The Chicago Strike and the History of American Teachers’ Unions


Margaret Haley, the "lady labor slugger" of Chicago. She was one of the nation's first teachers' union organizers.


It has been difficult to discern what specific details are left on the table in the Chicago teachers’ negotiations. Broadly, we know the union leadership resents Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s enthusiasm for non-unionized charter schools and neighborhood school closings. It is also clear that professional evaluation is a big issue, as it is in states and cities across the country. To what extent should teachers be judged by their students’ test scores, as opposed to by more holistic measures? Job security, especially for teachers in schools that will be shut down, has been eroding, which the CTU sees as a calamity, yet many reformers applaud. And of course, there is pay. Is it fair for teachers to demand regular raises when unemployment is so high, and budgets at every level of government are strapped?

I’m not going to pronounce on these questions today, but I do want to offer a quick history of teacher unionism to keep things in perspective. The modern teachers’ union movement began in Chicago in 1897, and many of the problems back then — from low school budgets to testing to debates over classroom autonomy — remain more than salient today.

In 1800, 90 percent of American schoolteachers were men; by 1900, three-quarters were women. The feminization of teaching—a job once filled primarily by transient young men, often saving up to finance a legal or medical education—was, in large part, why education became one of the few white-collar unionized professions in the United States. Here’s how it happened, and why it happened in Chicago.

Around 1830, the American political, business, and intellectual elite began to come to a consensus that state governments should guarantee all children a free, basic education. Businesses wanted literate workers, and there was the idea that education would reduce social ills like intemperance and crime. But more than that, Common Schools reformers believed the young nation’s tenuous experiment in popular democracy required informed citizens, voters able to balance competing claims, judge the character of candidates for political office, and generally put the long term common good above short term, individual gain.  (Like today’s education reformers, Common Schoolers were an idealistic group.)

The inescapable reality, however, was that schools were expensive, and Americans, then as now, didn’t like high taxes. So in order to rapidly open many more schools, states, cities, and towns made the conscious choice to hire mostly female teachers, who were cheaper to employ. To sell that idea to a public wary of women working outside the home, and accustomed to corporal punishment and other stereotypically masculine ways of retaining control over a classroom, Common School reformers like Horace Mann, the Whig politician, and Catharine Beecher, the public intellectual, wrote and spoke ad nauseam about women’s moral superiority. As a schoolteacher, Mann lectured, a woman would be like an angel, “her head encircled with a halo of heavenly light, her feet sweetening the earth on which she treads, and the celestial radiance of her benignity making vice begin its work of repentance through very envy of the beauty of virtue!” Male teachers, Beecher liked to say, were “low, vulgar, obscene, intemperate, and utterly incompetent.”

This bracing rhetoric covered up an ugly reality of pay discrimination. Most female teachers earned just half the salary of a male teacher, and their jobs were getting harder and harder each day. In turn of the century Chicago, classrooms housed 60 students, many of them new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe who couldn’t speak English. Yet teacher pay had been frozen for 30 years at $875 annually (about $23,000 adjusted for inflation), less than a skilled manual laborer could earn.

The nation’s first teachers’-only union, the Chicago Teachers Federation, was founded by two pissed off lady educators, Margaret Haley and Catherine Goggin. They split the CTF from the administrator-dominated National Education Association in 1897. Haley, a sixth-grade teacher, became a national political force after she launched an investigation into the school system’s budget. She found that major Chicago corporations, including the Chicago Tribune and the city’s railroad, gas, and electrical utilities, had been issued 100-year “leases” of land owned by the Chicago public schools for far-below the market rate, and were paying no taxes whatsoever on the land. Haley’s successful lawsuit against Chicago’s leading corporations, and her decision to ally the Chicago Teachers’ Federation with the blue-collar AFL-CIO Chicago Federation of Labor established teacher unionism as a potent force in American urban politics, and earned her the ire of the conservative elite. One businessman called her “a nasty, unladylike woman.” But Haley knew that because female teachers couldn’t vote, they needed the muscle of the male-dominated labor movement to back them up in their efforts to win higher pay and more say over how schools were run.

Amid these tensions, in November 1902, the Andrew Jackson School on Chicago’s West Side hosted the nation’s first ever teachers’ strike.  Superintendent Edwin Cooley had replaced a popular female principal at the school with a man sent from the central district office. On Halloween, Janice McKeon, a longtime teacher with deep ties to the predominantly Irish neighborhood, booted a student from her 55-person class for using profanity against another child. When the new principal sent the offender back to class—and McKeon refused to let him enter the room—she was suspended without pay for 30 days. A week later, on Nov. 7, 400 students, parents, and teachers protested outside the school in support of McKeon, giving a boost to the newly formed CTF.

