Strike authorization vote likely before end of school year

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Wednesday afternoon the Chicago Teachers Union is planning a massive rally to protest the current CPS contract proposal, which they call “unreasonable.” No strike authorization vote will be taken at the downtown event, but such a vote will likely happen before the end of this school year.

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey says the vote is a “bargaining tool,” and emphasized that a strike date would not be set until after a final proposal is on the table, which won’t happen until the middle of the summer.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll says a strike authorization vote is premature. CPS and CTU are engaged in a process called “fact-finding,” which means an arbitrator is considering CPS and CTU proposals. Both sides had to agree on the arbitrator. The arbitrator will issue a final report on July 15 and then the union and CPS have 15 days to respond to the report. Then, they have to wait 30 days for a cooling-off period.

Only then could the union call a strike.

“The independent fact-finding process can serve as a compromise,” Carroll says. “Why rush? They should let their members review the independent fact-finder’s report first. They have plenty of time for a vote.”

Carroll also notes that 1400 teachers are retiring and will end up voting for a strike authorization of a contract that they won’t be working under.

But Sharkey says there’s good reason to take a vote over the next few weeks. Union leaders do not want to hold a strike authorization vote during the summer, when teachers are dispersed. They also don’t want to wait until the beginning of the next school year, hoping to have a contract in place by the fall when school starts.

Once the next school year starts, things like the longer school day will be in place, making it harder for the union to negotiate over pay for the longer day, Sharkey says.   

But taking a strike authorization vote is risky because a new law requires that CTU get 75 percent of its members to vote yes. That means a non-vote is essentially a “no” vote. If it fails, the union’s power will be greatly diminished.

However, union leadership has been emboldened by a poll showing the public supports teachers by a 2 to 1 margin. Also, a survey the union conducted on May 10 showed that 95 percent wanted to reject the current CPS proposal, according to the CTU.

Sharkey says that 21,000-plus of 25,000 members participated in the survey. The union has done a detailed analysis of where the non-surveyed members are, Sharkey says. In the units where the survey took place, participation was “very high,” Sharkey says. Some small units did not conduct the survey, mostly because the delegate wasn’t around.

The indication that a strike authorization vote is imminent comes as the two sides continue to spar about the details of the contract proposals.

On Tuesday, CTU officials again claimed the proposal presented by CPS only guarantees a one-year raise of 2 percent and removes numerous provisions, including those establishing class sizes; the allocation of art, music and gym teachers; and the number of classes teachers are expected to teach. Sharkey says CPS management also wants to eliminate the measures that set out rules for laying off or displacing teachers.

“They want the contract to go from more than 200 pages to about 40,” Sharkey says.

But Carroll says CPS labor negotiators have tried to streamline the contract, by taking out language referring to antiquated practices. Officials have no plans of changing class sizes or teacher allocation and they intend for those provisions to be in the contract. She says that there are “place holders” for these provisions.

“CTU officials know that,” she says.

Yet the absence of these provisions worries union leadership. CPS officials are projecting a deficit of $600 million. At the same time, they have decided to extend the school day and year and have laid out plans to open 100 more new schools in the next five years.

Sharkey says the fear is of massive teacher layoffs and ballooning class sizes, and that neither teachers nor students would be protected.

“Getting rid of those things would be the wrong thing to do,” he says.

Jay Rehak, a Whitney Young High School teacher and union delegate, says that CPS officials have already told staff at his school that they could have seminars with 50 students to accommodate the longer day.