Chicago’s teachers union said it will strike Monday for the first time in 25 years after talks with Chicago Public Schools ended late Sunday night without resolution.
“We have failed to reach an agreement that will prevent a labour strike,” Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said. “No CTU members will be inside of our schools Monday.”
After an all-day negotiating session Sunday, school board President David Vitale told reporters the district had changed its proposal 20 times over the course of talks and didn’t have much more to offer.
“This is about as much as we can do,” Vitale said. “There is only so much money in the system.”
The district said it offered teachers a 16 per cent pay raise over four years and a host of benefit proposals, in addition to a mechanism for rehiring teachers who are laid off due to school closings.
“This is not a small commitment we’re handing out at a time when our fiscal situation is really challenged,” Vitale said.
Lewis said the two sides are close on teacher compensation but the union has serious concerns about the cost of health benefits, the makeup of the teacher evaluation system and job security.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the walkout “a strike of choice” that was not necessary.
“Our kids do not deserve this,” he said at a late night news conference, flanked by Vitale and police Superintendent Garry McCarthy. “This was not a strike I wanted.”
Emanuel said the two sides have met more than 100 times and spent more than 400 hours in negotiations, and said his absence from the table was never a factor.
“It’s not about my presence, it’s about reaching agreement,” Emanuel said, who defended his team’s offer as “an honorable deal and an honest compromise.”
With a strike, CPS will put its contingency plan in effect, opening 144 schools to students from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. But parents are being urged to find alternatives and use the schools only as a last resort. The city’s 118 charter schools are not affected by a strike.
A strike culminates months of heated rhetoric between Lewis and Emanuel and his hand-picked school board.
Several sources said that sending Emanuel into negotiations to broker a last-minute deal wasn’t an option because there was too much bad blood between him and Lewis.
The 25,000 union members were told to report to their schools at 6:30 a.m. Monday to begin picketing. Several interviewed Sunday appeared more than ready.
“I think people feel like they’ve been bullied, so they want to say, ‘OK, let’s do this, let’s dance,'” said Jay Rehak, a union delegate and veteran high school English teacher. “We know a strike is really going to be painful. People will be hurt on both sides. But in the end, it’s like saying, ‘I’ll be bloodied and you’ll be bloodied, but at least you’ll know not to bully me again.'”
Contract talks started in November but had accelerated in recent days as Vitale, who brokered teacher contracts in 2003 and 2007, came to the table in an attempt to bridge the divide. CPS submitted new contract offers to the teachers union on Friday and Saturday, but neither was accepted.
A teachers strike is fraught with political peril for Emanuel and CTU leadership. Both risk angering thousands of working parents now scrambling to find places for children.
The strike could cut against the narrative Emanuel is trying to craft as a leader who is a problem-solver moving the city forward. It also could set the tone for his somewhat fractured relationship with labour, with his first major union contract negotiation ending in a strike.
While the mayor kept close tabs on negotiations behind the scenes, Emanuel has maintained a relatively low public profile since returning from the Democratic National Convention late Wednesday, a trip he cut short.
The mayor hasn’t had a public schedule since last Tuesday, the first day of school for most Chicago Public School students.
While teachers are expected to report to their schools Monday morning to begin picketing, union leadership is expected to remain at the negotiating table in the hopes that the work stoppage is a short one.
The last teacher’s strike came in 1987, when teachers walked off the job for a whopping 19 days. Before that, teacher strikes were relatively common — Chicago teachers walked out nine times between 1969 and 1987 amid biennial fights over salaries and working conditions.
That will come as little solace to parents Monday. At the 144 schools included in CPS’ “Children First” contingency plan, students will be provided with free breakfasts and lunches and participate in organised activities like independent reading or writing. State law prohibits CPS from offering classroom instruction without certified teachers.
