June 11, 2012
The Chicago Tribune
9 out of 10 CPS teachers authorize strike
By: Joel Hood, Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah
Chicago teachers countered Mayor Rahm Emanuel's aggressive approach to school reform with the most powerful weapon in their arsenal, giving overwhelming authorization for a strike if contract talks continue to flounder.
Nearly 90 percent of Chicago Teachers Union members, some 23,780 city employees, voted to support a strike if one is called, the union said Monday. Union President Karen Lewis said the three-day vote was an "indictment" of the increasingly strained relationship between teachers and Emanuel's hand-picked administration at Chicago Public Schools.
"I think that is a very significant number and should put an end to all the speculation about how people in schools really feel," Lewis said.
While the union and CPS have been making progress in some areas, they remain far apart on several key issues, including compensation and the district's efforts to link teacher pay to student performance, union officials said.
The union entered negotiations asking for a 30 percent wage increase over two years, which it said was commensurate with working a school day that will be about 90 minutes longer in the fall. The district's opening offer was a 2 percent raise over two years and a form of merit pay in later years.
Since taking office a little more than a year ago, Emanuel has stripped the teachers of a 4 percent raise, successfully pushed for a longer day and advocated for more privately run charter and turnaround schools. The mayor, who did not address the strike vote Monday, has said teachers deserve a raise.
A mayoral spokeswoman released a statement that praised teachers while calling their initial salary demand unrealistic.
"At a time when our graduation rates and college enrollments are at record highs — two successes in which our teachers played an integral role — we cannot halt the momentum with a strike," said Emanuel spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton. "Our teachers deserve a raise, but our kids don't deserve a strike and taxpayers cannot afford to pay for 30 percent raises."
CPS chiefJean-Claude Brizardon Monday accused union leaders of pressuring members into supporting a strike while an independent arbitrator continues to review proposals from both sides. The arbitrator is expected to issue his recommendations on some of the most contentious issues, such as teacher pay and benefits, on July 16.
"The CTU leadership left the teachers with a choice between a strike and nothing — that's a false choice," Brizard said. "As a former teacher, I am disappointed that union leadership would rush their members to vote for a strike before having the complete information on the table."
Brizard said Emanuel and CPS leaders aren't to blame for the frustration being expressed by teachers.
"What we're seeing is the frustration level among teachers across the country," he said. "Teachers are being blamed for the ills of society."
District officials and education reform groups have complained that the union's vote lacked independent oversight and, because it was spread over three days, gave the union the opportunity to manipulate results.
After the first day of voting Wednesday, union officials said about 73 percent of its membership had voted to authorize a strike, just shy of the 75 percent required under a 2011 state law. Lewis said that with 615 voting sites, some ballots went uncollected and some votes were not counted on the first day.
"That's what human labor could do," Lewis said. "It didn't mean the votes weren't here."
Brizard said CPS was not considering a legal challenge to the vote at this point.
Earlier this year, union leaders weren't sure they could meet the 75 percent threshold for a strike authorization. But as the public relations war between the two sides has heated up, teachers have found common ground — improving the union's position at the bargaining table and signaling to Emanuel that they remain a force to be reckoned with.
"For some reason, this administration has behaved as if the union was some out-of-touch bureaucracy only speaking for ourselves," Lewis said. "The dominant narrative among the so-called (education) reformers … has been that the reason why CPS is in such bad shape is that its teachers are incompetent."
If progress isn't made this summer, the earliest that teachers can walk out is Aug. 17, four days after classes begin for CPS' early track students. Most of the district's 400,000 students begin the new school year Sept. 4.
Hoping to avoid the first teachers strike in CPS since 1987 — a 19-day walkout that was the longest in the city's history — the union and school district are meeting with the arbitrator up to four times a week, said union Vice President Jesse Sharkey.
CPS and the union also continue to meet about twice a week to go over details in the contract, he said. Sharkey said the meetings have been "productive."
Despite Monday's rhetoric, labor exports say authorizing a strike now, before a final contract offer is in place, could serve to bring the union and CPS together, provided both sides are willing to back off their tough talk.
"All parties realize there is a lot of mutual dependence here. Both sides really need the other side to cooperate and not defect," said Zev Eigen, an assistant professor of law at Northwestern University who specializes in labor issues. "It is not good for Rahm and it is not good for the union to have a teachers strike in the fall."
A lot depends on where Emanuel is willing to compromise, Eigen said.
"I think in Rahm's mind, any act of conciliation will be viewed by the union and the public as a sign of weakness. I think that's unfortunate," Eigen said.
Tim Knowles, director of the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute and an Emanuel ally, said the strike vote may complicate negotiations but will likely not change Emanuel's approach.
"I would be very surprised if the mayor is going to dramatically shift his strategy," Knowles said. "His strategy all along has been to not capitulate and to keep focused on the things he believes will change Chicago Public Schools. That hasn't changed.
"This throws a wrench into the bargaining process, but it doesn't change the focus or substance of what the mayor wants to get done."
Knowles said Emanuel has emphasized three things for CPS: a longer school day, more rigorous teacher evaluations and providing a diverse set of school options for parents with more charters and turnarounds.
"It may be that some of the reforms are not rolled out as quickly," Knowles said. Emanuel "may not get 100 percent of what he wants. He may have to compromise, but I don't think it will dramatically change the trajectory."