The Chicago teachers strike was suspended after seven days Tuesday, but labor experts say a broader debate about the rights of public sector employees is just beginning.
The direct implications of the strike across the country will likely be muted. Too many factors specific to Chicago, such as the involvement of Mayor Rahm Emanuel or Illinois state laws that gave teachers wiggle room to strike, don’t exist in the rest of the nation. But political and legal factors aside, there is a sense that this strike will stoke discussion on all sides of this issue.
“It's going to have a serious impact on the debate around public sectors and unions in each state,” says John P. Hancock Jr., an employment lawyer at the Michigan-based Butzel Long law firm who worked on behalf of two school districts during teachers strikes in the 1970s and 1980s. “The debates will be whether you should have public sector people organize, whether the public sector can have collective bargaining rights and whether the public sector can strike.”
This debate will play out differently in each state and city for several reasons. Firstly, unlike private sector employment law, which is based on federal law, public sector regulations are made at the state level. Different states have different starting points. Hancock says while school strikes were commonplace in Michigan during the 1970s and 1980s, they faded away in the mid-1990s when state law harshly penalized and essentially assured the termination of any striking teachers. In Illinois, state law permits public sector employees to strike on economic grounds such as pay, though the teachers were willing to test that by making their fight largely about teacher evaluations and job security. (A judge was scheduled Wednesday to consider whether to rule such a strike illegal. We’ll never find out where the court would have stood.)
Secondly, personality matters. The Chicago Public Schools has a hierarchical structure that places the hardheaded Emanuel against a union that has viewed him as a bully. Few other American mayors have the power that Emanuel has. In that respect, what happened in Chicago this month mimics the 2011 protests in Wisconsin over a bill that rolled back public sector collective bargaining rights. The issue was personal for those on both sides of the bill and led to the unsuccessful recall of Gov. Scott Walker (R). Earlier this month, a Wisconsin judge ruled major parts of that bill unconstitutional and the state is appealing that ruling. What happens in future standoffs will depend on the starting point of both state law and the players themselves.
As far as teachers strikes go, there may not be another of this scale in America anytime soon. In hundreds of cities across the country, teachers unions have stood in solidarity with their Chicago brethren, often agreeing with their stances against linking teacher evaluations to student testing and for better job security. But no other large city is really like Chicago.
A recent Los Angeles Times article suggests that a teachers strike is unlikely in America’s second-largest city because both sides have long discussed student performance as an evaluation measure and have done so from less extreme angles. In New York City, where state laws levy harsh penalties against striking public employees, much of what was fought over in Chicago was already addressed in prior negotiations. But while strikes likely aren’t on the horizon in other big cities, further debates almost certainly are, including in New York where a teachers union faction has already begun its push to change the organization.
"The way the system is set up, we don't have the right to strike as much as it used to be," says Chris Rhomberg, a sociologist specializing in urban and labor issues at Fordham University. The strike, says Rhomberg, "can be inspiring to other workers and spur them to stand up for their rights and fight for their principles."
Photo credit: John Gress/Reuters