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I remember as a kid growing up in Chicago during the 1970’s that it seemed that the Chicago public school teachers would go on strike every other year. As a kid, we enjoyed these little extended holidays, but we always paid for them with our school year going well into June to make up for lost time. Well, as of yesterday, the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) has called another general strike for all its members over their contract with the Chicago Public School (CPS) system. As much as the kids are probably enjoying their extended holiday as much as I did 40 years ago, their parents are fretting over what to do with their children while the teachers and the school system hash out their differences.

Now, as a libertarian (both philosophical and political), I can appreciate an employee trying to get as much as they can from their employer. I remember a situation a number of years ago with my current employer in which I implicitly threatened to leave the company unless they gave me (what I felt was) a long overdue promotion. Fortunately, my little gambit paid off. So I can empathize with the desire of the members of the CTU trying to negotiate the best possible contract they can with the CPS. Furthermore, I can understand the CPS trying to fight for the best deal possible that benefits them. That’s what labor negotiations are all about.

That being said, there are a number of things about this kind of situation that trouble me. You may ask what kind of situation am I referring to? The situation of a public sector union going on strike. Illinois is one of the few states where it’s still legal for public sector unions to actually go on strike. That’s bad, really bad. There is an inherent conflict of interest when public sector unions come to the negotiating table. A public sector union is comprised of employees of some branch of the government; in this case, the CPS. The head of the CPS works for the Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel. Rahm Emanuel is voted on by the citizens of Chicago, whose taxes, by the way, go to pay for the salaries of the teachers. So, in theory, the mayor and the CPS are supposed to be representing the parents and the taxpayers — i.e., those who actually have a stake in the matter. However, the mayor and many other of the city’s politicians are beneficiaries of heavy donations by…you guessed it…the CTU. My question is who exactly is representing the parents and the tax payers in this scenario?

Another thing that is very troubling is that much of the negotiations have been behind closed doors. Supposedly this is to protect the integrity of the negotiations, etc. However, the only party that really has any ‘skin in the game’ are the parents and the tax payers, and we don’t know what’s going on behind those closed doors. If the parents and tax payers are ultimately paying the salaries of the teachers and voting in the representatives of the CPS, then shouldn’t they at least know what’s going on?

Here’s what I’ve been able to learn about the situation. Much of the contention is over salary and benefits packages, length of the school year and teacher evaluation process. The CPS put on the table a 16% pay increase for the CTU over the next four years. That’s a guaranteed 4% pay increase per year for the next four years. I don’t know about you, but I would absolutely love to get a guaranteed 4% pay increase for the next fours years. How about you? The CTU turned that down. Additionally, Mayor Emanuel wants to lengthen the school day by about another hour or so. The CTU is balking about that without extra pay to cover the extra work. The CTU is also demanding that teachers that were laid off due to budgetary cuts be rehired. The CPS has offered to temporarily rehire some of the laid off teachers to handle the lengthened school day. The CTU rejected the CPS’s proposal because the rehiring was only for the next year. Finally, the CTU wants to lighten the evaluation process for teachers based on student performance. In a way, this makes some sense. Solely basing teacher evaluation on student performance isn’t quite fair as students perform at varying levels no matter how good the teacher is. However, student performance should be part of the teacher evaluation process and the CTU wants to either eliminate that criterion altogether or make it less significant.

Here’s the crux of the matter. The CTU has the CPS in a bind. Because the CPS is a government run institution, it is much more beholden to the CTU than a private company is to a private sector union. In the private sector, the union is dependent on the company staying in business. If the company cannot compete because labor costs are too high, it will go out of business. If that happens, the unions workers are out of work; typically not a good situation to be in. However, in the public sector, there is no concern about the CPS going out of business. In fact, the CPS seems to be running annual budget shortfalls and deficits. Despite the fact that the CPS is hemorrhaging money, the CTU can turn down a 16% pay increase over four years and demand more. And you know what? At some point the CTU will get what it wants because the CPS will not go out of business. They will simply ask for more money from the state and federal government, which means higher taxes in some shape or form. There is no need for the CPS to be profitable, the taxes will be paid no matter what.

This is the problem with public education as a whole. Because of the forced monopoly the government has on education and the fact that public sector employees can form unions, the only party getting screwed in this scenario are the parents and the children. As mentioned earlier, the taxes get collected no matter what, so that means the CPS will get its money. The CTU will get some kind of pay raise that is well beyond what normal people get in the private sector because the CPS is not required to make a profit. In the meantime, the parents have to find some alternative arrangements for their children so that can go to work and the kids are still stuck in the relative failing schools of the CPS. Oh, but don’t worry, they all tell us “it’s for the kids.” Riiiight…

Libertas Aut Mors!