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Chicago teacher strikes aren't new, but this one's a bit different

Barbara Medley donned her most comfortable shoes and joined the picket line on Chicago's Near North Side. ''This is the only way we can get a raise,'' says Ms. Medley, pacing the sidewalk with fellow teachers who whistle and ring bells when anyone crosses their picket line to enter the school district office.

She is one of the 27,000 members of the Chicago Teacher's Union who walked off their jobs Monday in a salary dispute. The city's board of education reportedly has offered a 0.5 percent increase. The teachers, joined by 18 other unions representing tradesmen and lunchroom and maintenance personnel, are holding out for more.

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Teacher walkouts are nothing new to Chicago. This is the sixth time the union has struck since 1969. Haggling over pay with the board of education is an annual event. But this strike has political and national implications, since it signals possible changes in the power structure of the city and provide a test case on the depth of public sentiment toward education.

In a city so recently dominated by machine politics, this is the first time that the mayor has not taken a hand in settling a teachers strike, says Michael J. Harrington, executive director of the Citizens Schools Committee, a public advocacy group.

''The mayor has no right, no basis, running in there making handshake deals, '' as has been the practice in the past, he says. Mayor Harold Washington has said he won't become directly involved in the negotiations. Some observers suggest that the mayor may not have the power to step in as effectively as, say, former Mayor Jane Byrne, who last year managed to get the union to agree to a pay freeze with the understanding that salaries would be increased this year.

For Chicago teachers, the strike comes at a time when public education has become a sensitive national issue. While their action has closed down the nation's third-largest school system, teacher strikes in other parts of the country have been less frequent than in past years, observers say.

This is partly due to the hope that heightened public interest in education will mean more taxpayer support, educators say. At this critical juncture of gaining that support, strikes could be counterproductive, many educators say.

But many teachers here feel that the board of education has paid no attention to their demands. Besides money, they say they are seeking respect.

''We're professionals,'' Ms. Medley says. Some auto workers earn more money than teachers, she points out. ''And they don't even call them professionals.''

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Teachers on the picket lines stress that they want more say in how the board of education spends its money.

Like many other large Northern cities, the school system has run into big problems. Enrollments have declined from a peak of 589,000 in 1969 to somewhere around 430,000 this year. Revenues have been almost stagnant. In 1980 the school board went broke and had to be rescued by the state Legislature.

Mr. Harrington's group, while deploring the strike, hopes the board will come up with extra funds by taking a harder look at consulting contracts and administrative salaries.

Unfortunately, there is little money to spend on pay increases, says Walter Hickey, research associate with the Civic Foundation, a local taxpayers' watchdog group supported primarily by business.

Cutting other parts of the budget will hardly bring in much, since 85 percent of it already goes for some type of employee compensation, he says. Out of $117 million in new funds from the state, he explains, only about $12 million will be available for teacher pay increases - and that is a fraction of the sum needed for even a 1 percent pay hike.

The average Chicago teacher's salary already is $25,550, he adds. While teachers might deserve more money, ''that 'Pity me' portrait they're trying to paint is bordering on the point of absurd. . . . We hope this will be the long-awaited hard stand of the board of education (against the union).''

Harrington says the current battle over exactly how much money the board has to spend should not obscure the larger issue: that Chicago schools don't get enough money in the first place, and they will need more tax money to provide better education. Taxpayers need to feel that the system is more accountable to their needs, he says.

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