Chicago teachers will earn a total of about $100 million less than expected in the next academic year, as last week the new Board of Education under new Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel voted to deny 4 percent raises scheduled for each year of their five-year contract.
Some teachers have called the move a violation of the contract, signed in 2007, though it stipulates the board must decide each year whether the district can afford the raises.
As public school teachers are under attack across the country — painted as overpaid, lazy and ineffective by right-wing pundits and belt-tightening administrators — Chicago Teachers Union members say the latest move could mean war.
Rebecca Vevea reported for the Chicago News Cooperative:
The newly seated Chicago Board of Education may have won the first battle with Chicago teachers this week when it rescinded a 4 percent pay raise, but it may also have ended a relatively peaceful era in labor relations and created a more pugnacious adversary … Some teachers and observers say that backing the union into a corner on wages and other key issues could be the spark to reinvigorate the membership.
The school board said the move was unavoidable given the $712 million gap the schools system is facing. But teachers and critics have questioned the validity of that number. The Chicago News Cooperative also previously reported that among other doubts about the figure, the administration was not accounting for $75 million in federal funds still available to the school system.
Under a state law passed last week – another blow to union teachers – 75 percent of the membership would need to authorize a strike. (The law also makes it harder for teachers to get tenure). But teachers union leaders and members have said frustration over the rescinding of promised raises and other developments means they could reach that threshold.
The union also could move to reopen the contract as a whole, which would mean a third party arbiter’s involvement in drafting a revised contract.
In an editorial published in The Chicago Tribune, teachers union president Karen Lewis wrote:
The Chicago Board of Education voted to deny Chicago teachers and paraprofessionals the very modest raise agreed to in the contract. That’s not right — and more important, it’s bad for our students. Breaking promises with teachers, engineers and lunchroom staff is no way to attract and retain top-notch employees.
Chicago public schools teachers reportedly earn an average $69,000 a year. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Chicago teachers’ pay ranks 37th statewide. In wealthy Chicago suburbs, average public school teacher pay is more than $100,000 a year. In Chicago, the paper said, only one percent of teachers make six figures. It is widely believed that the salaries, along with a general lack of resources and other problems, are why many of the best teachers in Chicago leave for the suburbs or private schools.
Lewis noted that teachers have expressed their willingness to cooperate in finding other ways to save costs. She also wrote:
The city gives away hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to big developers. And for years, Chicago has played fast and loose with our school system’s finances. Tax-increment financing districts take hundreds of millions of dollars away from our schools each year. The city took more than a billion dollars from the pension system and engaged in risky mortgage swaps with big Wall Street banks. If we’re going to get serious about funding shortfalls, we should renegotiate these wasteful deals — not break promises to teachers.
This article originally appeared on the Working In These Times blog on June 20, 2011. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Kari Lydersen is an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at email@example.com.