Opinion | Brett Rowland: Chicago teachers risk pushing bargaining chip too far

Opinion | Brett Rowland: Chicago teachers risk pushing bargaining chip too far

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Chicago teachers could walk out of classrooms on Oct. 17 along with support staff and Chicago Park District employees, halting the education of 300,000 students and upending the daily lives of parents across the city.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, elected on a progressive platform, has offered teachers a five-year deal that includes a 16 percent pay increase. That 16 percent increase is on top of the "step" increases teachers already get.

The mayor's offer would put the average teacher salary in the state's largest school district near six-figures by the end of the five-year contract. By any measure, that's a rich tender from a shrinking city on shaky financial footing.

The Chicago Teachers Union, which endorsed Lightfoot's opponent in the mayoral race, wants a three-year deal with 5 percent annual raises. The union also wants more school nurses, social workers and librarians along with additional resources for homeless students and housing assistance for new teachers, among other things.

Lightfoot's offer would cost taxpayers in Chicago an additional $216 million over three years, according to an analysis from the Illinois Policy Institute. The union demands would cost taxpayers five times as much, about $1.1 billion, according to the think tank's analysis.

It's easy to ask for more while holding such a powerful bargaining chip. Few things are more persuasive than a teacher strike, especially when the daily lives of 300,000 students and their families hang in the balance. But this isn't 2012 and Lightfoot was far more generous with her offer than her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel.

Both city and union officials have said they want to avoid a strike. Great. While both sides are talking, why not up the ante a bit? Agree to some changes that will keep the city afloat, like a sustainable retirement plan instead of pensions that are taking up an ever-growing chunk of the city's budget. The rest of Illinois isn't interested in bailing out Chicago, there are more than enough other bills that need to be paid.

The union must give up on efforts to dictate affordable housing policy – and other issues that extend far beyond pay, insurance and working conditions – to the city's elected mayor.

Lightfoot defeated Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle by a wide margin last November. She won the right to govern. Teachers unhappy with the way she governs can vote accordingly in the next election.

The Chicago Teachers Union needs to stay in its lane. Yes, how the city handles affordable housing affects the working conditions of teachers. As the union noted, the district has more than 17,000 homeless students.

But housing policy is so far afield that teachers risk losing a bigger fight if they decide to walk out on that issue.

If time wasn't such a crucial factor here, I'd suggest a few other changes, such as truly transparent negotiations. Open those talks up for all of us to watch. Transparency is powerful. People behave differently when everyone is watching.

Brett Rowland is Illinois editor of The Center Square, a project of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, a non-profit media company dedicated to the principles of transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility. His columns include his own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinion or editorial position of The Southern. Contact Brett at browland@ilnews.org.



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