Donning red T-shirts and carrying union signs, thousands of teachers arrived at Chicago public schools Sept. 10—but not to teach. Instead they launched the city's first teacher strike in 25 years, involving 25,000 union teachers in the nation's third-largest school district. "Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Rahm Emanuel's got to go!" they chanted.
Mayor Emanuel, who controls the school district, criticized the action as "a strike of choice." Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis countered it was "a fight for the very soul of public education."
It was actually a fight over teachers' jobs. Emanuel wanted teacher evaluation tied to student test scores, and wanted school principals to be able to hire who they choose. He has been promoting charters and pushing to close dozens of failing schools.
Union teachers said it was unfair to judge them based on student testing, because factors like absenteeism and poverty are outside their control. They asked for a guarantee that teachers who lose their jobs during school closings be first in line to be rehired.
Teachers also pushed to maintain an annual 2 percent to 3 percent raise, although the district is facing a budget crisis. In Chicago, the average public-school teacher makes $74,839, and receives one of the highest starting salaries of any school district in the country. In the past three years, the district has terminated only 48 teachers for underperformance.
Emanuel, a Democrat and former congressman who served as President Obama's chief of staff, made concessions during the negotiations in an effort to work out a deal with the union and reopen schools. Since becoming mayor of Chicago he's tried to tame his image as a political thug, but his push for reform and acerbic style have fostered resentment.
"We know a strike is really going to be painful," Jay Rehak, a union delegate, told the Chicago Tribune. "But in the end, it's like saying, 'I'll be bloodied and you'll be bloodied, but at least you'll know not to bully me again.'"
The strike symbolizes how teachers unions—and other public employee unions—feel threatened by tightening local budgets and by demands for concessions and teacher accountability. In Chicago they're threatened by the growth of charters, too: During the strike, public charter schools in the city remained open for classes. They enroll 52,000 students, operate independently, and are mostly non-unionized.
Meanwhile, 350,000 other students stayed home, went to their parents' place of work, or attended temporary organized activities at libraries, schools, and churches while their teachers picketed for more than a week.
Armitage Baptist Church gave about 50 students classrooms to go to. When the union voted to strike, the church quickly organized an all-volunteer alternative school, where students K-12 could attend, for free, each day the strike lasted. Senior pastor Charles Lyons told me the effort paved "a great opportunity for the gospel" while city employees dickered: "Adults in urban leadership need to excel at modeling how to settle differences without doing hurt, harm, or damage to innocent parties."