Political reformers of this period looked at the chaos of urban school systems and concluded that young, non-college educated women weren’t tough, ambitious, or intellectual enough to be effective teachers. Men like Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, Columbia University president and standardized testing-enthusiast Nicholas Murray Butler, and Harvard president Charles William Eliot vowed to once again attract a higher-class (read: male) professional to the K-12 classroom, and to turn education into a “science” governed by standardized teaching practices and measured by test scores. Margaret Haley, however, saw female educators not as the problem with poverty-stricken schools, but as part of the solution. She wanted to try a different way of running schools, one that increased budgets, but also relied less on technocratic centralization and more on the instincts of individual educators with ties to the communities in which they worked.

For awhile, the early CTF found a partner in Chicago schools superintendent Ella Flagg Young, a fiercely intellectual high school teacher who earned a Ph.D at the University of Chicago and became a disciple of John Dewey, the founding philosopher of American progressive education. Young led the Chicago system from 1909 to 1915, and worked with the teachers’ union to institute a pedagogy based on theories of the whole child, which emphasized a broad curriculum and project-based learning. She allowed “teacher councils” within each school to set priorities, arguing that empowering teachers would help students achieve joy in learning. “In order that teachers may delight in awakening the spirits of children, they must themselves be awake,” Young said. She also resisted attempts by business leaders to direct working class children to a narrowly conceived version of vocational education, and she continuously fought corporate efforts to pay lower school taxes. Ultimately, business interests on the school board succeeded in pushing Young out of office.

There are some obvious parallels between the teacher labor battles of the past and those of today. First, teaching remains an overwhelmingly female profession, one that is often understood more as a romantic calling than as a career like any other, in which pay, autonomy, and working conditions matter. Second, raising taxes is typically a political nonstarter; in a system serving an extremely needy population, there is perpetually the need to do more with far less than would be ideal.

But there are also clear differences. Today’s teachers, though they earn less than other college-educated workers, do make a stable, middle-class salary. They are working within a knowledge economy that rewards worker flexibility and lifelong learning; it would be counterproductive, both for students and for the strength of organized labor, for local teachers’ unions to hang on to old notions of rigid job security and near nonexistent teacher evaluation. (Many teachers’ unions do have their own proposals for how to evaluate teachers, through processes like peer evaluation and portfolios of students' work. There are also good ideas from other quarters, like much more rigorous classroom observations.) And while large class sizes remain a problem, many high-poverty schools in cities like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles are actually experiencing rapid declines in enrollment, in part because of competition from charters. This help explains the push for school closures and teacher workforce reductions.

Teachers’ unions are among the most controversial institutions in American public life. I hope to demystify them in my upcoming book. There is much more to say, but for now I will stop here.

Recommended reading:

Citizen Teacher: The Life and Leadership of Margaret Haley by Kate Rousmaniere

Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA, 1900-1980 by Marjorie Murphy

15 thoughts on “The Chicago Strike and the History of American Teachers’ Unions

  1. PRoales

    “Today’s teachers, though they earn less than other college-educated workers,” just not true, at least in Chicago. Ezra Klein calculated the comparitive salary of a Chicago teacher is $71,017 which is much higher then the Census data for college graduates in Chicago which is around $48,000.

    link to

  2. lng

    Thank you, Dana. Was waiting for a piece from you on this strike, and you delivered a great analysis of the history behind teaching and public education in Chicago.

  3. Ima-gina-tion

    I don’t know what would be worse, being evaluated by peers consumed by politics and greed, or adminstrators who know little about teaching. Yes, teachers must be evaluated, but why not ask and include students directly for their take?

  4. Clint

    There are many problems with any teacher evaulation system that includes student test scores or “opinions”.
    1.) The number one predictor of future academic success is the socioeconomic status of the student. Many studies give this a range of 25-50% of student achievement. Should teachers be evaluated on this?
    2.) Incompetent school leadership. Here in Ohio where I live, the city of Cleveland has had its schools forcibly taken over by the state on several occasions. Most principals that do not do their jobs well are just moved to another school or placed in the administration building. Administrators want teacher evaluation so badly, are they willing to have their job publically scrutinized as well with real data? If their teachers “fail”, then didn’t they also fail? Should they be fired?
    3.) Going along with item #2, many principals are being brought in from the outside WITHOUT any education background. My own principal was an educated man (biomedical engineering undergrad and MBA), but not an *educator*. The district did this even though many teachers in the district had principal licenses.
    4.) I have taught children that have purposefully “tanked” the state tests. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for. If they get upset at a teacher that actually makes them work, they could very well take it out on the teacher by purposefully failing the tests.
    5.) Tests can only measure what they are designed to measure. If it has already been proven (and it has) that most state standardized tests have little reliability when it comes to measuring what it is supposed to measure, namely student achievement, what makes anyone think that it can measure the teaching done any better?

    A teacher evaluation *team* made up of “master educators” is the only viable solution here.

    And to the person who posted above about teacher salaries compared to “college graduates” in Chicago, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. Average teacher salaries should be compared to other “masters-degree-required” fields, not just undergraduate degrees. And even quoting “average” salaries isn’t quite fair, as public employees face layoffs (the lowest-paid are let go), the average goes up because those remaining have more education and years of service.

