Chicago Teachers Union – Have unions turned their back on Liberalism?

One cannot assume a collectivist approach is Liberal, or vice versa. Indeed, often collectivism is directly at odds with the individuals it is trying to help.

chicago-teachers-union Yet, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) this week announced a potential contract deal that would do a number of things to that effect. Namely, the continuation of the “Steps-and-Lanes” approach to salary increases and the effective reduction of alternate job opportunities in the form of charter schools (CPS could not increase the number of schools beyond the current 130). To be clear, CPS (along with the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois) are in massive debt, after years of rule by union-allied democrats like Mike Madigan. Recent proposals have even been floated to change state law to allow CPS to declare state bankruptcy and allow the state to take over CPS.

Luckily, the CTU board voted to reject the contract yesterday. But it doesn’t change one disturbing fact:

To put it simply, the CTU contract deal is an affront to Liberalism.

So what is the problem with the contract “deal”? Well first off, the Steps-and-Lanes approach to salary increases in a woefully outdated method of paying teachers. It is based purely on seniority, not performance. Under that regime, individual teachers are entitled to those pay increases, even if they do not merit it. Worse, younger teachers who excel in the classroom are penalized.

The true measure of whether a collectivist approach fits with Liberal principles is whether that approach enhances individual self-determination of the members of that collective. Does it reward self-initiative? Provide greater opportunity? If it merely raises the average of the group, it may actually hurt some members while helping others.

The Steps-and-Lanes approach is in direct conflict to such a measure. It is an anti-liberal form of Collectivism. One that, rather than strengthening meritocracy and individual endeavor, penalizes it. A Liberal plan would be one that seeks to provide increased rewards to teachers who earn it in the classroom. That provides new incentives to those who are willing to work for them. Not simply by being old, or not doing so badly to yet be fired. And to be clear, those incentives can be risk-adjusted based on the socio-economic characteristics of students in their classrooms. It’s called math.

Beyond that, the proposed deal’s limiting of new charter schools is a direct attack on free markets. Look, I’m a big proponent of public school systems myself, and I think we should provide whatever assistance we can reasonably afford. But saying that the CTU should get to say how much competition there can be is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Do workers at McDonalds get to vote on how many other fast-food restaurants can open in the town? Do auto workers get to vote on how many auto manufacturing companies can exist in the United States? No. Those are determined by market forces.

The reality is that CTU’s stance on charter schools has more to do with protecting the union and its political power (since charter school teachers are non-union) than it does the actual benefit of members of the union. Because, you know, individual teachers might actually benefit from increased job opportunities …

And that strikes to the heart of the problem: the CTU contract deal benefits the leadership of the union, and its older vanguard members, than it does the rank-and-file. Indeed, the deal trades the individual self-determination and self-initiative of its members in for vague promises of improving the “group average”. Rather than focusing on individual outcomes, it sees only the average.

A true liberal would never argue that hindering individuals – or their pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness – is a Liberal stance. It, my friends, is not.


To be clear, I have been a union member in the past. I also think that the accomplishments unions-worker-rightsof unions in the past in terms of improving worker’s rights and working conditions should not be trivialized. But, like anything else, a thing may grow so much, so big, that it becomes a caricature of its former self. And as it grows in size and power, it may even come to resemble the forces it was fighting against in the first place. This reflects the complicated relationship between more centrist Liberals and unions these days.

I wrote about this last week, in the piece “Lies of Omission“, and my point then was much the same as point now: Progressives and their ideals often end up hurting the ones they claim to want to help the most. In this case, blind allegiance to a collectivist notion of “good” entails making choices that aren’t very good for many of the individuals involved. And that really gets to the crux of the issue:

Just because something is stereotypically a “Liberal” idea, such as unions, does not mean that those things always fulfill Liberal aims.

In short, the context matters. And any true classical liberal understands that critical thinking skills are necessary to evaluate the individual situation. The whole reason unions have traditionally been thought of as fitting in with Liberal principles is that they empower individual rights through collective bargaining. That relies on the collective doing what’s best for its individuals, not the other way around. It is a fine line, but a fundamental one. It’s the same challenge faced by the Basic Income camp – at what point are you dis-incentivizing individual endeavor? Moreover, if you are going to remove money as an incentive for self-initiative, what are you replacing it with? Hint: “nothing” is not a valid answer.

In that same vein, the Illinois unions want to neuter individual merit, and rather than empower individuals, they seek to handicap them in the interest of empowering the Union itself. Harrison Bergeron in a nutshell. That is not “empowering” anyone, it is merely reinforcing mediocrity at a broad level. And for any true Liberal, nothing is more dangerous than a system that stifles individual endeavor.

If nothing else, the case of unions in Illinois teaches us what can happen when liberals leave rational thought at the door. And when they let Progressives redefine Liberalism as a caricature of itself.


collectivism-unions-liberalismOne may argue that I am contending that Liberals should turn their backs on unions. But that is incorrect. My argument is that many unions, such as CTU, have already turned their back on Liberalism.

Illinois is broke. Its cities are broke. Its schools are broke. That is what blind allegiance will get you. And CTU and CPS, and folks like Mike Madigan, think we should simply tolerate more of the same. But the truth is that in that scenario the only winners are the union leaders and their rich democratic politician allies … not the people of Illinois, the schoolchildren, or even the Liberals and rank-and-file union members that have supported them in the past.

Everything in this world is about power. There are always winners and losers. While CTS, CPS, and the Madigan allies spin a Blue Pill fairytale about “everyone winning”, anyone looking through a Red Pill lens knows that no such thing exists. There is no escape from that fundamental truth. Only a fool would think otherwise.

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