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Chicago Strike: Week Two

2:40 PM, Sep 17, 2012 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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The schools that were supposed to be open today will not be. The teachers need more time to study an offer that gives them a raise even as the city can't really afford it and they haven't done anything at all to deserve it. This, at a time when millions in the private sector would consider it a gift of providence to have reported for work this morning. Chicago's mayor wants to force the teachers back into the classroom and has gone to the courts to make this happen.  

Since the beginning of the strike, there has been as much concern about the safety of the children, turned out into Chicago's dangerous streets, as there has been over the loss of learning time. Which would make it possible for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to echo Calvin Coolidge's famous declaration:   

There is no right to strike against the public safety, anywhere, anytime.

And one wonders if Mayor Emanuel could fire the teachers in the way that President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers. He believes the strike is illegal and the teachers are not, plainly, doing their jobs, so he could make a persuasive case, even if the courts did not think so. But unions–and especially public sector unions–are the soul of his party, and he can go only so far in alienating them. Already, he has given ground on the issue of teacher accountability. In the public sector, it seems, the employees establish the standards–if any–that determine whether or not they are doing the jobs they are paid to do. The teachers, who are doing a miserable job of teaching, are opposed to any kind of empirical standards that would measure the degree of their failure which, they insist, is not their fault anyway.

They have a point. They are complicit but not ultimately responsible. It has been a long time since much was expected or demanded of school systems like the one they work for. School was a place for warehousing kids, not educating them. And teachers were beneficiaries of a jobs program who were compensated according to seniority, not professionals who were paid and promoted according to merit.

Whenever the teachers in Chicago return to work, whether it is because they have declared themselves satisfied with their new contract or under a court order, they will declare victory. And in this battle, perhaps. But this strike has been one more high profile demonstration of what the future will be if the public sector unions continue to hold the public hostage.

President Obama has, conspicuously, not taken sides in this dispute. He has remained on the sideline, voting "present" and expressing his concern for "the children." In the battle between the public and the public sector unions, he cannot afford to to choose, which may be the worst possible choice.

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