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Opinion

Chicago strike shows unions corrupt teachers, harm students

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Opinion,Matt Patterson,Op-Eds

Americans like teachers.

We like to think of public school teachers as kindly, idealistic men and women nurturing rows of attentive, wide-eyed youths with the knowledge and values they will need to become informed, productive citizens. This image is doubtless reinforced by memories of our own favorite teachers -- the ones who made that extra effort to help us understand a subject, an idea or a book that changed our lives for the better. We rightly remember such teachers with fondness and gratitude. Teaching is a noble and necessary profession, whose practitioners often forgo more lucrative careers out of a sincere desire to make a difference in their students' lives.

Unfortunately, there is another, darker side to the teaching profession these days, a side seeded and sown by public-sector unions.

On Sept. 10, the 25,000-plus members of the powerful Chicago Teachers Union walked off their jobs, abandoning their 350,000 students in the process. Instead of teaching, they took to the streets to try to wring more money from the city, among other sundry demands. The union originally asked for a 30 percent salary increase for teachers who already make an average of more than $70,000 per year. As the editors of the Wall Street Journal noted, "That's not a bad deal compared to the median household income of $47,000 for a Chicago worker in the private economy."

In the end, the union won a still-generous 16 percent increase over four years from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, among other concessions, bringing the teachers back to the classroom on Sept. 19.

What to make of the union's demands, now that the strike is (seemingly) over? To be sure, the desire to secure better compensation for one's work is universal. In the private sector, however, such pressures as may be exerted by any employee or group of employees eventually runs up against the hard realities of their company's bottom line. These realities put an upper limit on all expenditures, worker salaries included.

Cities and states, too, have an upper limit on how much they can pay their workers -- the amount of revenue the government can bring in through its taxation and regulatory powers. But because taxes can be raised or lowered to adjust revenue streams, it makes it easy for public-sector unions to say -- and for their members and the general public to believe -- that revenue can always be raised and that therefore salary increases for public workers are always feasible, even when they aren't.

In Chicago, they aren't. The school system is currently staring at a $665 million deficit, which could grow to an estimated $3 billion in red ink over the next three fiscal years. Nor is the city is any position to bail out the schools -- Chicago itself faces a $369 million budget hole next year, according to estimates from the mayor's office.

If you want to know the source of these monetary woes, public-sector unions are a good place to start -- not just in Chicago, but anywhere a local or state government is faced with stratospheric labor costs. Unionism has transformed normally sympathetic public servants like teachers into hordes of agitators who can hold entire cities hostage until their demands are met, often endangering the public welfare in the process. Look to Chicago, where hundreds of thousands of children were suddenly and unceremoniously dumped by those charged with watching them during the day.

Don't take my word for it. CTU President Karen Lewis made explicit her union's reasons for continuing the strike into a second week: "Our members are not happy," she said. "They want to know if there is anything more they can get."

Ms. Lewis, take a look at your city's books: There isn't.

Matt Patterson (Mpatterson.column@gmail.com) is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Center for Economic Freedom.

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