The long-running battle between the Chicago Teachers’ Union (the “Union”) and the Chicago Public Schools (“CPS”) has turned even uglier.  The Chicago Tribune reports that the Union rejected CPS’s most recent contract offer Monday, and CPS responded by cutting budgets by a cool $100 million.

Combative negotiations between CPS and the Union have become the norm.  In September, 2012, the Union went on strike, leaving students and parents alike in the lurch.  In addition to the typical issues in teachers contract disputes (evaluations, pay and benefits, class sizes), Time reported that the Union explicitly demanded mayoral indulgence:

RAHM EMANUEL’S SUPPORT OF UNIONS When Emanuel took the mayorship of Chicago last May, he vowed to overhaul Chicago’s notoriously underperforming schools, particularly on the impoverished south side of the city. But the mayor’s first major negotiation with a city labor union has resulted in this strike, making worse his already poor relationship with union leaders worse. Emanuel has often butted heads with often-hotheaded union president Karen Lewis, after he bypassed the union’s opinion last year and went straight to the schools with an offer of bonus pay if they lengthened the school day. At a news conference, he called Monday’s walkout a “strike of choice,” saying he believed that the two sides were close to an agreement.

The New York Times explained that at the time the Union felt Emanuel had undermined it by negotiating with the actual teachers and schools:

Last month, after teachers’ union officials turned down a proposal to pay teachers 2 percent more to teach 90 minutes longer each day, Mr. Emanuel and Jean-Claude Brizard, Mr. Emanuel’s schools chief, took the offer straight to the schools. Any elementary school that went along with the idea, which school officials began calling the Longer School Day Pioneer Program, would get extra money ($150,000 for those that started right away), and its teachers would get what amounts to a 2 percent bonus.

By agreeing to the deal, the teachers waive specific provisions of their contracts involving the length of the school day and after-school pay requirements. Schools get to decide how to use the extra 90 minutes, but it must be spent in instruction (not, say, longer lunches) in areas like math, science, literacy, art and music.

By circumventing the Union, Rahm Emanuel, three-term Democratic member of the House of Representatives, former Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, and President Obama’s former Chief-Of-Staff, threatened to break it altogether.  If the teachers are dealing with the mayor directly anyway, why have a union at all?

Three years later, the Union is seemingly spoiling for a fight.  In part, the Union may simply recognize an opportunity.  Emanuel is extremely unpopular, and virtually any resolution to the schools issue would be better for him, politically, than another festering problem.  A Chicago Tribune poll puts his approval rating at a record-low 27% and a majority support a recall measure being considered in the state capital.  According to the Tribune:

The survey results confirm a public crisis in confidence for the second-term mayor, who has faced weeks of street protests, accusations of a cover-up and a federal civil rights probe of his Police Department after fighting the public release of police dash-cam video that showed the shooting of the African-American teen by a white police officer.

Some protesters have called for Emanuel to resign, but the poll revealed that a bare majority of Chicago voters don’t think the mayor’s missteps have been so grave that he should quit. Still, 4 in 10 surveyed do want the mayor to resign, including half of black and Latino voters.

The poll reveals the deep public distrust of Emanuel that has developed since the McDonald shooting video was released in late November. Nearly 75 percent of Chicago voters do not believe the mayor’s explanation of how he learned of the details of McDonald’s shooting death, and more than two-thirds say the mayor was not justified in withholding the shooting video.

Pressing the issue, the Union formally voted to strike in December.  No strike has been undertaken due to Byzantine rules permitting a strike only 105 days after fact-finding begins and, apparently, CPS itself has a say in when that fact-finding begins.  The earliest strike date would seemingly be sometime in late March.

The union may have also decided it was necessary to draw a line in the sand to prevent further decline.  Scott Walker won a protracted battle to scale back the unions’ bargaining power in Wisconsin, and other states have or will follow suit.  Oral arguments before the Supreme Court last month suggest that compelled contributions from non-members – a critical source of union funding – is doomed to judicial rescission.

Noticeably absent from this battle are the students and their parents.  The Union couches its complaints in terms of class size and services to vulnerable students, but in the same breath acknowledges more than a billion of dollars of CPS deficits driven largely by teacher pensions and then blames charter schools.  The Union even argues that increased property taxes somehow constitute a Union concession, rather than a basic source of city revenue.

Chicago Public Schools are indisputably atrocious and are a disservice to all parties (students, parents and teachers alike).  A strike serves none of them.  Neither does a contract that perpetuates structural problems, including unrealistic and economically non-viable Union demands.

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