The Chicago Teachers’ Balancing Act

The paradox of unions is that they are at once armies and democracies—an oxymoronic construct that means they can seldom be as efficient as a top-down organization, or as expansively deliberative as, say, an idealized New England town meeting. There no ideal equipoise for a union—some, in which member participation has atrophied, can be essentially autocrat; some are more democratic (although democracy can impede growth if members insist on making the union devote resources to servicing their needs at the expense of organizing new members). The better unions try to balance their dual roles, and that looks like what the Chicago Teachers Union did Sunday night.

No one can question the union’s capacity as a unified force. A change in state law required the union to get a 75 percent vote of the members to authorize a strike; the union got 90 percent. The week-long strike has not been shaken by any member dissent (at least, none has been reported). But on Sunday afternoon, the union also showed it wouldn’t be rushed into approving a far-reaching contract that had been unveiled just a few hours previous. Though the union’s leaders had recommended the contract as a suitable compromise between what the union and what Mayor Rahm Emanuel sought, the 700-member union delegates’ body wanted more time to consider it. That’s what they’ll do over the next 48 hours, returning to vote on the contract on Tuesday.

Reportedly, the contract stipulates that student performance will constitute 30 percent of teachers’ evaluations, which is what state law stipulates and is less than what Emanuel was asking. The rest of the evaluation is to come from classroom inspection by other teachers and administrators, though it’s not clear if those evaluations will be influenced by the students’ performances on standardized tests, or if the evaluators will not be made privy to those performances, which could bias their own teacher assessments. Teachers laid off because their schools are closed will have a right to be rehired if their performance evaluations are good. The district committed itself to hire 500 more music and art teachers; to hire more nurses, counselors and social workers when the funding allows; and to provide students and teachers with textbooks on the first day of class – the union had complained it was common practice for the provision of textbooks to be delayed as long as six weeks after the classes commenced. The school year will be lengthened, as the mayor rightly wanted, and the teachers will be paid more for the additional hours worked, as the union rightly wanted.

The delegates’ body wanted more than a couple hours to digest the new contract. To date, the unions has commanded majority support from Chicagoans, according to two polls taken last week. Since union leaders began saying that they were close to a deal on Friday, however, the public’s support may erode if the union rejects a contract its leaders were touting. It’s a balancing act for the democratic army that is the CTU; we’ll soon see which way they come down.   

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