Chicago has been a union town for as long as any living person can remember. From the West Virginia coal fields to the Detroit assembly lines, Chicago has stood shoulder to shoulder in the early days of organized labor in the struggle for a better life for working men and women.
In Chicago, railroad, slaughterhouse, garment and industrial workers, among others, suffered recriminations and sometimes violence to demand rights to a just wage, humane working conditions, a reasonable workday and workweek, safe working conditions and job security. Thanks to unions, workers and their families have elevated themselves from scraping out a meager living in low-paid and dangerous jobs into the middle class.
But now, the Chicago Teachers Union and its 25,000 striking teachers against 350,000 students have tested the limits of this town's historic support. They have tested the patience of many Chicagoans whose children are being used as pawns. And the tolerance of Chicago taxpayers to shell out more and more to support a teetering and failing institution. And the indulgence of a business and civic community that understands the consequences of labor chaos — particularly in the public school system — on ability of Chicago to attract jobs.
And they have especially tested the support of many Chicago workers who haven't seen a pay increase, improved working conditions or better job security for years. Or the Chicagoans fired because of the lousy economy. Or those who were able only to find a new job that pays less. Or those now working two jobs (during the summers when teachers are on an extended vacation) to minimally support their families.
We have watched as CTU President Karen Lewis and other union leaders whined and pontificated about how bad they have it. They crab about how "disrespected" they are. About how personal it has become because Mayor Rahm Emanuel once dared to insult the supremely insultable Lewis. Poor me, poor us.
The public school leadership offered reasonable — some would say way too generous — concessions on wages, accountability, benefits. Let's not forget those huge pensions.
Over four years, teachers would be getting a 16 percent pay increase (including those wonderful cost-of-living and various increases that reward teachers for just being there). The average teacher salary is $71,000. How many Chicagoans will enjoy that kind of salary as the economy struggles? How many Chicagoans actually have had their wages cut?
There are other issues, although the two sides couldn't seem to publicly agree on what they are. But best as I can tell, the new contract provisions leave teachers miles from the bread line. And light years from the insufferable working conditions that spawn the organized labor movement.
Watching Lewis' huffing and puffing during the Great Recession and the slowest economic recovery in memory, you've got to wonder about the CTU's exquisite sense of bad timing. You've got to wonder if its members have any concept of how good they have it compared with their fellow Chicagoans. You've got to wonder if they live on another planet. How can they be so stupid — stiffing their students, the children's parents, the taxpayers and the town in general at a time like this, and all the while replaying the discredited canard that they're doing it for the kids? Do they think they can draw on an infinite supply of good will? Do they think Chicago is lying when it says it doesn't have the money?
Maybe the CTU is right. It's taking a calculated risk that Chicagoans, known for their tolerance of bad government, will stoically accept this shafting. Maybe the CTU has correctly calculated that an outraged General Assembly won't pass punitive laws to limit not just the organizing and negotiating rights of not just teachers but also other public employee unions. Maybe a public backlash won't produce calls for CTU's decertification.
Even if the strike ends soon, the damage has been done and can't be repaired. To the union's reputation. And especially to the children, who have been taught the meaning of greed.
A version of this column appeared earlier in the Chicago Tribune.