Senate Bill 7 Was Supposed to Limit Teachers Strikes. Teachers in Chicagowalked out Anyway. Then Suburban Teachers Did, Too. Teachers Find Their Power
Byline: Kerry Lester and Tara Garca Mathewson firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com By Kerry Lester and Tara Garca Mathewson firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com
An education reform package pushed through the state legislature in the spring of 2011 was hailed as nothing short of historic -- among its components, limiting teachers' ability to strike.
Or so its authors thought.
But two years after Senate Bill 7's passage -- and a year after its implementation -- many more strikes are occurring, making them a lasting part of the education reform package's legacy.
Seven suburban school districts have gone on strike this school year, inspired in part by a Chicago Teachers Union walkout in September that was provoked by the new law.
The legislation mandated that 75 percent of Chicago Teachers Union membership must authorize a strike, creating a rallying point for Chicago teachers. Goaded by the idea they would never muster that much support, 90 percent of the highly organized CTU membership ultimately approved a walkout.
"CTU said, 'OK, you put these tough restrictions on us, you pretty much fractured our right to bargain and we were successful in still being able to,'" said state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Maywood Democrat who negotiated the reform legislation.
It's a ripple effect of sorts that suburban educators, union officials and lawmakers alike say carried the strike mentality through school districts across the region.
"Now," Lightford said, "you have other groups saying if it worked for them, it'll work for us."
Data from the Illinois State Board of Education shows that only one suburban district in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties -- Huntley Unit District 158 -- went on strike from 2004 to 2012.
But in the five months following the Chicago Teachers' Union September strike, Evergreen Park District 124, Lake Forest High School District 115, North Shore District 112 in Highland Park, Prairie Grove District 46 in McHenry, Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300, West Chicago 33 and Grayslake District 46 have gone on strike.
"There is no question that Chicago's response to the strike component inspired teachers unions across Illinois," said Dan Montgomery, Illinois Federation of Teachers president and a longtime Niles North English teacher. Increased priority on student test results, layoffs due to school budget cuts and aftershocks from the highly publicized passage of anti-union laws in Wisconsin in 2011 have led to "terrible morale among teachers over the last 10 years," he said. That increased the motivation to strike.
Unlike in Chicago, SB7 didn't require suburban teachers unions to get more than 75 percent of their membership to authorize a strike. They needed just a simple majority of voters.
But in West Chicago Elementary District 33, the union would have easily qualified to strike under the stricter regulation.
"I think the Chicago Teachers Union strike gave impetus to all these other ones," said Christine Scheck, District 33 board president. "The Chicago teachers strike gave power to the unions in the district and gave power to the IEA (Illinois Education Association) to direct some of what we've seen. And I'm not alone in that."
Teachers in District 33 went on a three-day strike Feb. 4 -- the first in the union's 52-year history -- citing differences over salaries, health insurance, retirement benefits and teacher evaluation methods. Negotiators had worked more than 16 months to reach an agreement before the strike.
Mary Catherine Kosmach, chief union negotiator for the District 33 teachers union, said their strike had nothing to do with Chicago. The towns share a name but that's it, Kosmach said.
"The bottom line was compromise did not occur until we were on strike," Kosmach said. …