The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is coordinating a “day of action” walkout on April 1, and it will be joined by students from local universities, community activists, and other labor groups in what the union is calling a "historic" moment for the Chicago labor movement. CTU announced the one-day walkout after its membership voted to authorize the action in late March, and it follows months of contract negotiations amid widespread city and state budget issues. In the months since Chicago teachers' contract expired in June, the Chicago Tribune has frequently editorialized its opposition to union actions, mischaracterizing and dismissing educators' concerns and repeatedly accusing teachers of throwing a “tantrum” and abandoning students.
The one-day walkout is meant to address unfair labor practices, which the union says include the school district's recent decision to stop paying raises based on experience and educational credentials and its proposal to phase out district contributions to teachers' pension plans. These decisions are the latest in an ongoing contract negotiation process that began more than a year ago, before the previous contract expired in June.
Main points of negotiation for a new contract include class sizes, staffing resources for school nurses and librarians, members' pensions and health care plans, pay cuts and modifications to scheduled pay raises, and school closings. The Chicago Public School district (CPS) says it cannot fund the union's proposals; it is currently facing a $1.1 billion operating deficit. The union proposes generating new revenue by adopting tax reform targeted at the city's wealthiest taxpayers to pay for contract stipulations and to adequately fund schools, putting pressure on CPS, the city of Chicago, and state lawmakers.
As the Tribune itself reported, union leadership has acknowledged that the day of action is part of a broader “labor-led fight” calling for the state of Illinois to prioritize finding new revenue to fund social services and public education. The action has gained the support of “other labor unions and community organizations” including a local group advocating for a $15 minimum wage, several colleges and universities, which are hosting rallies and teach-ins, a labor union representing faculty at several Illinois universities, and workers protesting layoffs elsewhere in the city.
But that hasn't stopped the Chicago Tribune, the top daily newspaper in Illinois, from repeatedly publishing editorials that rely on mischaracterizations of CTU's activities to dismiss educators' concerns.
In its most recent editorial on the walkout, from March 27, the Tribune described CTU leaders as having “spent weeks whipping their members into a froth,” and having “stoked members' anger” over Chicago Public Schools' proposal to phase out existing teacher pension plans. The editorial referred to the walkout as a “hastily planned, unfocused Day of Tantrum,” lamenting that educators would be “brandishing banners and hollering slogans in the Loop [downtown Chicago] for ... what?” And the Tribune implored Chicago teachers to cross picket lines during the walkout, writing that “gutsy educators” ought to “put their classroom service to Chicago's children first” and “rebel against misguided leadership,” echoing the school district's opposition.
A week earlier, the editorial board argued that “the teachers' tantrum” would be a “reckless action” that pits the union against “most workers in Chicago,” who “don't have the luxury of stepping out for a day on a whim.” The Tribune asked, “how does cheating kids of a precious day of education generate sympathy for the teachers' cause?”
On March 11, the editorial board wrote, “If teachers walk, students would learn an acrid lesson about the teachers union's astonishing disrespect for the value of classroom instruction,” bizarrely suggesting that educators somehow fail to understand the importance of classroom learning. The Tribune went on to accuse teachers of “abandon[ing] their students,” throwing a “tantrum,” and teaching students “that when money and education are in play, some adults put education second to their real priority.”
In December, the Tribune editorial board reacted to an initial strike authorization vote by the union by announcing, “Chicago teachers made the official announcement Monday. They're ready to walk out of their classrooms, to abandon their students as early as March,” and characterizing CTU's contract negotiation priorities as “grenades.” In another December editorial discussing a CPS contract proposal, the Tribune mocked CTU's response, asking, “What planet are you on?”
The previous month, the editorial board conceded that layoffs, of which more were still to come, warranted a strike from CTU -- before mockingly outlining a “compromise” plan that shifted blame away from the school district, neglected CTU's stated priorities completely, and advocated for “compromises” in “reform[ing] ... labor policies” on the state level.
The Chicago Tribune's commitment to opposing CTU's every move relies largely on misrepresentation. In characterizing CTU's day of action as a “tantrum,” the Tribune fails to recognize the realities of the walkout.
Tantrums are typically unplanned and sudden; the possibility of a strike has loomed over contract negotiations between the teachers union and the school district for months. In December, an overwhelming 88 percent of eligible union members voted to authorize leadership to call for a strike, according to the union. Union leadership had been publicly discussing the possibility of a strike since November, and contract negotiations have been underway for more than a year.
Tantrums are typically responses that are unwarranted or disproportionate to the stimulus; the growing number of students, higher education faculty, activist groups, and other labor unions that are joining the union in its day of action suggests that the issue at hand resonates with the larger Chicago community. In fact, a poll released by the Tribune itself in February found that 60 percent of Chicagoans agreed with the teachers union on needed reforms in Chicago public schools. Among households with students attending Chicago public schools, low-income households, and black and Hispanic respondents, union support was even stronger.
To suggest the walkout cheats students at the expense of teacher pay also ignores the circumstances of the action.
Confusingly, the Tribune failed to recognize, in its lamentations of lost classroom time, that one of the major factors influencing the April 1 walkout was the “abrupt” announcement from CPS that teachers and staff would be asked to take three unpaid furlough days in an attempt to alleviate the district's budget problems. The Tribune editorial board did not criticize these furlough days, which would also result in at least one fewer regular school day for students.
And in accusing the union of having “disrespect for the value of classroom instruction,” the Tribune grazed over the many factors beyond teacher compensation that have led to the walkout. The union's initial vote to authorize a strike in December outlined its major demands, which incorporated a number of priorities related to both classroom experiences for students and members' job protections and supports. These included reducing standardized testing; allowing more teacher autonomy in grading; supporting counseling, nursing, and library staff; reducing class sizes; ensuring instruction in art, music, and technology; implementing restorative justice programs in select schools; and supporting translation and bilingual services.
The Tribune's attacks on CTU are nothing new. The paper attacked CTU and its members back in 2012 when the union went on strike for seven days, before agreeing to the contract that expired in June. As CTU signaled its impending action, the Tribune immediately and repeatedly attacked the union's motives and suggested a contrast between what's best for students and what's best for teachers. “Let's make no mistake,” the editorial board wrote in September of that year. “The union is not going to abandon those children because it's fighting for the best way to educate those children. It's fighting to protect the jobs of adults, the union members.”
The Tribune's treatment of CTU and its members has signaled a willingness to ignore the facts and a belief that educators' concerns ought to be dismissed. The paper's tone hasn't shifted in years, even as students, community activists, and other labor groups continue to join the union's organizing efforts, indicating more widespread local frustration with the financial hardships facing the city and state.
Yet the Tribune, the most-read daily newspaper serving Chicago, continues to deliver its anti-union editorial crusade to Chicagoans' doorsteps.
Image at top via Flickr user Spencer Tweedy using a Creative Commons License.