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It’s time for a little give and take

Updated: October 15, 2012 9:44AM

As a union member from a union family whose grandfather was shot and wounded by company goons in a railroad strike, my sympathies are with the teachers in their walkout against the Chicago Public Schools.

That doesn’t mean I agree with them on every point of conflict in their battle with school officials and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but I tend to at least see their point of view.

In the first place, I fully support their decision to go on strike, although I sure wish they hadn’t. The mayor can stand up every day and say the strike was unnecessary but that doesn’t change the fact the teachers thought it was necessary to get a fair contract — and to get better treatment going forward.

It’s also not lost on me that teachers have advantages over most any other striking workers: You can’t really replace them, the schools can’t operate without them, and in the end, they’re going to get back any money they lose while they’re out because the schools will still have to operate the same number of days.

Most of us left in the remnants of the American labor movement only wish we had that kind of leverage, which may be part of the vicarious pleasure of seeing the teachers fight back on the same sorts of issues where everybody else with a job — union or otherwise — has grown accustomed to knuckling under in the last decade.

As a journalist, though, I have a responsibility to look beyond those instinctive sympathies and evaluate the issues in the strike on their merits, taking into account what’s best for the schoolchildren and the taxpayers as well.

My loyalties are therefore most sharply in conflict on those issues the mayor continues to identify as the only major stumbling blocks to a settlement — teacher evaluations, along with what is variably referred to as teacher recall by the union and principal autonomy by the mayor, both referring to what to do with teachers who lose their jobs when schools close or downsize.

Leading up to the strike, CTU President Karen Lewis dropped a lot of hints that job security was the big issue to her members, even hinting they might be willing to accept less money for more assurances on that front.

What seems to have developed is almost the opposite, with the mayor and his negotiating team offering teachers more money in the expectation they would back down on their job-security demands.

For the third day in a row, I watched the mayor’s team take the offensive Wednesday with its argument that principals must have total freedom to fill teaching vacancies at their individual schools without being required to choose from a pool of displaced teachers.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard even made his first cameo appearance of the strike at what was billed as a “roundtable” of principals and community members at Clemente High School.

Brizard assured reporters he is still very much involved and running the show despite rumors to the contrary, and while I don’t doubt it, I could also see why Emanuel isn’t allowing him to be the face of the negotiations. Brizard is years away from having the confidence of everyday Chicagoans, if he sticks around long enough to get the chance.

At the roundtable, a contingent of principals took turns explaining that if they are to be held accountable for their students’ progress, the only way that can work is if they are allowed to pick their own team, taking into account the particular needs of their schools.

Having seen how a good principal is the key to fixing any school, that makes a lot of sense to me, as I’m sure it would to most Chicagoans.

On the flip side of the equation are the qualified CPS teachers who are losing their jobs for any of a number of reasons beyond their control — either because their schools were closed or consolidated or designated for a “turnaround.”

Most of these teachers have been working in the most challenged schools in the toughest neighborhoods. They haven’t been disciplined. Nobody has accused them individually of failing to do their job. But they are being thrown on the scrap heap to fend for themselves.

The union believes those teachers deserve priority consideration for job openings at other schools. Surely, you can see their point, too.

This has to be where the compromise is struck. Maybe the mayor gives a little on teacher recall and its willy-nilly method of weeding out bad teachers and the union gives a little on the teacher-evaluation system, which should do a better job of achieving the same goal over time.

One way or another, it’s time to get it done.

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