09/18/2012 06:01 pm ET

Chicago Teacher Strike: Boston And Philadelphia Weigh In

The contentious relationship between Chicago's teachers' union and its mayor continues to fuel the Windy City labor and education dispute, say out-of-state observers involved in similar past negotiations. If history is any indication, they add, it's likely that the teachers' strike there could have been avoided.

While the two sides in Chicago still fail to agree on the exact details under contention in the second week of strikes, the general issues are consistent with national trends in recent history -- including class sizes, salaries and benefits, length of the school day and, most notably, teacher evaluations. The unique difficulty facing Chicago over the last year and a half, say the observers, is the way both sides are approaching the negotiations, leading to prolonged debates and yielding a warning to other school districts and unions across the country.

Just last week, the Boston Teachers Union and the Boston City School Department finally came to an agreement after two and a half years of negotiations. The Boston dispute was fought mainly over instructor raises and evaluation practices.

BTU president Richard Stutman told The Huffington Post that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's personality made a strike there hard to avoid.

"If we in Boston had to deal with someone as provocative as Rahm Emanuel, we too might have been out on strike," Stutman said.

In 2000, negotiations in Philadelphia regarding an extension of the school day and pay raises finally broke down when then-Mayor John Street imposed a contract that the union couldn't stomach. Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Ted Kirsch -- who is now the AFT president of Pennsylvania -- called for a strike on a Friday before resolving the issues by 5:30am Monday morning.

The situation in Philadelphia doesn't stray far from the battle now being fought in Chicago, Kirsch told The Huffington Post.

"From my perspective, I think it's the ego of the mayor," Kirsch said. "It's what we had, too … In these cases you think the public officials would be the compromisers, but it was clearly the mayor who injected himself very directly … If there's a lesson to learn for mayors, stay the hell out and let the professionals negotiate."

In Philadelphia, the dispute was resolved before students missed even an hour of instruction. Kirsch chalks the successful negotiations up to staying focused on the issues at hand.

"Over the years I had some contentious negotiations, but they were never, ever personal," Kirsch said. "In both [the 1980 and 1981 Philadelphia teachers' strike] cases, it was the mayor trying to force a contract settlement."

But that personal detachment might not be possible in Chicago, where Emanuel's mayoral campaign trumpeted a promise to overhaul Chicago's school system. Among Emanuel's most prized education reforms: expanding charter schools and increasing school accountability -- touchy issues for public school educators who say charters pull public resources away from their classrooms and current accountability metrics unfairly rate teachers and schools.

Emanuel's office did not respond to requests for comment.

In the summer of 2011, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis expressed the frustration among teachers over the way CPS officials and the state had conducted themselves. "People are very upset," she said. "People feel disrespected."

Emanuel aside, CTU's decision to take the proposed agreement back to union members may further complicate matters, said John Dunlap, a member of the Boston schools' negotiating team.

"A 26,000-member union has to have faith in their leadership," Dunlap, the City of Boston's chief of personnel and labor, told HuffPost. "Each party needs to believe that each side has the confidence of their side to deliver their approval … When someone who hasn't been involved in the process gets involved, they find something they don't like that is not even subject to the negotiation."

Nevertheless, Dunlap hopes that the delay while union members review the contract is "just a wrinkle." He sympathizes with the Chicago teachers, but is glad the Boston dispute is settled.

"When I look at Chicago, I don't think, 'What's wrong with those people,'" Dunlap said. "I just think, 'Oh, thank God that didn't happen here.'"



Chicago Teachers Strike