Rampant Union Greed in Chicago

The Windy City’s teachers union is on the verge of yet another strike. 

In 2012, Troy Senik wrote “The Worst Union in America,” a title he bestowed on the California Teachers Association. As a former member and longtime critic of that union, I certainly had no quibble with his selection. But now, CTA is facing serious competition from the Chicago Teachers Union.

As reported in last week’s post, CTU, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, is gearing up for a strike. It would be the union’s second in four years, despite the fact that the median salary for a teacher in Chicago is $78,169. When you add another $27,564 for various benefits, the total compensation for a teacher – good, bad or middling – becomes almost $106K per annum. (Please keep in mind teachers work 180 days a year, while employees in other professions typically work for 240 to 250 days.) In retirement, the average Chicago teacher receives a hefty $50,000 a year.

The main sticking point for the union and the Chicago Public School system (CPS) is the so-called pension pick-up. Teachers there (and elsewhere) have what’s called a “defined benefit plan,” whereby in retirement – come hell, high water or recession – a teacher’s pension is not affected. In most places, teachers and the school district share the contributions equally, but not in Chicago and some other municipalities in Illinois. Teachers there are supposed to chip in 9 percent of their salary to fund their own pension. But as things stand now, teachers contribute just 2 percent, with the school district (read: taxpayer) picking up the remaining seven. The city, which is in dire fiscal straits, is asking teachers to pay the full 9 percent. But lest the poor teachers need to reach for the smelling salts because they are being asked to kick in more for their own retirement years, Chicago is offering them an 8.7 percent salary increase over four years to help offset the teachers’ pension payment.

So, as the union demands more and more money, the schools end up with less and less. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, CPS still needs to come up with at least $300 million to balance its fiscal 2017 budget. “The school system still faces huge, $700 million-ish teachers pension payments this year and annually into the future. It still has too much real estate to serve its dwindling number of students. And its credit is maxing out.” As a result, Moody’s has just downgraded CPS further into junk status.

As if the union’s insistence on yet more money is not deplorable enough, there is a new addition to their basket. When CTU held its strike vote last week, it didn’t do it the traditional way – by secret ballot. Nope, the union had its teachers authorize a strike via “petitions” circulated at schools, meaning that everyone knew how everyone else voted. Think there may have been an intimidation factor at work here? And why on earth would they need to resort to such strong-arm tactics? The teachers voted by a 7 to 1 margin to strike in 2012 – when voting was done in private. As it turns out, the margin this year was 86 percent affirmative, just about what it was in 2012.

If the method of voting sounds dictatorial and totalitarian, it fits right in with the union’s leadership. CTU president Karen Lewis, who revels in her inflammatory style, makes Donald Trump look downright demure. Just a few of her egregious comments:

  • At the City Club of Chicago in 2013, she blamed the city’s education woes on rich white people. “When will we address the fact that rich, white people think they know what’s in the best interest of children of African Americans and Latinos—no matter what the parent’s income or education level.”
  • After the tragic Sandy Hook school shootings, Lewis blamed Teach for America, the organization that successfully enlists high-achieving college graduates to teach at hard to staff schools. Referring to TFA vice-president David Rosenberg, Lewis said “… policies his colleagues support kill and disenfranchise children from schools across this nation.”
  • Earlier this year, Lewis compared the Illinois governor to ISIS: “Rauner is the new ISIS recruit. Yes, I said it, and I’ll say it again. Bruce Rauner is a liar. And, you know, I’ve been reading in the news lately all about these ISIS recruits popping up all over the place — has Homeland Security checked this man out yet? Because the things he’s doing look like acts of terror on poor and working-class people.”
  • Then there is the typical union boss hypocrisy: She rails against corporate “fat cats,” all the while pulling in over $200,000 a year, owning three homes, including one in Hawaii. (Second-in-command at CTU, Comrade Jesse Sharkey, a leading member of the revolutionary International Socialist Organization, makes well over $100,000 in total compensation.)

The teachers could strike as soon as October 11th. It’s up to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Rauner to stand up to the CTU leadership and their outrageous demands and put a halt to the mugging. Enough taxpayer money has been extorted by the union without the mayor and governor kicking in another penny. And the union can’t claim that its teachers are doing a bang-up job: Just 30 percent of 4th grade CPS students are proficient in math and by 8th grade that number sinks to 25 percent. In reading, 27 percent of 4th graders are proficient as are 24 percent of 8th graders. Taxpayers should not be expected to sink any more of their money into an ineffective school system.

As of now, the hard working people of Chicago – already the highest taxed in Illinois – are getting overpaid teachers, failing kids and a union that wears its greed proudly on its sleeve. CTA, you have some serious competition.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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