  5. Joyce Mary

    “Haley’s successful lawsuit against Chicago’s leading corporations, and her decision to ally the Chicago Teachers’ Federation with the blue-collar AFL-CIO, established teacher unionism as a potent force in American urban politics, and earned her the ire of the conservative elite.”

    There wasn’t an AFL-CIO back then; there wasn’t even a CIO. The Chicago Teachers did support Fitzpatrick, of the Chicago Federation of Labor.

  6. Jennifer

    CPScdeveloped an evaluation process that includes peer reviews, classroom observation, student performance, socioeconomic factors as they applet to schools and student reviews. This was developed with the help of 2,300 cps teachers. Details can be found here. I am frustrated that so any people are not educated about this process and assume that the teacher evaluations are soley based on test scores. It was a simple google search to find this information. I implore you to research the issues at hand versus listening to the retoric from special interest groups link to

  7. Quill

    PRoales’s data is off; a large percentage of CPS teachers have masters’ degrees or even doctorates. Part of that, of course, is due to the compensation system at CPS which currently (but possibly not in the next contract) rewards further education with pay raises. Thus, comparing CPS’s median salary with the data for all college graduates is in error; CPS is highly likely to employ more people with education beyond a bachelor’s degree than is typical in Chicago as a whole.

    There’s a fascinating article from the Sun Times about teacher pay in the Chicagoland area, which, as should be obvious, has more impact on what CPS pays its teachers than comparing it to other big-city districts, as it’s competing for local teaching talent. link to The numbers that follow include pension contributions. CPS shows up at #16 in Illinois for beginning pay with a bachelor’s degree at $50,577 (all the others in the top 20 are also in the Chicagoland area) but falls to #167 at $95,887. What does that mean as part of this debate? I don’t know. But it does give me, at least, a better understanding of teacher compensation in the area.

    What’s the top teacher salary in Illinois? Starting out, you’d want to work at District 220 in Burbank at $55,091; not that distant from CPS, but still a nice bump. Sticking around at 220 wouldn’t be a bad idea; their pay scale tops out at $132,942. But the top pay is at District 156 in McHenry, where an experienced and highly educated teacher can make up to $184,387; almost twice as much as CPS’s top salary of $95,887.

    Are CPS teachers underpaid? Do they deserve pay raises? That’s based on your opinion.

    Here’s mine: teaching is a very demanding profession that is increasingly reviled in the media as being a waste of tax dollars. CPS teachers deal with an enormous district that is extremely non-responsive to teacher concerns and ideas. The likelihood of an individual teacher impressing his or her boss is high; of impressing the person who makes decisions about pay? Impossible. The steps system may seem strange to someone employed in a private business, but it isn’t dissimilar to compensation systems used by large businesses, where people’s jobs are payed at a certain grade, and over the years people work to move up in grades with each promotion. Teachers do not typically have opportunities for promotion; they are rewarded with raises for a certain number of years of experience, with the assumption being that if the teacher wasn’t a good teacher, they’d be fired! CPS’s principals have the ability to hire and fire, and they’re certainly close enough to their employees to evaluate their work.

    CPS does not fairly distribute resources to its schools; it, like many other Chicago institutions, does things “the Chicago way” based on clout, politics, and power. Schools on the South Side are, according to several teachers I’ve talked to, absolutely terrible. There is no soap in the bathrooms, no toilet paper. The stalls don’t have doors. The roofs leak. These schools have been neglected for years, and it shows. They could have the best teachers in the world but it wouldn’t help much. The students feel like they’re treated like trash, and they’re right. Class sizes of 41 or more certainly don’t help teachers deal with the significant poverty their students live with daily. Schools on the North Side are, generally speaking, in reasonable repair but often lack the amenities considered necessary in schools in the suburbs, like computer labs and libraries, language classes and AP courses.

    The REACH assessment evaluation process seems reasonable. Unfortunately, neither CPS nor the CTU has publicly disclosed much information about the disagreement over teacher performance evaluations.

    The city has increasingly let struggling schools fall further and further into disrepair until they can reasonably make a case for the school to be closed and reopened as a charter school, run by politically connected millionaires and staffed by non-union teachers who, typically, weren’t able to get a job at a unionized school.

    The district’s teachers have been paying attention to the Mayor’s disdain for their efforts and his connections to the administrators of charter schools, and they see where things are headed if they don’t stand up for themselves. The strike isn’t primarily about compensation; it’s about demanding that the district listen to its teachers with respect and supply its students with the necessities of a good education.

  8. Michael Fiorillo

    Your reflexive repetition of management memes such as “the knowledge economy” (when surely you must know that the large majority of current and projected future jobs require little or no training) and “worker flexibility” (more accurately translated as at-will employment with no due process rights) demonstrates how you are a member in good standing of the media echo chamber on education.

    Your historical overview is marred by the ed deform talking points at the end, and reveals the received opinion that governs your writing, in service of the hostile takeover of the schools.

  9. gurjeet

    Your historical overview is marred by the ed deform talking points at the end, and reveals the received opinion that governs your writing, in service of the hostile takeover of the schools.


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