The groundwork was laid for the Chicago strike vote when Stand for Children helped elect a set of Illinois legislators supporting an anti-collective bargaining, testing-based education proposal, giving Stand the "clear political capability to potentially jam this proposal down [the teachers unions'] throats," in the words of the group's executive director, Jonah Edelman. Edelman then used this leverage to get Illinois teachers unions to negotiate a slightly less terrible deal than the threatened "jam it down their throats" one. The final deal prohibits teachers from bargaining over the length of the school day or school year, gives principals the power to hire and fire teachers without much consideration for seniority, and in Chicago—but only Chicago—sets a strike authorization threshold of 75 percent of all teachers, not the 50 percent required in the rest of the state.
Edelman subsequently spoke at the Aspen Institute about how exactly Stand for Children achieved this coup, being more blunt than he probably would have been had he realized video of his speech would become public. Stand was able to split the Illinois Education Association, a National Education Association affiliate, from the Chicago Teachers Union, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate. According to Edelman:
We came with a fallback for binding arbitration when we saw that the Illinois Education Association was willing to do a deal, and just focus on Chicago. They interestingly pressured the Chicago Teachers Union to take the deal. Karen Lewis, the head of the Chicago Teachers Union, who’s a die-hard militant, was focused on maintaining her sense of her members’ right to strike. Her sense was that binding arbitration was giving away the right to strike. But our next proposal, our next best, which was a very high threshold for strikes, for whatever reason, tactical miscalculation on her part, was palatable.Lewis may have made tactical miscalculations, but so did Edelman. Because he thought it would be impossible for Chicago teachers to strike:
We knew that the highest threshold of any bargaining unit that had voted one way or the other on a collective bargaining agreement, contract vote was 48.3%. The threshold we were arguing for three quarters. So in effect they wouldn’t have the ability to strike even thought the right was maintained.Threshold: met. But Edelman wasn't stopping with Illinois. In his Aspen Institute speech, he went on to say identify Massachusetts as a state he'd be targeting, saying "Massachusetts, very similar. It might be a ballot measure in Washingon, it might be we have a measure on the ballot, and we use it as a lever in Massachusetts. It’ll look a little bit different, but it’s essentially the same."
And so it has. Under threat of a Stand for Children ballot measure that would make it easier to fire teachers based on an unproven evaluation system, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers union and a National Education Association affiliate, has negotiated a deal with Stand. The deal, which must pass the state legislature by July 3 for Stand to withdraw its ballot measure, is being opposed by the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. By all accounts the MTA, led by President Paul Toner and Vice President Timothy Sullivan, negotiated a better deal than did the Illinois Education Association, but the end result is that Stand has come to a state that has, by many measures, some of the best schools in the nation, and used the threat of bringing its corporate-money resources to pass an initiative that would be truly terrible for education quality and for teachers' jobs to get a teachers union to cut a deal that's still, let's face it, not very good.
Stand for Children isn't stopping in Illinois and Massachusetts—why would it, when it succeeded in those very blue states with so little struggle? Not just unions but parents and students need to be ready to put up a fight in the next set of states Stand targets. Maybe in the end, negotiation will be the path to the best outcome. But you're a lot stronger going into a negotiation if you've already let Stand know you're ready for a fight. Letting them wage the public battle while you silently bargain lays the groundwork for defeat from the beginning.
(Disclosure: My father, Dan Clawson, serves on the board of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. His take on the process leading up to the announcement of the MTA's compromise with Stand for Children is here.)