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What IS Going on in Chicago?
September 17, 2012
I sat down a dozen times this week to write a blog piece and was unable to write about anything other than the Chicago Public School/Chicago Teachers Union strike. I gave up trying to brainstorm for a different topic, but my thoughts on it are so jumbled that I have had a hard time writing a cohesive piece.
So perhaps what I am realizing is that the winds are changing in this city that I love – and it is confusing. A piece on CNN described the emotional confusion surrounding the strike as a “Democratic Civil War”. As I search my memory the last work stoppage that I recall that affected us locally was the UPS strike but that was not based in Chicago. I do remember the Teacher’s Strike twenty five years ago (and at that time it was my contemporaries that were striking) but with that exception it has been a VERY long time since labor disputes have actually caused a major work stoppage. I think that we (Chicagoans) have grown to expect contract negotiation in public employer conflicts to threaten walkouts, but be saved in the eleventh hour by locked door sessions. Historically Unions have supported Democrats in elections, and Chicago is a heavily Democratic city so it has been expedient – for both sides – to resolve their issues without angering all those voters out there.
In my recall the press has been instrumental in creating popular support for each camp in labor conflicts, outlining sticking points for both sides and, with the exception of editorial columns, staying somewhat out of the fray. Since negotiations were held behind closed doors the press relied on prepared statements and the occasional well placed “leak”.
But this – this Chicago Comes into the Twenty-first Century Labor Free-For-All – is a new experience for me and, I suspect, most of us. Old patterns are blurred. The all powerful Democratic Mayor can’t lock this dispute behind closed doors, the relatively newly minted head of the union can’t pass a microphone without a statement, and objectivity over the issues is a thing of the past! But what is SO striking is the fact that social media COMBINED with traditional media creates a 24/7 wave of information flooding the public airwaves. Anyone who has an opinion on the dispute is on the air, and heating up the wires.
Collective Bargaining was, historically, a means for voiceless laborer to have a voice in their destinies. But in the media rich twenty-first century is voice the thing that we are lacking? I am, by nature, something of a communist and inclined to side (blindly in most cases) with labor. But I cannot unequivocally support some of the statements made by the CTU. As a taxpayer (in a family blessed with a number of dedicated professional teachers) I am concerned that Union demands are weakening an already cash-strapped school system.
Labor unions around the country are watching the outcome of this strike. Will the resolution help to reestablish the power that Unions have historically wielded over public employers? Or will the emotional fallout cause onlookers to take a more jaundiced view of the protests of Union leaders? Whatever the outcome one thing is certain: the familiar expectations of how business is done in Chicago – and big cities around the country – are irrevocably changed. There are different energies emerging, new voices being heard and young ears listening to new stories that will shape their expectations in the future.