|Unions join picketing teachers, Chicago, 1983
With 30,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union now officially on strike (though the mayor's press office is calling it a "work stoppage," because that sounds better, to them, I guess). This is the first time the CTU has struck in seven years, and I've been revisiting the columns I wrote in 2012. In this column, I try to put the strike in context of past strikes.
So what does history tell us the city of Chicago and mayor Rahm Emanuel can expect now that the Chicago Teachers Union has gone on strike for the first time in 25 years?
To set the stage: Ronald Reagan was president. Our school system was a national shame—the secretary of education, William Bennett, would soon deem the Chicago Public Schools the worst in the nation—"I'm not sure there's a system as bad as the Chicago system," are the words he actually used, noting that almost half of Chicago public school teachers sent their own children to private schools.
The strike occurred Sept. 8, 1987, exactly 25 years ago, and would end up lasting 19 days, the longest ever.
Teachers strikes weren't the rare occurrence back then that they are today—the 1987 strike was fourth since 1980, the ninth since 1970—teachers had walked out for 15 days in 1983, for 10 days in 1984. A high school senior in 1987 would have already lost nearly 10 full weeks of school due to strikes.
The situation was similar around the country. It was a season of walkouts—20 other teachers strikes were going on in four states at the same time, though the collective students affected in those strikes, 260,000, didn't come close to the 435,000 student who attended CPS then, about 8 percent more than today.
The length of the strike, following the recent past strikes, finally broke the patience of Chicago's parents. Parents rebelled—they organized their own huge demonstrations, formed "freedom schools," and demanded Mayor Harold Washington resolve the situation. That was probably the biggest impact of the strike, and something Emanuel ought to bear in mind. The city will only tolerate so much.
When the 1987 strike occurred, negotiators weren't even close. Teachers were asking for a 10 percent raise the first year, a 5 percent the second. The district was offering what was effectively a 1.7 percent wage cut.
Union president Jacqueline Vaughn called the board's proposal "unrealistic." The board used a stronger word.
"I am tired of raping the system to satisfy the desires of employees," said finance chairman Clark Burrus.
As the strike dragged on, student athletes missed games, college-bound seniors predicted they'd be packing for college while still attending high school, and everyone worried about baking in un-airconditioned classrooms, which they would.
The strike was settled on Oct. 3. The teachers agreed to a 4 percent raise in the first year, with the second-year raise contingent on funding being found somewhere. Superintendent Manford Byrd said the agreement would mean the immediate layoff of 1700 teachers and staff. Funding for the bus system was cut so severely it had trouble getting kids to school, particularly as the school year stretched far into the summer.
Washington immediately began organizing the groundwork that would lead to massive school reform, but his untimely death on Nov. 25 removed him from the scene, an escape from political consequences that will probably not be available to Emanuel.
Within a year, Gov. Thompson had signed a school reform law that created local school councils that gave parents a much greater say in the operation of their school.
The last day of school in Chicago was June 30, 1988, the latest the school year had ever gone. Students and teachers suffered alike. Teachers fell ill, or quit. At Yale Elementary, 7025 S. Princeton, at the end of one sweltering day two teachers announced they weren't coming back, and they didn't. Students quit too—one class that was supposed to have 35 had only 8, by the last week.
Yet in some important ways, not much has changed.
In 1987, 43 percent of incoming Chicago freshmen would drop out of high school without graduating. Today's drop-out rate is 39.4 percent, the lowest it has ever been.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 10, 2012