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Transatlantic Blog

Benjamin Franklin’s advice on the Chicago schools strike

Their last remaining dispute in the Chicago schools strike could be resolved if both sides understood a basic economic concept taught by one of the nation’s Founding Fathers. Although the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union announced a tentative agreement Wednesday evening, the Second City’s 300,000-plus students still began their eleventh day outside the classroom Thursday, because the CTU added a new demand Wednesday night. They want the city to pay union members for every day they went on strike.

CPS could make up several of the days their students have missed by lengthening the school day. Instead, the teachers union demands that 11 full days be tacked onto the end of the school year – so that their members will not lose a single day’s wages for striking.

In effect, the school district would be paying union members to strike.

Last night, Mayor Lori Lightfoot insisted, “I’m not compensating them for days that they were on strike.” Today, her office said, she’s willing to negotiate.

Meanwhile, union officials showed that their concern was their bottom line, not the time students missed in the classroom, when a reporter asked if the union would still want to add the days to the school year if they weren’t paid. “We don't work unpaid,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey, a longtime member of the International Socialist Organization. “We don't do unpaid work.”

Thus, teachers started Thursday morning on the picket line, joined by the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Chicago DSA is out in the snow today with @CTULocal1 demanding instructional time for students! Time for @chicagosmayor to listen to our teachers! #CTUSEIUstrike pic.twitter.com/hLVpcjBiJX

— Chicago DSA 🌹 (@ChicagoCityDSA) October 31, 2019

If you want to know what the future holds in a democratic socialist America, look at Chicago today.

Union members extended the strike one more day to protest the fact that we must give one thing up when we choose to do something else. This is a basic economic concept that economists call “opportunity cost.” The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics explains that if “you spend time and money going to a movie, you cannot spend that time at home reading a book, and you can’t spend the money on something else.”

The best explanation may have come from Benjamin Franklin in his 1748 publication, “Advice to a young Tradesman.” He wrote:

Remember that Time is Money. He that can earn Ten Shillings a Day by his Labour, and goes abroad, or sits idle one half of that Day, tho’ he spends but Sixpence during his Diversion or Idleness, ought not to reckon That the only Expence; he has really spent or rather thrown away Five Shillings besides.

Unfortunately, Chicago public schools students are more likely to learn about the history of police torture – a mandatory part of the eighth- and tenth-grade social studies curriculum – than they are the Founding Fathers.

What they learn about America’s founding may not be worth learning. Janice Jackson, the school system’s CEO, announced last month that CPS will use the New York Times1619 Project “to help reframe the institution of slavery, and how we’re still influenced by it today,” especially in “the workforce management system created to harness enslaved labor and the incredible wealth that came from its unsparing efficiency.”

More’s the pity, because this reality also has a moral component. St. Philaret of Moscow wrote in his catechism that the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Steal” applies circumstances “when men receive salary for duty, or pay for work, which they neglect, and so in fact steal” their pay.

Letting striking union members bear the cost of their strike would teach a lesson in basic economics and morality that they would not soon forget.

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Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.