Chicago’s 26,000 public school teachers walked off their jobs yesterday. Although their demand for a pay raise has received the most attention, compensation isn’t really the issue. According to the Chicago Tribune, what the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) really wants is a “recall” system that would guarantee jobs for teachers who are laid off because their schools close or are consolidated. They also oppose a new evaluation scheme that relies heavily on standardized test scores, and could result in the firing of thousands of currents teachers.

It’s not surprising that teachers fear unemployment in tough times. Like the failed recall of Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, however, this strike is evidence that public employees really do not understand how they appear to taxpayers and the users of public services. Chicago teachers regard themselves as overworked, underpaid scapegoats for problems that are beyond their control. But outsiders are likely to note that they have highest average salary of teachers anywhere in the country at about $75,000 without benefits, and work among the shortest school days and years. Chicago is an expensive city, and teachers do a lot of work outside the classroom. Nevertheless, teachers in Chicago enjoy considerably better pay and employment protections than most of the families they serve (86% of Chicago students receive free or reduced-price lunch, the conventional measure of poverty).

This disparity might be acceptable if learning outcomes were good and the city’s finances were strong. Both, however, are in disastrous condition. In this glossy brochure, CTU outlines an ambitious plan for meeting its demands for maximum job security while improving education more generally. They don’t explain how it’s to be paid for beyond redirecting tax breaks and ritualized calls for rich individuals and companies to pay more.

Under these circumstances, the strike is unlikely to win the teachers much sympathy. Even in union-friendly Chicago, many citizens recognize the old deal is untenable. And that’s quite apart from the serious inconvenience imposed on working parents by the indefinite cancellation of school. Nationally, the results will be even worse for what remains of organized labor, which is heavily concentrated among government workers. Although teachers in other cities have shown flexibility on school reform, the strike in Chicago reinforces the narrative that unions are devoted to their members’ interests at the expense of the public interest.

Contrary to some critics on the Right, the labor movement has made valuable contributions to American life. At its best, it has defended workers’ prosperity, safety, and, perhaps most important, their dignity against the uninhibited pursuit of profit. But this logic doesn’t work when the relation between taxpayers and public employees replaces the tension between capital and labor. Whatever happens in Chicago, that’s a contest that the unions are unlikely to win.