a national labor movement, though I will always remember this particular resolution as a case of “too little, too soon” for the teachers.
Bio: Emma Irving is a Sociology student at Sonoma State University and is involved with the Sociology Club and the campus subsidiary of Democracy Matters. Currently she is studying social movements in the Sociology of Social Movements and Collective Behavior class taught by Professor Peter Phillips.