A strike is a strong rebuke by teachers of Emanuel’s aggressive approach to school reform, union leaders said. Shortly after Emanuel took office in May 2011 he eliminated a teacher pay hike to close CPS’ hefty budget deficit and pushed to lengthen what had been among one of the shortest public school days in the country.
Emanuel made a longer school day a centrepiece of his reform efforts for CPS and built momentum by offering cash incentives to schools whose teachers defied the union by voting to opt out of their contracts and extend the school day in the 2011-12 year, a year before it would be implemented districtwide.
The mayor also appointed a school board that pushed reforms backed by national education groups, several of which established beachheads in the city.
Emanuel’s tough talk on education reform and his willingness to work with national groups whose reform efforts undermined organised labour galvanised the teachers union and its members.
The district negotiated while trying to deal with its own severe financial woes. A $5.73 billion budget for 2012-13 emptied cash reserves to cover a $665 million deficit, and the school board also increased its share of the Cook County property tax by as much as the law allows. A district spokeswoman said each percentage point hike for teacher salaries would cost $20 million.
Joined by members of Chicago’s Occupy movement, union teachers staged school sit-ins, picketed school board meetings, and chanted “fight” and “strike” in a rally in May of thousands at the Auditorium Theatre.
A strike was authorised by more than 90 per cent of the union’s 25,000-plus members in a vote in June. The union easily passed the bar set by a new state law that requires 75 per cent of union members to authorise a strike — a standard those behind the legislation thought would effectively eliminate the threat of a teachers strike.
With momentum on their side, teachers demanded higher pay for working the longer day, entering negotiations demanding what amounted to a 30 per cent raise over two years. But as contract talks heated up, union leaders made clear they would accept a smaller raise in exchange for less restrictive job evaluations and for establishing a recall procedure for teachers who’d been laid off as a result of school closings, consolidations and turnarounds.
The union’s salary demands were bolstered by an independent fact-finder’s report in July that chastised CPS for extending the school day in a time of financial turmoil and without adequately compensating teachers. The arbitrator said teachers should receive raises between 15 and 20 per cent, far above the district’s 2 per cent offer. CPS officials warned that substantial pay hikes would force deeper cuts in staffing and programs.
A week after the arbitrator’s report, CPS and the union brokered a deal that appeared to remove the biggest obstacle in the labour fight. In exchange for the longer school day — an additional half-hour in high schools and 75 minutes in elementary schools — CPS agreed to rehire nearly 500 teachers in non-core subjects from a pool of teachers who had been laid off. That kept the hours in the work week the same for full-time teachers.
Both sides hailed the agreement as a “breakthrough” and credited it with refocusing efforts at the bargaining table. Moreover, it seemed to set the stage for the kind of compromise needed to reach agreement on the full teachers contract.
It didn’t work out that way. Upset to learn that the new rehire pool would be a one-year fix to address the longer school day and not part of the district’s long-term plans, the union grew increasingly combative in public.
At a raucous House of Delegates meeting last month, teachers yelled “strike!” and “hell no!” as union leaders discussed the district’s latest contract offer. Days later, the union filed its legally required 10-day strike notice and set the date for a walkout on Sept. 10, the beginning of the second week of school for the majority of CPS students.
Over the course of negotiations, Lewis emerged as a powerful voice for teachers’ rights and a lighting rod for criticism. A veteran science teacher and activist, Lewis took over the union’s leadership in 2010 amid uncertain times.
Her brash style and tough talk put Lewis at odds with many union members early in her presidency.
But she proved her ability to rally membership, and never backed down from Emanuel.
With little movement in contract talks heading into summer, Lewis was credited with channeling teacher angst with a historic strike vote. The June vote strengthened the union’s position at the bargaining table and ratcheted up opposition to Emanuel’s reform agenda.
As contract talks pushed into their final days, Lewis was front and centre, calling Emanuel a “bully” and “a liar” in front of thousands at a massive rally at Daley Plaza on labour Day.
And on Sunday, Lewis led the teachers in a strike.
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