Teachers unions have painted themselves into a tight corner

Published: Thursday, July 5 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this June 6, 2012 photo, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis casts her ballot during a strike authorization vote at a Chicago high school. Angered by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s call for a longer school day and wage and benefit concessions, 25,000 Chicago teachers voted this week to consider authorizing their first strike in a quarter-century.

M. Spencer Green, Associated Press

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CHICAGO — The title of the nation's largest labor union — the National Education Association — seems calculated to blur the fact that it is a teachers union. In this blunt city, however, the teachers union candidly calls itself the Chicago Teachers Union. Its office is in the Merchandise Mart, a gigantic architectural Stonehenge, which resembles a fortress located on the Chicago River, which resembles a moat. Which is appropriate.

Unions are besieged, especially public-sector unions, particularly teachers unions, and nowhere more than here. Teachers unions have been bombarded with bad publicity, much of it earned, including the movie "Waiting for 'Superman,'" and have courted trouble by cashing in on sentimentality, cloaking every acquisitive demand in gauzy rhetoric about how everything is "for the children."

Still, have sympathy for Karen Lewis, 58, a Dartmouth graduate who is a daughter of two African-American teachers. She taught chemistry for 22 years until becoming president of the 26,502-member CTU. Her job is to make life better for her members, not to make life easier for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, with his roughneck's reputation and stevedore's profanity, whose ideas are as admirable as his manners are deplorable.

He thinks that improved schools, including more charter schools, might arrest the exodus to the suburbs of parents whose children are ready for high school, so he wants a longer school year and school day. America's school year (about 180 days) is one of the shortest in the industrial world, and while middle-class children may leaven their summers with strolls through the Louvre, less privileged children experience "summer learning loss." Remediation requires the first few weeks of the fall term, which effectively further shortens the school year. And Chicago's school day is the shortest of any large American district.

The CTU wants a pay raise — 30 percent — proportional to Emanuel's 90-minute increase in the school day and 10-day increase in the school year. He has canceled a 4 percent raise and offers only 2 percent. He says benefits the CTU has won — e.g., many teachers pay nothing toward generous pensions they can collect at age 60 — could in just three years force property taxes up 150 percent and require classes with 55 students.

Even discounting Emanuelean hyperbole, whose fault is this? Just as foggy rhetoric about corporations' "social responsibilities" obscures the fact that a corporation's responsibility is to maximize shareholder value, blaming unions for improvident contracts ignores the fact that a union's principal task is to enhance members' well-being — wages, benefits, working conditions. Unions can wound themselves by injuring their industries (e.g., steel and autos), but primary blame for improvident contracts with public employees belongs to the elected public officials who grant them.

Anyway, money — salaries and pensions — may not be the most problematic point of contention. It might be teacher "accountability," including merit pay, and identifying failing schools and teachers. Lewis says, "We can't choose the children that come into our classrooms." Chicago schools are 86 percent black and Hispanic, and low pupil performances strongly correlate with household incomes.

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