By YANA KUNICHOFF
Chicago teachers demonstrate in May, 2012. (Photo: JohnnyGotHisGun)The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is expected to file a ten-day strike notice on Wednesday, say media reports, meaning that the union could call a strike as early as September 10. The notice would not mean that the union would strike in ten days, but by legally giving them the option, it highlights the increasing tension between the union and school officials only days before the school year is expected to begin.
As one of the biggest teachers unions in the country, the CTU’s decision to face down the push led by Mayor Rahm Emanuel for more charter schools and longer school days is widely seen as a fight that could re-energize US labor much the same way the Wisconsin protests did in February 2011. It is also expected to have decisive outcomes for education policy – Chicago is the home of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and where he piloted many of his school reform efforts.
“We would like to have a fair compensation package that includes acknowledgement of our teachers’ experience and their educational attainment,” CTU President Karen Lewis told a press conference after a protest. “That’s number one. Number two, our health care that they’re asking us will eat up the little bitty, tiny, miniscule raise that they’re offering.”
The continuing contract negotiations between the CTU and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) center on issues including teacher salaries, class sizes, the cancellation of raises based on seniority, increased health insurance costs, the length of the contract and merit pay. CPS and the CTU reached an agreement on hiring new teachers to help staff the extended school day Emanuel put into place. Big discussions continue on the other issues.
Making the discussions increasingly difficult is that only a handful of these issues are available for open discussion. SB7, a piece of education reform legislation passed in 2011, limited the issues that CPS can allow to be brought to the table for discussion. This means that issue such as class size, which the CTU has said is a central point, isn’t a mandatory bargaining item.
The CTU House of Delegates voted last week to give Lewis the authority to give ten-day notice for a strike, and another meeting Thursday could set the date for a strike. Some “Track E” schools, which run on a different schedule, have already started classes, which others are expected to begin on Tuesday, September 4.
Meanwhile, the school board authorized $25 million to be made available in case the strike does happen for children to be supervised at libraries, charter schools and churches. The Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign is also involved in organizing freedom schools, for the estimated 400,000 students whose teachers may go on strike, modeled on those used in the civil rights movement to protest segregated schools.
CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said of a possible strike: “Students can’t afford to be removed from their classroom at a time when they’re starting to make progress with the full school day. They belong in school with their teachers, which is why we need to stay at the table and keep negotiating, every day if needed, until we reach a fair resolution, as a strike would only hurt our kids.”
A Chicago Sun-Times headline reported last week that Emanuel will “‘ratchet up’ his role in preventing teachers strike” by bringing increasingly senior people in from his administration, calling in “someone from Washington” and possibly even stepping in personally to help close the deal, the Sun-Times reported.
The CTU is planning a Labor Day rally for “jobs, dignity and a fair contract” the day before classes are expected to start. For now, both contract negotiations and strike preparations on both sides are continuing.
Lee Sustar, a labor commentator in Chicago, described the importance of the CTU’s labor battle: “Four years after the financial crash of 2008, politicians and employers are still using high unemployment and tight budgets to try to permanently cripple organized labor while dismantling what remains of decent social services – and public education is in the crosshairs. High-stakes battles that put the union on the line are inevitable. The Chicago Teachers Union is stepping up to that challenge – and it deserves our full support.”