Rahm Emanuel

Chicago teachers' strike: Everybody wins, really?

September 20, 2012: 4:36 PM ET

As Chicago teachers and students returned to school this week, no one was crowing. The system faces a $1 billion budget deficit next year, and it's still unclear who will win the battle over teacher evaluations in the long term.

By Elizabeth G. Olson

FORTUNE -- The 16-page settlement ending the furor over the Chicago teachers' union strike lays out details as specific as the number of minutes allotted for the daily lunch break and the remedy if teachers have to skip lunch.

There is enough in the three-year contract for both sides to claim victory. Teachers get yearly wage increases, and well-rated teachers who are laid off get some preference for new Chicago school job openings. But the school day is longer, and teacher evaluations will be partially based on student test scores.

While an end to the 10-day standoff clearly benefits students, it also dimmed the daily public spotlight on public employee rights and salaries and how those issues relate to education reform. Critics fumed that the teachers were simply being recalcitrant in the face of proposed reforms -- namely, tying pay to student performance -- designed to combat poor scores and high dropout rates.

In a climate where union members like public school teachers are regularly pilloried as overcompensated, the teachers' union took a defiant stance by going on strike to get a better employment contract.

Some castigated the union's actions as a greedy grab for money when the average teacher salary in Chicago is $75,000 a year. The union says that figure is inflated because it includes administrator salaries, but no alternative number has been offered.

MORE: IBM's Ginni Rometty looks ahead

Chicago's troubles are the latest front on a determined push to cut back public employee salaries and pensions after a precipitous fall in revenues has decimated state and local budgets. Despite the recent surge of anti-teacher and anti-union sentiment, teachers decided to stop negotiating and take their complaints to the street.

"There's an attitude that teachers should be glad they have jobs with so many others losing ground," says Peter Cappelli, a labor relations professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. That loss of respect and courtesy contributes to pushing teachers to take a harder stance, he notes. "If teachers feel they are not going to be treated as professionals, they feel that they can push in another direction so they can be treated fairly," he says. More

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