Collateral damage

The cost of striking teachers

  • Pin It

If the Chicago Teachers Union strike ends before this column appears, the damage has been done and can't be repaired. To the union's reputation. And especially to the children, who have been taught the meaning of greed.

So, let's begin.

Chicago has been a union town for as long as any living person can remember. From the West Virginia coal fields to the Detroit assembly lines, Chicago has stood shoulder to shoulder in the early days of organized labor in the struggle for a better life for working men and women.

In Chicago, railroad, slaughterhouse, garment and industrial workers, among others, suffered recriminations and sometimes violence to demand rights to a just wage, humane working conditions, a reasonable workday and workweek, safe working conditions and job security. Thanks to unions, workers and their families have elevated themselves from scraping out a meager living in low-paid and dangerous jobs into the middle class.

But now, the Chicago Teachers Union and its 25,000 striking teachers against 350,000 students have tested the limits of this town's historic support. They have tested the patience of many Chicagoans whose children are being used as pawns. And the tolerance of Chicago taxpayers to shell out more and more to support a teetering and failing institution. And the indulgence of a business and civic community that understands the consequences of labor chaos — particularly in the public school system — on ability of Chicago to attract jobs.

And they have especially tested the support of many Chicago workers who haven't seen a pay increase, improved working conditions or better job security for years. Or the Chicagoans fired because of the lousy economy. Or those who were able only to find a new job that pays less. Or those now working two jobs (during the summers when teachers are on an extended vacation) to minimally support their families.

We have watched as CTU President Karen Lewis and other union leaders whined and pontificated about how bad they have it. They crab about how "disrespected" they are. About how personal it has become because Mayor Rahm Emanuel once dared to insult the supremely insultable Lewis. Poor me, poor us.

The public school leadership offered reasonable — some would say way too generous — concessions on wages, accountability, benefits. Let's not forget those huge pensions.

Over four years, teachers would be getting a 16 percent pay increase (including those wonderful cost-of-living and various increases that reward teachers for just being there). The average teacher salary is $71,000. How many Chicagoans will enjoy that kind of salary as the economy struggles? How many Chicagoans actually have had their wages cut?

There are other issues, although the two sides couldn't seem to publicly agree on what they are. But best as I can tell, the new contract provisions leave teachers miles from the bread line. And light years from the insufferable working conditions that spawn the organized labor movement.

Watching Lewis' huffing and puffing during the Great Recession and the slowest economic recovery in memory, you've got to wonder about the CTU's exquisite sense of bad timing. You've got to wonder if its members have any concept of how good they have it compared with their fellow Chicagoans. You've got to wonder if they live on another planet. How can they be so stupid — stiffing their students, the children's parents, the taxpayers and the town in general at a time like this, and all the while replaying the discredited canard that they're doing it for the kids? Do they think they can draw on an infinite supply of good will? Do they think Chicago is lying when it says it doesn't have the money?

Maybe the CTU is right. It's taking a calculated risk that Chicagoans, known for their tolerance of bad government, will stoically accept this shafting. Maybe the CTU has correctly calculated that an outraged General Assembly won't pass punitive laws to limit not just the organizing and negotiating rights of not just teachers but also other public employee unions. Maybe a public backlash won't produce calls for CTU's decertification.

But the damage has been done to Chicago and its children.

Dennis Byrne, a Chicago writer, blogs in The Barbershop at

  • Pin It

Editorial Poll


Andy Green, the opinion editor, has taken the "know a little bit about everything" approach in his time at The Sun. He was the city/state editor before coming to the editorial board, and prior to that he covered the State House and Baltimore County government.

Tricia Bishop, the deputy editorial page editor, was a reporter in the business and metro sections covering biotechnology, education and city and federal courts prior to joining the board.

Peter Jensen, former State House reporter and features writer, takes the lead on state government, transportation issues and the environment; he is the board's resident funny man and capital schmooze.

Glenn McNatt, who returned to editorial writing after serving as the newspaper's art critic, keeps an eye on the arts, culture, politics and the law for the editorial board.

Portland's potty water problem [Poll]

The Portland (Oregon) Water Bureau ordered 38 million gallons of clean, potable water drained after a smirking teen-ager urinated in a reservoir. Was that an overreaction?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Not sure