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After a final weekend of fruitless, 11th-hour contract negotiations, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) made good on their long-threatened promise and went on strike for the first time in 25 years. “We have failed to reach an agreement that will prevent a labor strike,” Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis said. “No CTU members will be inside of our schools Monday. We will walk the picket lines, we will talk to parents, we…will demand a fair contract today, we demand a fair contract now,” she said, calling the ordeal an “education justice fight.” The strike affects 675 schools and more than 400,000 students in the nation’s third-largest public school system.
After the final Sunday session, Chicago school board President David Vitale spoke with reporters, noting that the district had changed its proposal more than 20 times over the course of negotiations and had little left to offer. The district announced that teachers had been offered a 16 percent pay raise over the course of four years, along with other benefit proposals, including paid maternity leave for the first time. “This is about as much as we can do. There is only so much money in the system,” said Vitale. “This is not a small commitment we’re handing out at a time when our fiscal situation is really challenged,” he added. Vitale also noted that the latest proposal made by the district would cover four years, at a cost of $400 million.
Lewis countered that the two sides were not far apart on compensation, a major sticking point exacerbated by the school board’s unanimous vote last year to rescind the teachers’ 4 percent pay hike in the final year of their contract. Yet she also said she would not “prioritize” the remaining issues. Despite that assertion, the three key issues remaining unresolved appear to be health benefits, the teacher evaluation system, and job security. “This is a difficult decision and one we hoped we could’ve avoided,” Lewis said Sunday. “Throughout these negotiations, we’ve remained hopeful but determined. We must do things differently in this city if we are to provide students the education they so rightfully deserve.”
Lewis and Vitale agreed to meet again Monday and resume talks.
With respect to health benefits the issue is simple: teachers want to maintain the status quo, part of which includes “banking” sicks days that cost the system millions of dollars. The teacher evaluation system is a no-go because Lewis claims it would be based too heavily on students’ standardized test scores. This ostensibly makes it unfair to teachers, because it fails to properly consider outside factors that affect student performance, such as poverty, violence and homelessness. “Evaluate us on what we do, not on the lives of our children we do not control,” Lewis said Sunday, denouncing the online process responsible for training the evaluators. The union also claims such evaluations could cost 6,000 teachers their jobs. The job security issue stems from the fact that the union wants laid off teachers to be first in line for new jobs. The Chicago Public School system (CPS) wants principals to be able to choose the best teachers.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was furious. After Lewis addressed the press on Sunday night, it was Emanuel’s turn. “This [strike] is totally unnecessary, this is avoidable, and our kids do not deserve this,” he fumed. “This is a strike of choice.” Emanuel contends that only two issues remain unresolved. First, he addressed job security. “It’s essential that the local principal who we hold accountable for producing the educational results not be told by the CPS bureaucracy…and not be told by the union leadership who to hire,” he said. The second is the aforementioned evaluation system. Emanuel noted that the evaluations would not count in the first year, and the CPS reportedly offered joint implementation of teacher evaluations between itself and the union. “I’m telling you, these were the final two issues,” he said, appearing exasperated.
When he took office last year, Emanuel inherited a school district facing a $700 million budget deficit, which led to the cancellation of the aforementioned 4 percent raises. He then asked the union to reopen its contract and accept 2 percent pay raises in exchange for lengthening the school day, something he had made part of his election campaign. After the union refused, Emanuel attempted to bypass it, taking his case to individual teachers until the union challenged his effort before Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. The bad blood that arose as a result reportedly prevented the Mayor from being part of the final negotiations that took place on Sunday.
As a result of the impasse, the system’s 26,000 teachers and support staff began manning picket lines early Monday morning. “Rahm says cut back, we say fight back,” said picketers outside CPS headquarters. CPS officials implemented their “Children First” contingency plan, keeping 144 schools open between 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. in order to provide children with lunch and breakfast in a district where many students receive free meals. They also asked community organizations for help, and a number of churches, libraries and other organizations pitched in to provide activities for some of the children. “The response has been extraordinary, truly extraordinary,” Vitale said Sunday night. “Chicagoans should be proud of how their city has responded to the needs of kids.”
But the likelihood is that many of Chicago’s students will take to the streets, a reality for which Police Chief Garry McCarthy was reportedly prepared. “We’re emptying out our offices,” he said at a Sunday night press conference at the Harold Washington Library. “We’re taking officers who are on administrative duties–we’re shutting down administrative duties–we’re putting those officers on the streets to deal with potential protests at various locations throughout the city.” McCarthy’s main goals are maintaining security at the Safe Haven Sites throughout the city, dealing with the inevitable picket line protests, and keeping a watchful eye on the thousands of kids likely to hit the streets in a city already wracked by street violence all summer.
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