Median family income has fallen 7 percent since Barack Obama became president, so most Americans would be delighted with a 16 percent raise over four years. Not the Chicago Teachers Union, which went on strike Monday.
The average salary of public school teachers in Chicago is $76,000, the highest in the country, according to Chicago Public Schools. That's more than double the average wage of Chicago taxpayers ($30,203). For college graduates in Chicago, the median wage is $48,866.
The gulf widens when health and pension benefits are factored in. Nationwide, government workers contribute about 15 percent of the cost of their health insurance premiums, according to a study last year by the Manhattan Institute. For workers in the private sector, the average is about 25 percent. Chicago teachers pay just 3 percent.
Chicago teachers aren't paid the big bucks because they do a terrific job. Four out of five of their eigth-graders were below grade level in reading and math in tests administered by the U.S. Department of Education last year. Or because they work so hard. Chicago has the shortest school year of any major city.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel celebrated this June when 60.5 percent of those who started high school five years ago got diplomas. It was a record high. It was achieved mainly because more students now attend charter schools, where the graduation rate rose to 76 percent last year, and because more students got diplomas just for showing up. Twenty percent of graduates are functionally illiterate.
The teachers struck chiefly because Mayor Emanuel wants to base teacher evaluations mostly on how students perform on standardized tests. That could cost up to 6,000 of Chicago's 26,000 teachers their jobs, claims teacher union president Karen Lewis.
The charter schools, where teachers are nonunion, aren't on strike. Average teacher pay at the Urban Prep Academy, which sent all of its graduates to college last year, is just $47,714.
"Common sense says there should be some link between compensation and job performance, but the very idea tends to make teachers unions recoil like Dracula confronted with a garlic clove," wrote Charles Lane, an editorial writer for the Washington Post.
The strike has been a nightmare for parents. Chicago Public Schools kept 144 (of 675) schools open half days for activities and meals, but many hesitated to cross picket lines.
"Vicente Perez had to cross raucous picket lines, with teachers chanting and banging drums, when he dropped his two boys off at Ray Elementary School in Hyde Park," the Chicago Tribune reported. "That scared off his youngest son, Kahil, 9. 'I don't want to go there,' the boy said, leading Perez to call his wife on his cellphone and change plans -- they'd either take the kids to a church or just keep them at home."
Frightening children is unlikely to endear the striking teachers to their parents. But Ms. Lewis has an audience of one in mind. She expects President Obama to lean on his former chief of staff to cave in quickly to union demands, lest a prolonged strike damage Mr. Obama's prospects for re-election.
For decades, public employee unions have given Democrats votes and campaign contributions, then Democrats pay off the unions from the public treasury. The teachers' union expects business as usual.
But arithmetic has caught up with the scam. Chicago Public Schools is about $700 million in the red, chiefly because of the rapidly rising cost of pensions.
Despite Chicago's parlous fiscal condition, Ms. Lewis is unwilling to moderate her demands. But public opinion has shifted since Gov. Scott Walker's reforms passed in Wisconsin. The long battle over them highlighted how well off teacher unions are, and their predictions of doom failed to materialize. Fewer taxpayers are willing to pay ever more for ever-diminishing public "services."
The strike "should be an alarm bell in the night for Democrats everywhere," said Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson. "What's brewing is a battle between Democratic Party management and Democratic Party labor."
It "brings into stark relief the enormity of the gap in the blue coalition," agreed Bard College professor Walter Russell Mead. "On one side of this chasm lie the consumers of government services, and on the other, the producers."
Unwilling to choose between them, Mr. Emanuel's former boss leads from behind.
Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-262-1479).