Finding my own voice

Chicago Public Schools’ independent fact finder report was released this week, and as all news outlets are reporting, both sides rejected the report’s recommendations.
At yoga with a group of moms yesterday morning, the pre-pranayama chatter was all about whether CPS teachers are going to strike. On Facebook, everyone is asking the same question. The fear of the unknown is palpable. Working parents everywhere feel the shadow over what remains of the kids’ summer vacation.
Although I follow CPS closely, I have no idea whether a strike is imminent or avoidable. My reaction to public issues is often so far outside of popular opinion that I cannot trust that my gut reaction to any particular issue is in any way predictive of outcome. 
Oddly enough, I feel fairly calm about the whole thing. The Dad is worried about a possible strike interfering with the kids’ schooling, but I think a labor dispute could provide a standalone education lesson that The Boy, at least, would find interesting. I mean, this is the kid who found WBEZ’s recent On Point story so riveting that he asked if we could continue to listen to it in the house. 
I came to my own interest in civics a bit later than the age of 9: although I studied Political Science in college, I pursued a (corporate) writing career. When I left UIUC in 1997, I also left late-night discussions about Nietzsche, Machiavelli, and the future of the EU to wither in my memory of Urbana’s Espresso Royale.
Raising children in the city of Chicago–with its long history of both the good (architecture, arts, social work) and the bad (crime, graft, greed, corruption) in society–has been my political reawakening.  Don’t tell my father-in-law, who is fond of quoting Winston Churchill, but as I get older, I’ve become more of a social democrat.
That said, I’ve been rather wishy-washy on the issue of the CTU, and of unions in general. I’ve yet to meet a white-collar professional/manager with something positive to say about union labor. But as I’ve read the news reports, and the editorials, and the public rants about the CTU’s greed, I’ve come to an interesting realization about how I feel about the union versus free-market debate. 
And that is: I believe fundamentally in the unions. As a Chicago resident, I often find Karen Lewis’s public statements to be irritating. But even with the CTU’s bad (or nonexistent) PR, I don’t think the usefulness of union labor has ended.  Without unions, we wouldn’t have (had) a fair wage, a reasonable work week, and decent working conditions — all things that helped to create a middle class, even as that middle class rapidly disappears. Even when I worked full-time, I often wondered why my field was not unionized. After all, in some ways, unionization is codification of an industry. Codification is really information. And information is power.  

I do not actually believe that the CTU wants or expects a 23% pay raise, but thanks to SB7, the CTU cannot negotiate on anything else unless/until CPS brings it to the table. So the teachers end up looking like greedy assholes in the press/public opinion. And the mayor wants this negotiation played out in the press; Karen Lewis isn’t the only one who can play that game.

As an employee, the most important things to me were time, time, and culture (whether I felt respected by my co-workers and boss, and felt like I was contributing)–not pay. Of course “a day’s pay for a day’s work” is important, but no one in his right mind would argue that teachers in the United States go into the field for the money. 
As discussion of the fact-finders report and next steps continues, the online discussion invariably turns to what happens in the private sector (lack of raises, job security, etc.). In the private sector, we negotiate one-on-one with our employers about vacation time and benefits as well as about salary. To me, the CTU-CPS negotiations are no different. 
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One thought on “Finding my own voice

  1. You raise many good points, but I do believe the usefulness of union labor has ended. Yes, without unions, we wouldn't have (had) a fair wage, a reasonable work week, and decent working conditions; however, those are not issues that we have to worry about today. Today, we have to worry about the fact that most of our jobs have gone overseas and we have a huge trade deficit — mainly due to the fact that it is not economically feasible to do business in the US because of union labor.

    At my company, salaries have been frozen for the past 2 years so that we can avoid layoffs. We are all working together for a greater good. As soon as the unions (and government) adopts the perspective that we need to do what is best for our individual institutions to stay afloat, we can begin to work ourselves out of this economic crisis.

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