A Minute With...

Robert Bruno, expert on labor and employment relations

9/11/2012  8:00 am

Robert Bruno is a professor of labor and employment relations at the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. In an interview with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora, Bruno, also the director of the Labor Education Program in Chicago, discusses the Chicago Public Schools teachers strike.

How long do you think the strike will last?

image of professor bob brunoThere are indications that negotiations are moving along, but there are still some hard and fast differences between both sides. So I think we’re looking at a week, tops.

The teachers have the capacity to sustain this level of mobilization, which would suggest that they could hold out longer than one week, but I don’t think that will happen. The strike of 1987 lasted 17 days, but I don’t think this one will go on for nearly as long.

If the strike goes beyond a week, will teachers start to lose the tacit support of parents, who seem to be on their side at the moment?

After a week, I think parents will start to wonder when this thing will get done, and are the teachers being reasonable. At what point do you just have to come together and compromise? But in these first few days, I think there is broad and deep support for the teachers from parents. 

Yes, the pressure is on the teachers to get this done quickly, before they lose public opinion, but Mayor (Rahm) Emanuel doesn’t stand to gain much by slow-walking the negotiations. The mayor is not going to get people back to work or get a settlement that’s going to look like his initial proposal. He’s not going to get a better deal three weeks from now than what is on the table right now.

Could this strike have been avoided?

As required by law, there was a fact-finder’s report that was issued before the strike for the purposes of arbitration, where both sides submitted competing salary proposals. In that report, the fact finder said, essentially, if you want teachers to work a longer school day, you’re going to have to pay them more. The report also suggested that they drop merit pay. Well, the Chicago Public Schools system absolutely vilified the findings of the report. Ironically, the financial settlement that is on the table right now looks a lot like what’s in the fact-finder’s report.

In terms of money, that report has become the framework for negotiations, with both parties defaulting back to those numbers, which have been out there from the beginning.

But the teachers are not out in the street because of pay, and they’ve said that from day one. On teacher evaluations, both sides understand that the old system isn’t serving anybody’s interests, and a new system has to be designed. The only difference is that the teachers want to have a more holistic process that promotes good teaching and helps them develop their craft, and won’t be used against them as a tool to punish them, or artificially rank them. So it’s a debate about what the protocols will be, and how much weight given to certain variables. Other school systems have used similar methods of evaluation, so there’s language out there that has worked.

There’s going to be a lot of school closings, and teachers feel incredibly insecure, so they’re also debating what the recall process is going to be like, and what kind of priority is going to be given to a laid-off teacher. At the end of the day, reason will prevail and they will come up with some protocols that allow principals to have some choice but at the same time give priority to qualified teachers.

There are other issues, but the big ones are teacher evaluation and job security. These are tough items, to be sure, but they’re the types of issues that collective bargaining sorts out really well. The outlines of a deal are certainly there.

This process of collective bargaining needs to be respected and embraced. Certainly, there were issues in this process that made things hard, but things like fact-finding, mediation and negotiation are all part of this sometimes-messy machinery that can help parties get to a place where they can function constructively. Collective bargaining solves problems in a very dynamic, creative way, and the public needs to understand that.


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