Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Episode V: The Teachers Strike Back

Normae Rae
Americans lately have seen the resurgence of the mass movement protest.  Once happily relegated to black and white news reels from the 60's, with protests in Wisconsin, the Occupy Movement scattered throughout cities all over the country, and now the teacher strike in Chicago, collective protest seems to be on the rise.  What is causing the increase in these movements? Should teachers have the right to strike?  What recourse should teachers have when working conditions suffer, contracts are broken, and neither political party is really willing to address teacher issues?  

Schools in Chicago have been closed this week due to teacher strikes, forcing about 350,000 students to stay at home.  According to the teachers, they are striking because of the of new requirements that Rahm Emanuel, Pres. Obama's former top adviser, now mayor of Chicago, is demanding of teachers:

The tension in Chicago began before Emanuel was elected. On the campaign trail, he pledged to add 90 minutes to the school day and extend the school year. Chicago is the country’s third-largest public school system but has one of the shortest school days.

Union leaders argued that Emanuel cannot unilaterally extend their workday by 20 percent.

When Emanuel took office last year, the school district faced a $700 million budget shortfall, and he rescinded 4 percent raises for teachers that had been negotiated and settled. He offered bonuses for teachers and schools that waived the contract and adopted a longer school day; the union challenged the move before the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.

Emanuel successfully pushed for a new state law that made it harder for the teachers to strike; union members responded by overwhelmingly meeting the new hurdles to authorize a strike.

President Obama has been decidely middling on the issue while Romney (currently) states that "Teachers’ unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children, and today we are seeing one of the clearest examples yet.” So it looks like the teacher's union is not finding much succor with either party.  So in this case, the teachers must take their cause directly to the people.

Where's Coolio when you need him?

I find myself leaning with the teachers in this particular case.  In American culture, teachers are both lionized and demonized, applauded for going into some very harsh conditions and getting children to succeed, while also being blamed for the fact that little Johnny can't read.  And of course we all want to know what separates a great and effective teacher from one who is incompetent and does more harm than good.  While, like porn, an excellent teacher is something we all know when we see it, I'm just not certain it can be quantifiably measured by test scores.  In fact, I think that forcing teachers to "teach to the test" may cause otherwise good teachers to become bad ones.  We do know that the "miracle rise" in test scores after testing advocate Michelle Rhee instituted scores of reforms in DC public schools was mostly due to cheating.

Americans have always had an uneasy relationship with collective movements.  Our society places huge emphasis on the individual, and mostly denigrates mass movements.  Movies that lionize teachers tend to focus on the efforts of one heroic teacher or administrator beating the system against all odds, rather than on the systematic changes that we as a society can make to ensure that more students are helped effectively.
We all can't be Morgan Freeman

With all that said, I think teachers should be allowed to strike under certain conditions.  Asking someone to work a 20% longer day, without much additional pay is one of them.  Requiring that teacher's pay be (40%!) dependent on someone else taking a test, a test where teachers have little to no control over what the other person has eaten, or is in a bad mood, or just doesn't feel like giving the correct answers that day seems like a recipe for a strike.

Others disagree.  But if you truly feel that you have not been given a fair shake, sometimes collective action is needed, all the way up to, and including, the right to strike.  It's telling that while some feel it is wrong to strike, most can't think of an alternative plan for the teachers which does not involve the teachers conceding.  It's difficult to be taken seriously when your opponent recognizes that you have no guns in your arsenal, and taking the ability to strike off the table is just deciding to unilaterally disarm yourself.

Chicago teachers protesting


  1. Thanks for posting this, Mandi, I was wondering what the real story was, but too busy to look into it. It's awful optics, as the political class would say - for the union and for the President. Most people won't bother to look into it. Presumably more people in Chicago know the history, but do you think a majority do?

  2. I think that a lot of people in Chicago do know the background. The latest polls I looked at showed about 40% firmly in the teachers' camp, while only 17% are supporting Rahm. You won't believe how many national stories I've read that portray this as a lack of daycare issue though, rather than discussing the issues a little more in-depth.

  3. I actually see that as progress. There is a serious problem with finding safe, affordable day care in this country: particularly in places where there is the most need.

  4. Nah, if only that was the focus! The story is being spun as thus: "The teachers are on strike, for whatever reason *handwave*. Where in the world are we going to warehouse the kids in the meantime?"

  5. Well, as much as I otherwise sympathize with the teachers, my biggest sympathies lie with the parents (and you know in most cases it will be the mothers) who are scrambling to rearrange schedules and find care for their kids. Some parents are losing income, and if the strike goes on for a long time, they could lose their jobs. That's the problem I have with certain strikes like this one and the transit strike in NY a few years back -- lots of people who have nothing to do with either side get completely screwed over, and don't have a new contract to benefit from when it is over.

    But I also take your point -- if this is the only weapon the unions have, then what's the alternative? I wonder if there aren't other, creative alternatives to a full-on strike.

  6. There's one opinion on it in this article: http://coreyrobin.com/2012/09/12/why-people-do-hate-teachers-unions-because-they-hate-teachers/
    And another opinion on it in my mind (which is what I initially thought the article would say), which is that people hate teachers because they still remember their own school days, when teachers made them do work and then graded them on it.

  7. They have other alternatives beadgirl, like "sick-outs", but I think the effect is much the same. Parents would still be scrambling for alternatives.

    I guess I've just had some really great teachers Sara, especially by the time I got to high school. So, I guess I couldn't come at from that angle, and the thought didn't even really occur to me, though I know plenty of people do loathe teachers for the reason outlined in the article.

  8. I have the same blinders - I did have some great, some not-so-great teachers, but my parents are both teachers :-)

  9. I read the article, Sara, and while I suppose there might be some who think that way, I have a hard time believing most people hate teachers for that reason (or for your second reason).

    That said, I have encountered (online if not in real life) people who think teachers are the enemies, making their children mediocre and conventional and imposing their own horrible values on them. I wonder how much of this has to do with modern parenting, which especially among the upper-middle classes and higher is getting ridiculous. My parenting style could best be described as lackadaisical, but some of my friends and acquaintances are borderline tiger parents or are over-privileged, and they certainly get far more worked up about the flaws in our schools than I do.

    I was raised to respect and admire teaching as a profession, so I am puzzled by the fact that it is the subject of such contempt.