Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Battle Lines Drawn: CTU Wants 30% Raise—What About You?

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is imposing a longer school day next year and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has responded with a request for 30% raises over the next two years, the Chicago Tribune reported last week. Their proposal also calls for reducing K-5 class sizes from 28 to 23 students and shrinking middle and high school class sizes from about 31 students to 23.

Rahm Emanuel's longer school day initiative adds approximately 90 minutes to the school day in all CPS elementary schools beginning next fall. CTU’s proposal includes a 28% increase the first year and a 2% increase the following year, which they have argued is fair compensation for the roughly 21% increase in the workday and the additional responsibilities they will be expected to take on during those extra 90 minutes.

With the current state of financial affairs in CPS, it might seem delusional to think that CPS will accept CTU’s proposal, or anything close to it. Compelling teachers to work an additional 90 minutes and piling extra responsibilities on top of that without compensation ought to be seen as equally delusional, except for the fact that CPS has already drawn a line in the sand and insisted it has the right to unilaterally lengthen the work day, and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation giving it this right.

The big question is will CTU play hardball, stick to their proposal and strike if they don’t get it?

CTU is clearly considering this option. They have already started urging members to save their money in case they call for a strike before the start of next school year and they are offering a special savings plan at a local credit union.

They have also begun a PR campaign to counter the impending accusations that they are greedy and out of touch with reality. CTU President Karen Lewis made a public statement recently that the city has the tax base to properly support public education, calling for roughly $800 million in new funding by raising taxes on the wealthiest Chicagoans, closing tax loopholes for corporations, instituting a 6-cent premium on certain financial transactions and steering as much as $159 million in unallocated tax increment funding to the district.

Chicago Teachers Demand Raise—What About You?
Teachers across the country should pay particular attention to this battle and should be prepared to lend their support and solidarity. A defeat in Chicago could embolden legislators and administrators elsewhere to make similar attacks on collective bargaining and working conditions.

Virtually no teacher has seen a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) in the last three years, which means we are making the exact same salaries we did three years ago, despite three years of inflation. Consequently, we have all taken de facto pay cuts, while our unions have typically gone into negotiations from the very weak bargaining position of presuming there was no money available for COLAs and therefore not even asked.

It is time for all teachers unions and other workers to start demanding COLAs. Contrary to public misperception, a COLA is not a raise. It is merely a method to maintain one’s existing salary in terms of real dollars.

A COLA is a conservative and modest request and certainly shouldn’t be the ultimate goal. It is a bandage, a stopgap, the bare minimum of what we should be demanding. Most teachers do not get paid anywhere near what their education, responsibilities and commitment are worth. In the case of CPS teachers, the city is attempting to slash their wages by 21% by increasing their workday that much without compensation.

If CTU accepts this or anything close to it, it will be a major defeat for teachers and public sector workers across the country. The state legislation permitting CPS to unilaterally impose a longer workday without the consent of those affected represents a gutting of collective bargaining and is equivalent to forced servitude.

Smart Move for Union?
While CTU has lost the legal battle over whether the length of the work day is contractually negotiable, they can certainly demand to be fairly compensated and for better working conditions (e.g., smaller class sizes) and refuse to work if they are not provided. This indeed seems to be their strategy. They can void the legal consequences of resisting or striking over length of workday by demanding to be fairly compensated for it. If CPS refuses, they have a legal and legitimate basis for striking.

There are several problems with this tact. First, CTU is essentially surrendering its collective bargaining rights to the state and allowing it to undermine its contract with CPS. They are allowing the bosses to unilaterally lengthen their work day by over 20% without any guarantee of being fairly compensated. Most teachers no doubt have other personal and professional responsibilities that they fulfill when their workday ends that will now have to be given up, sacrificed, or transferred to evenings and weekends, thus depriving them of time with their families and communities.

Strategically, the length of the workday and collective bargaining rights are much more sympathetic causes than salaries, even if the former require civil disobedience against state law. CPS will certainly paint the teachers as greedy, selfish and out of touch, which will be difficult for the union to counter without large scale organizing among parents and communities and an expensive PR campaign.

One should also consider that any job action can be deemed illegal at any time through injunctions or ad hoc legislation, as Gov. Scott Walker attempted to do in Wisconsin last year. Indeed, all strikes were once illegal, but this did not stop workers from organizing and taking action. If there is sufficient solidarity and discipline, even illegal strikes can be won and lead to changes in the law. Well-organized and educated workers sometimes recognize this and engage in wildcat actions, in spite of the law and in spite of their conservative union bosses.

Nevertheless, CTU has played its hand choosing to fight the salary battle. It will be a hard row to hoe and one that is critical for them to win, as a loss will embolden other states to legislate away collectively bargained rights and job protections for not only teachers, but all public sector workers.

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