Why so many teachers unions threaten to strike
When Gov. Pat Quinn signed Senate Bill 7 into law in 2011, it updated regulations on teacher strikes, specifically making it more difficult to strike and requiring greater transparency on the part of negotiating teams.
But less than three months into the 2012 school year, eight teachers unions in the state filed intent to strike notices, five of which resulted in teachers walking out.
Educators, lawmakers and union representatives say the recent spate of strikes and strike notices are a response to the current political and financial climates that have forced districts to make drastic budget cuts and teachers to accept steep concessions. Yet, the numbers pale in comparison to the number of strikes in previous years.
The law requires greater transparency from both parties. Before teachers can strike, the final best offers, including costs, from the union and school district must be submitted to the Illinois Education Labor Review Board for display on its website.
"That keeps both sides honest in what they put in that final offer," said Ben Schwarm, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards. "Everyone -- the community, taxpayers, parents -- can see that if teachers are asking for way too much or if the district is trying to take too much away. All of the cards are on the table."
Martin Malin, professor of law and Director of the Institute for Law and the Workplace at the Kent College of Law in Chicago, said teachers unions have been reluctant to strike over the past few years.
"Unlike strikes in the private sector, which are economic battles primarily, strikes in the public sector are political battles," Malin said. "Since the recession hit, I think, most teacher unions realized that they were not likely to get much public support if they struck. Consequently, even though we were in an environment of great austerity, there were very few strikes and, just as significantly, very few strike notices. In other words, unions weren't even threatening to strike because they realized that a strike would likely backfire politically."
Data from the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board, which protects the rights of education employees to organize and participate in collective bargaining, shows strike notices lead to a strike less than 25 percent of the time.
In 2008-09, there were 11 notices filed and one strike; in 2009-10 there were 13 notices and three strikes; in 2010-11 there were 19 notices and two strikes; and in 2011-12 there were 15 strike notices filed and three unions went on strike.
But now, teachers who gave up pay increases and extra duty pay to help districts regain financial stability are refusing to maintain the status quo in the latest round of contract negotiations.
Mike Williamson, communications chairman for LEAD 300, the teachers union in Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300, said members felt like they were backed into a wall.
"Our members feel like we have come to a breaking point where we feel like we have given up everything we can," Williamson said. "We feel like the environment that we are working in has reached a level where it so bad that at this point, typical means of doing things -- like offers and counteroffers -- just aren't going to get us anywhere. This was the only way to get them to make appropriate movement and stop asking for things we can't give up. It is going to take much more drastic action."
An email from the Prairie Grove Teachers Association, which walked out for one day in October, said the union saw the strike as a last resort after it had exhausted all other options during 21 months of negotiations with Prairie Grove District 46 in Crystal Lake. Teachers voted in August to give the union leadership permission to file an intent to strike notice, but teachers did not walk out until Oct. 12.
"We made the decision to strike when it became clear to us that we had no other options to come to a resolution to a long lasting contract dispute," the email said. "Going out on strike is a very serious action for our members, one not to be taken lightly. The Prairie Grove School District has never gone on strike before. We felt we were very responsible and did not use that vote by our members frivolously."
For teachers in Huntley Unit District 158, pensions and compensation are top issues, said Julie McLaughlin, co-president of the Huntley Education Association. "Teachers in District 158 took a freeze last year to improve the district's finances," McLaughlin said. "We have continued to improve scores in the district, but we have not seen an increase in our pay."
Teachers in District 158 are currently working under the conditions of a one-year agreement that expired June 30, which includes a pay freeze. Huntley teachers last went on strike for three days in 2008.
Malin said the five strikes out of eight notices statistic from the current school year is uncommon.
"Perhaps it reflects some pent-up frustration by employees after four years of austerity," Malin said. "Perhaps there is a disconnect at the bargaining table with employee/union pent-up frustration clashing head on with school board's determination to continue to hold the line on labor costs, resulting in fewer compromises when strikes are threatened."
Having the unions and school districts discuss issues like class sizes, tenure and compensation will enhance the position of teachers and improve education in the state, said state Sen. Michael Noland, an Elgin Democrat.
"The bill was designed to make sure we have quality education in the state," Noland said. "If that means keeping teachers at the table and administrators bargaining in good faith, those are the things we need to do for a better education in Illinois."
Recent strikes lasted from one day to almost two weeks. Chicago Public School teachers stopped work for seven days in September. It was the first time teachers in the nation's third-largest school district had gone on strike in 25 years.
Teachers in Prairie Grove District 46 in Crystal Lake took to the picket line for one day in October, as did teachers in North Shore School District 112 in Highland Park.
Meanwhile, the teachers strike in Lake Forest High School District 115 lasted a week. In south suburban Evergreen Park, teachers in Evergreen Park District 214 picketed for nine days. Three other districts -- Argo High School District 217 in Summit, Edwardsville Unit District 7 and Hiawatha Unit District 426 in Kirkland -- filed intent to strike notices, though Argo and Edwardsville settled contract disputes before striking.
Still there are others that have reserved the option to strike. Teachers in Barrington Unit District 220, District 300, District 158, Geneva Unit District 304 and Grayslake Elementary District 46 have voted to give union leaders the go-ahead to file an intent to strike notice if ongoing negotiations fail to yield a new contract.
Schwarm, of the Illinois Association of School Boards, said there are many factors leading to the recent spate of strike notices. Those issues include budget woes and newly adopted education reform laws.
"There are huge changes to the way teachers work that are now playing into the strike talk as well," said Schwarm, referencing new rules about reductions in force, teacher recalls and performance-based evaluations. "There is a lot on the table now that wasn't on the table before besides money. Evaluations were a big issue in Chicago, more so than money. Every district will eventually have to discuss teacher evaluations."