Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Chicago Teachers Union Sets Oct. 11 Strike Date
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, center, and Vice President Jesse Sharkey, right, at a news conference on Sept. 28, 2016. (WGN-TV)

Juan Perez Jr.Contact Reporter
Chicago Tribune

The Chicago Teachers Union on Wednesday set a strike date of Oct. 11, moving one step closer to shutting down schools for the second time in Mayor Rahm Emanuel's tenure and increasing the heat on negotiations to replace a contract that expired more than a year ago.

The CTU is required to give 10 days' notice before a walkout, and a strike remains only a threat that the union can use for leverage in ongoing talks. Even with a strike date set, the union could opt to stay on the job if negotiations show progress.

"Technically it means that we're on strike as of Oct. 11 if we have not reached a tentative agreement," CTU President Karen Lewis said after the vote by delegates.

"It's time to move this along," Lewis said. "We're going to continue to try to reach an agreement on this contract."

When asked how close both sides might be to a deal, the union president replied: "I don't even know what 'close' means anymore."

The Chicago Board of Education earlier Wednesday acknowledged the potential for a strike and authorized a $15 million emergency plan to shelter and feed students if teachers walk off the job. As it did during the 2012 strike, Chicago Public Schools would work with the city, the Chicago Park District and other agencies to provide facilities.

CPS chief Forrest Claypool at Wednesday's board meeting defended the contract proposal rejected last winter by the CTU and said the union's plan to set a strike date was "disappointing, because negotiations are ongoing."

"We will continue to listen, continue to negotiate and continue to do everything possible to avoid an interruption to our students' learning," Claypool said. "A strike would harm the children we're all here to serve. It would halt the great progress that our kids are making, and it would create an enormous burden for CPS families."

The CTU's House of Delegates approved the strike date at a meeting late Wednesday afternoon, following a vote by the union's full membership last week that authorized leaders to call a strike.

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said a contract settlement hinges on the city providing more money to schools from sources such as tax increment financing districts, and tried to place blame for a potential strike squarely in Emanuel's lap.

"We know that Rahm Emanuel has it within his power to solve this problem," Sharkey said. "This is the mayor's problem."

Teacher evaluations, testing and a longer school day were part of the dynamic in talks leading up to the 2012 strike, which was the union's first in 25 years. In this round, negotiations have centered more on monetary issues as the district continues to struggle financially.

Negotiators have clashed over health insurance benefits, pay raises and the district's desire to end its long-standing practice of paying the bulk of teachers' pension contributions. CPS officials maintain teachers would see a net pay increase over the life of the contract the union rejected early this year. The union disputes that.

Lewis, the firebrand leader of the 2012 strike, has tried to minimize her role in negotiations this time around, saying she takes her orders from members. She has acknowledged that efforts to give members a bigger role in union decisions have made it tougher to settle a deal.

Wednesday's action by the union came in the same week that CPS' financial reputation took another hit from a major Wall Street credit ratings agency.

Moody's Investors Service dropped the district's bond rating further into junk status, citing a variety of factors, including the district's reliance on short-term borrowing, a "deepening structural deficit" and a budget "built on unrealistic expectations" of help from a state government with money woes of its own.

CPS also this week announced budgets at about 300 schools would lose a collective $45 million largely because of enrollment declines.

Despite the union's suggestion that time is running out to reach a deal, school board President Frank Clark and Claypool repeated that a strike can still be avoided.

"I, too, frankly, expect that we'll figure a way out to address the issues that are important to you and your members and keep the teachers where they want to be — in front of the kids," Clark told Lewis, who made a rare appearance at the school board meeting.

An ordinance to provide more TIF surplus money to CPS is stalled in a City Council committee. Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza, 10th, a sponsor of the ordinance, was at the board meeting and called for the proposal to move forward.

"People are leaving Chicago in droves because of the insanity that's been created here. We cannot let this happen in this great city of Chicago. We can't. We will stand up and we will fight back and take back our schools," Garza said.

Sharkey, in comments after the delegates' vote, declined to go into further details on negotiations.

"Obviously we are not going to take cuts. The conditions in the schools are difficult, and the people who work in the schools deserve not to be cut," Sharkey said. "And then also we don't want to see further cuts to the schools. That's very much the way we are approaching these negotiations."

Twitter @perezjr

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