Chicago Teachers Strike: A Lesson Of “Excessive Zeal And No Brains”

On September 10, 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) walked out of the city’s public schools after negotiations fell through with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the school district. The issues surrounding the negotiations between the city and the teachers involved reforms to pay increases and teacher evaluations. As of now, no contract agreement has been finalized, but recent developments have showed signs of an impending end to the strike.

If lessons can be learned from history, then the 1987 Chicago Teachers Strike provides a good example as what to expect from the aftermath of the strike.

On September 8, 1987, negotiations regarding teacher salaries between the Chicago Board of Education and the CTU fell through and a strike was declared. The CTU initially proposed a 10 percent pay increase, while the Chicago Board of Education proposed a 1.7 percent pay cut and shortening of the school year by three days. The Board of Education balked, saying the demands made by the CTU were unrealistic, because an extra $100 million would need to be raised that year along with another $50 million the following year to fund their request for pay raises.

Changes to Chicago’s education system needed to be addressed that year, due a veto of $113 million in aid to education by then Gov. James R. Thompson, which according to the Los Angeles Times “trimmed more than $40 million from the Chicago schools’ budget.”

On October 4, 1987, an agreement was reached and the strike ended after nineteen days. The agreement included a two year contract which increased teacher salaries by 4 percent for the first year and by a to-be-determined amount for the second year that was dependant on how much funding the Chicago school system received that year. The Board of Education agreed to reduce class sizes in some, but not all Chicago schools. Unfortunately, the agreement also meant that 500 school employees would be laid off, with the possibility of more layoffs reaching 1,272 employees, according to then-Superintendant Manford Byrd.

While the current teachers strike is not identical to the 1987, there is an important similarity between them. That similarity is that both involve the CTU demanding pay raises and benefits that are not feasible for the city of Chicago.

Today, the deficit problem facing Chicago is much worse. The CTU had demanded a 30-percent pay increase, while the district offered an increase of 16 percent, which was doubled from 8 percent earlier. According to the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI), pension and retirement costs are set to devour almost half of the education funding Chicago receives from the state. The IPI also cites new accounting rules that show that the CTU is hiding 70 percent of its own debt under the current system, which means that contributions to the fund will rise once those new rules take place.

What is most unfortunate about the situation in Chicago is that if the numbers cited by the IPI are correct then it is highly unlikely that the negotiations between the CTU and the school district are going to produce a solution to what can be described as a fiscal crisis. Like 1987, the CTU will most likely have to compromise on the amount of their pay increase, which will probably not come near the 30 percent they initially asked for. According to the current state of negotiations, Mayor Emanuel and the school district are going to retool their proposed teacher evaluation system, which will possibly affect other reforms the district wants to enact.

Then-Chicago Mayor Harold Washington said after an agreement was reached during the 1987 strike that he blamed past Chicago mayors for giving off a certain perception to the public that solutions had been reached in past collecting bargaining processes, but instead only kicked the problems further down the road. Washington said that those mayors, along with the CTU, “bankrupted the system, using excessive zeal and no brains.” Right now, Chicago looks like it is set to continue that tradition.