There are two things that I have been around a lot in my professional career: schools and elections. I guess it’s that slightly odd mix of experiences that has me asking questions as the Chicago Teachers Union prepares to hold a strike authorization vote this week.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in the right of workers to organize. And I believe in the right of organized workers (even teachers in the most extreme circumstances) to withhold their labor as leverage to demand better working conditions, fair pay and other matters of labor justice. But, I found it really strange when the Union announced the results of the practice vote in which 97% of the teachers voted in favor of a strike. This was a level of uniformity of opinion that I’ve never seen among educators and an election outcome that I’ve never witnessed even with the most popular issues and candidates.
Let’s put this in perspective. 94% of teachers think it is helpful to have a classroom aid. 91% of teachers spend their own money on classroom needs. Only 88% of teachers believe that poverty is a barrier to learning. But, virtually every teacher in Chicago is ready to walk away from their classrooms and students in order to get a better contract?
And let’s look at some elections. Barack Obama won 84% of the Chicago vote in 2012. Former Governor Pat Quinn wrested 78% of the Democratic Primary vote away from formidable challenger Tio Hardiman. And universally beloved Secretary of State Jesse White pulled in 87% of the vote against Micheal Webster and Christopher Michel. But, of all the teachers who participated in the practice vote, only 3% held a dissenting opinion.
97% support doesn’t remind of me a really popular issue or a really frustrated group of people (83% of Americans had a negative view of the Watergate scandal in April of 1973). These results harken more to the 1950 legislative elections…in the Soviet Union. You have to give the CTU the benefit of the doubt, but you also have to admit that this vote definitely raises some eyebrows. Is there funny business in how the votes are cast and counted? Is there something in the culture of the organization that makes people feel they can’t break from the leadership and popular opinion?
Look, if teachers want to go on strike, that’s the teachers’ prerogative. But, I hope that room has been created inside the ranks of Chicago’s educators for safety in dissent.
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