Ghost of 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike hovers over Portland

Dec 25, 2013 by

PORTLAND, Ore. – The Chicago’s teachers’ strike may have officially ended in September of 2012, but its militant spirit is living on in Portland, Oregon where the local teachers union is preparing for its own strike in early 2014.

It’s an open secret that leaders of the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) carefully studied the strategy and public relations messaging the radical Chicago Teachers Union used to successfully extract a 17.6 percent pay raise from its cash-poor school district little more than a year ago.portland teachers 2

Days after the CTU strike ended, PAT President Gwen Sullivan and other local and state union leaders participated in a forum dubbed “Fighting for All of Us: The Meaning of the Chicago Teachers’ Strike.” One organizer described the purpose of the powwow as a way “to generalize the lessons of their strike for our struggle here in Oregon.”

And earlier this year, PAT’s parent union invited Chicago union officials to the state’s largest school district to share strategy ideas, OregonLive.com reports.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Portland union is borrowing extensively from CTU’s playbook during its current contract stare-down with school district negotiators.

Bob Bussel, director of the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center, recently told OregonLive.com the CTU strike “sent shockwaves across the country” and emboldened other teacher unions to take “militant action” during their contract disputes.

That’s evident in the PAT’s willingness to go on strike against the students. The Portland union has never before staged a walkout to pressure district negotiators into meeting its contract demands. They got close to striking in 2010, but cooler heads ultimately prevailed.

But this time around, PAT leaders seem at peace with the idea of disrupting their students’ education and inconveniencing the entire community with a teachers’ strike.

A state-imposed 30-day “cooling off” period ends Friday, at which time the Portland school board could vote to unilaterally impose a contract on the teachers union. The union could then go on strike, although it has already agreed to several more negotiation sessions in the first few days of 2014.

Wages, employee health insurance and class sizes are three of the major issues separating the district and union. The two sides currently have come to agreement on 21 of 50 issues, according to the World Socialist Web Site – which, by the way, thinks the Portland union is too moderate and cooperative and seems to be encouraging a strike against the students.

The Portland union also dipped into the CTU playbook when it chose its slogan, “Fighting for Schools Portland Students Deserve.” That’s nearly identical to a key CTU slogan – “Fighting for the Schools Our Kids Deserve” – that members used to make their eight-day walkout appear altruistic and student-centered, instead of selfish and adult-centered.

The common slogan relates to the third similarity between the two unions: the effort to de-emphasize the role of money in the contract disputes.

Bob Bruno, a University of Illinois professor who studies labor issues, noted that Chicago teachers almost never discussed their financial motives when they held events to build community support for their strike.

According to Bruno, CTU members only portrayed themselves as champions of education, and carefully avoided discussing financial issues in public.

Likewise, PAT leaders aren’t talking much about their pay increase demands, which are more than double what the district is offering. KGW.com reports the two sides are $200 million apart in their offers.

Instead, the PAT’s public relations campaign is focusing on preserving contract language that places strict limits on class sizes and teachers’ workload.

The school board strikes back

Luckily for Portland parents and taxpayers, union leaders weren’t the only ones taking notes during the Chicago teachers’ strike. Portland school leaders saw that clear messaging and a sound political strategy are crucial to prevailing in contentious contract talks.

To that end, the district is paying Yvonne Deckard – a highly regarded former human resources director for the city of Portland – $15,000 a month “to help with bargaining strategy and to advise Superintendent Carole Smith,” reports OregonLive.com.

Deckard has been in that position since August of 2012.

Under Deckard’s direction, the Portland School Board is emphasizing how students will benefit by scrapping contract provisions that handcuff administrators in making personnel decisions.

In a November 6 press release, the board emphasized its desire to increase learning time for students by adding three class days to the district calendar.

“This will help (Portland Public Schools) increase learning time and improve the graduation rate,” the press release reads. “School staff would be compensated for additional workdays (approximately 1% in additional salary for teachers).”

An October press release emphasized the need “to change hiring and placement rules to put the best teacher in each classroom, add learning time for students and make it easier for them to get the courses they need.”

Both sides appear prepared to fight a public relations battle, if and when a teachers’ strike occurs.

OregonLive.com reports the two sides have issued their final, best contract offers and are currently in a 30-day “cooling off” period. Once that period ends, the school board can vote to impose its final contract on the union, and PAT will have the choice of going on strike.

Media reports indicate the two sides have recently ratcheted down the rhetoric and appear interested in avoiding a showdown, which could occur shortly after students return from their holiday break in early January.

The happy talk is probably just another tactic in the public relations messaging battles. Neither side can afford to be seen as eager for a teachers’ strike.

But if the Portland union is serious about following the lead of the CTU, there will be a strike. And if PAT members go on strike, it might inspire the nine other Oregon unions who are nearing an impasse in contract talks with their districts to do the same.

Many of us who viewed the Chicago teacher’s strike as an isolated episode are now realizing it was really a blueprint that other radical teacher unions can use in their districts.

Ghost of 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike hovers over Portland, where teachers may abandon their students – EAGnews.org powered by Education Action Group Foundation, Inc..

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