Behind the Chicago Teachers’ Strike: Why Talks Must Be Made Public

With city officials and the Chicago teachers' union at an impasse, both sides should heed Louis Brandeis' call and start negotiating in the open

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Spencer Green / AP

Chicago teachers walk a picket line outside Benjamin Banneker Elementary School in Chicago on Sept. 10, 2012

Spoiler alert: when Maggie Gyllenhaal’s new feature film, Won’t Back Down, hits theaters later this month, its plot hinges on the forcing of school officials to make big decisions in front of parents rather than behind closed doors. The film is fictional, but raging against backroom power politics is not. Teachers’ unions and district officials almost always negotiate privately, so when those negotiations reach a deal or an impasse — or lead to a strike, as they did in Chicago yesterday — the public gets to hear only part of the story as families scramble to figure out what to do with their kids. Chicago, whose 400,000 students make it the U.S.’s third largest school district, today offered safe havens for kids in dozens of public libraries and churches and, for a four-hour stretch this morning, in nearly 150 public schools staffed with nonunion workers.

(MORE: Chicago Teachers Strike: What They’re Fighting For)

At issue in the Chicago strike — the first by the city’s teachers in 25 years — are clashes between the union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel on how to handle teacher pay, evaluations, benefits and layoffs. In public, the Chicago Teachers Union uses generalities to describe its demands, with the union president, Karen Lewis, saying the teachers want a “fair contract.” But according to one senior Chicago official with direct knowledge of the negotiations with the union reps, “Their public rhetoric has almost nothing to do with what’s happening at the table.” Media accounts indicate that the city’s latest offer was to raise teacher pay 16% over the next four years, but the senior city official and other sources with knowledge of the negotiations say the union demanded raises that would amount to at least a 35% salary increase over three years as well as guaranteed jobs for any teachers who get laid off as Chicago’s schools downsize. The city does not have that kind of money, and other changes the union is demanding would essentially render meaningless a new law in Illinois that mandates improved teacher evaluations there.

But the transparency problem isn’t just with the unions. Management, too, takes requests to the table that they would rather not have splashed across the front pages of newspapers. In Chicago, for instance, city officials aren’t eager to broadcast some of the provisions in the teachers’ contract that are designed to control costs, because that could make it more difficult to attract seasoned teachers from other school districts. That’s a hard one to explain to parents, who want the best teachers for their kids but don’t understand the ins and outs of personnel rules.

(MORECan Parents Take Over Schools?)

Airing these kinds of issues out in public could turn contract negotiations into teachable moments for both parents and taxpayers. For starters, people need to understand that while policy debates over standardized testing and school vouchers grab most of the headlines, in practice, what’s in a local teachers’ contract generally matters more to the day-to-day experiences of students. In 2006, I co-wrote a book with Jane Hannaway, titled Collective Bargaining in Education, in which we proposed holding contract negotiations in public as one way to break education’s gridlock between labor and management.

It’s a hard sell, and few places have been motivated by Louis Brandeis’ famous statement that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Making talks public can be a messy process. Earlier this year, Douglas County in Colorado decided to negotiate its new teachers’ contract in public, announcing when and where the meetings would be held so anyone could attend. Among the sticking points was whether taxpayers should continue to pay for half of the salaries of teachers who are working full-time for the teachers’ union. The school board, which has been standing firm in its demands to stop paying for this, voted last week to stop negotiating with the teachers’ union altogether but declined to put the issue to voters to decide. A mediator ruled against the school board last month, and the entire dispute seems headed for court.

But negotiating in public shouldn’t be about tilting the field one way or the other. It should be about moving important education issues into the light of day. At least then, citizens could get a full understanding of what’s behind the drama in places like Chicago and Douglas County.