In early December, Chicago school teachers voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, preparing for what could be the second walkout at the financially troubled system in less than four years and adding to pressures on Mayor Rahm Emanuel (Teacher’s Strike Vote).
A total of 88 percent of all teachers – or 96 percent of those who voted – agreed to authorize the strike, the union said in a statement on Monday. Under state law, at least 75 percent of union members must approve. Despite the vote, a strike can’t legally happen until May. That’s because the state’s education labor relations board won’t meet until Jan. 21 to decide on a CTU demand for injunctive relief to compel the so-called “fact-finding” stage, one of the last required steps in the protracted process leading to a walkout. Once a fact-finding panel is convened, the clock starts on a 120-day process that needs to play out before a strike.
The potential for a Chicago Teachers/ strike increases the political strain on Emanuel. Protesters have called for his resignation since last month’s release of a video showing a white police officer shooting to death a black teen. The officer, Jason Van Dyke, was charged with murder.
In an attempt to diffuse escalating tensions, a spokeswoman for the mayor has pointed out how state funding is exacerbating tensions. “The Mayor finds the idea of cuts to our schools unconscionable and he hopes that CTU will join the City and CPS in demanding a funding system that will treat our children fairly and secure our teachers’ futures,” she said. The Mayor’s office contends that state funding is clearly unfair because the state government gives Chicago schools 15 percent of state education funding, though it accounts for 20 percent of the state’s public school students (State Education Funding).
Emanuel’s political weaknesses, combined with a seven-day 2012 strike, the district’s first in 25 years, have probably left CTU itching for a fight. Chicago teachers’ frustrations deepened after that strike ended because the Mayor closed 50 schools in 2013 and subsequently opened a large number of CPS funded charter schools. As a result, tensions over teacher job security may be even worse this time around. The CPS district, which serves about 400,000 students at more than 600 schools, faces a $1.1 billion structural deficit and up to 5000 possible teacher layoffs after Christmas. The teachers’ union has claimed that the Mayor’s office wants teachers to give back $653 million worth of benefits to avoid these layoffs which equates to a 12% cut in compensation over the next three years, according to CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey (Sharkey Statement).
To add fuel to the fire, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the former CPS CEO, pleaded guilty in October to fraud related to a no-bid contract for her former employer, infuriating parents and teachers who had already seen budget cutbacks.
The primary issues at the center of contract negotiations are:
Teacher pay: There currently appears to be little disagreement on this issue. The base increase would be 3% in year 1, 2% in years 2 and 3, and 3% if the contract is extended to a 4th year. Additional increases based on years of experience or post-graduate degrees or additional credits will continue, but the per cent increases that they would represent remain unclear. CPS teachers on average earned $71,236 in 2011.
Teacher ratings: A 2010 law required a new teacher evaluation system that judges teachers in part on their students’ academic gains. Some teachers say that this is unfair; hopefully this can avoid becoming a strike issue because Mayor Emanuel is pledging to go to court over the issue because performance accountability is the way to keep the best teachers in the classroom. Because this teacher evaluation system is now state law, this is a fight that the CTU may hope to avoid.
School year and day: The state requires 176 “pupil attendance” days, but a jumble of laws and rules has brought that down to 170 days for CPS students. CPS wants “10 full instructional days” added for a total of 180 pupil attendance days. It is unclear whether this is going to be a bone of contention or not.
Job security: The union appears to be adamant that the CPS district create a hiring pool to ensure that 50% of all hires will be CTU laid-off teachers. CPS insists that principals retain their right to hire the best candidates. This may get resolved by an agreement that tenured teachers who are rated proficient or better are guaranteed a job in a school taking in students because of a closing, if there are vacancies. Traditionally in the education world, layoffs have been done based on seniority. Under the tentative agreement, layoffs will be based on teacher ratings. For example, “unsatisfactory” teachers would be laid off first.
There is no doubt that a politically weakened Mayor Emanuel and a CTU that is possibly more angry that it was in 2012, does not bode well for avoiding a strike. On the other hand, even the relatively short 2012 strike hopefully showed both parties that a teachers’ strike creates more relative losers than winners. With luck and resourceful negotiators, a strike can be averted.
Robert Hoyt, Ph.D.
Allied Health Professionals LLC