The Chicago teachers’ strike crystallizes the conflict between escalating demands for labor productivity and the needs of workers for job security. At issue are the right of principals to accept teachers from up to 100 schools proposed for closure and the process for evaluating teachers, including through the use of student test scores.
It is a classic labor-management battle, pitting the prerogatives of management to control its workforce against labor’s concern for fair treatment. The end result, however, is special: what is being produced is not a widget, but a child’s education, or in Mayor Emanuel’s words, the future human capital of Chicago.
With the 2012 election looming on the horizon as a test of who can restore the American promise to the middle class, the Chicago teachers’ strike offers a glimpse into how deeply such concerns are appreciated.
Unions feature prominently in the debate over solutions to our nation’s economic woes, alternately positioned by politicians as powerful tools for delivering a decent quality of life, or as ossified relics that impede economic growth and siphon off undue benefits to a minority of workers. This dichotomy belies labor’s rich contributions to our country’s economic stability and success, and sidelines the pressing challenges now before us.
The contributions of labor unions to the American workplace and economy are many, from strong compensation, pensions, and healthcare plans to broadly accepted protective legislation, including child labor laws and minimum wage and overtime pay. By securing decent wages and benefits, unions have played a pivotal role in building the strong consumer base necessary to purchase American goods and services. Unions steer the nation towards a reasonable distribution of the country’s wealth.
Today, unions are vilified for their success in bringing a measure of income security and fair working conditions to their members, and to workers generally through the “threat” of unionization. Critics characterize unions as reaping gains at the expense of others: in the public sector, at the expense of the taxpayer; in the private sector, at the expense of corporate flexibility and profitability.
Much of the anti-union animus reveals a lack of understanding of precisely what unions do. Obviously, unions negotiate on behalf of their members with employers. This is a two-way street. Coercion is not a dominant factor in contract negotiations, and companies and public officials do not have to agree to union proposals. Indeed, the vast majority of negotiations result in voluntary agreements that accommodate the interests of both labor and management without resort to economic weapons such as strikes and lockouts.
The Chicago teachers’ strike affords us the opportunity to revisit the debate about unions, trading the question of whether unions are needed for a frank discussion about how labor and management can collectively respond to critical challenges.
The issues are by no means black and white. Education reformers are hardly in agreement that tying teacher evaluations to student test scores is a good or fair approach. Similarly, giving principals unfettered discretion to effectively fire at will highly educated and experienced teachers is uncertain to better childrens’ education. As noted by Diane Ravitch, one of the most respected voices in education, we should be focused on improving the teachers we have, rather than wholesale terminating teachers based on questionable criteria.
These subtleties are precisely what labor-management negotiations should be about. Both sides agree that weak teachers should be weeded out. The process for doing so can be made fair and efficient. This is a problem-solving exercise, not the political test of wills it has become.
As a mediator and arbitrator dealing with mechanics, teachers, pilots, firefighters, welders, and baseball players, I see countless conflicts that unnecessarily escalate through failure to address issues when they arise or in a constructive manner. Entrenched positions, coupled with structural barriers to meaningful negotiation, engender lasting disputes and mistrust on all sides.
Current American labor laws frustrate the adoption of cooperative and adaptive approaches to addressing new economic and workplace realities by, for example, restricting bargaining to a limited set of issues, retaining rigid divisions between supervisors and workers, and requiring negotiation to impasse in situations that demand quick action. Policy changes should be explored to prioritize collaboration over conflict. While labor and management can advance these goals, to fully realize this vision, our nation’s leaders must embrace reforms that usher in a new era of cooperation and flexibility in labor relations.
With experience as our teacher, let us abandon rhetoric that antagonizes and undermines labor and its advocates. Instead, let us direct our energies to forging a constructive relationship among labor, management, and government that promotes both fairness and competitiveness in meeting the very real demands facing our nation and our children.