On the eve of union strike vote, battle lines are drawn

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As the Chicago Teachers Union prepares to poll teachers on whether to authorize a potential strike, parent groups and officials around the city are coalescing on different sides of the issue.

Voting hours at each school will be set by delegates, says CTU spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin. At King College Prep, where union President Karen Lewis is making an appearance, polls will open at 6:30am.

Delegates at each school will be responsible for rounding up teachers to vote and collecting the ballots, which are cast secretly and put into an envelope. Polls will open no earlier than 6 a.m., close when school starts, and reopen after school — closing by 5 p.m.

But after teachers go home for the day, it’s anyone’s guess how long voting will continue. Union officials say the election will go until there is a clear result and at this point they expect that to happen by Friday.

There have been at least three teacher strikes in Illinois so far this year. According to Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman Mary Fergus, there were two the year before, three in 2009-10, one in 2008-09, and six in 2007-08.

SB7 raised the threshold for a strike authorization vote in Chicago to 75 percent of all members. But the law does not specify the timing of a vote, and the union is conducting the vote over multiple days to increase participation before teachers depart on summer break.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard wrote in a letter to teachers Tuesday that they deserve a raise, but that the district can’t afford the consecutive 24 percent and 5 percent raises proposed by CTU.

Brizard wrote that having a vote before fact-finding is complete “undermines the spirit and intent of the law.” (The union has countered by saying that in addition to the compensation questions dealt with in fact-finding, it still needs to bargain with CPS over issues like class size and resources.) He suggested that instead, teachers could hold the strike authorization vote in August, during the week of professional development before students show up.

In addition, Brizard accused the union of misleading teachers about the district’s offer. CPS has set up a web page in an effort to “set the facts straight” on the issue.

The letter also argues that retiring and resigning teachers, who are union members this year but won’t be by fall, should not be allowed to skew the vote.

The parent group Raise Your Hand, a frequent union ally whose board member Matt Farmer dressed down Chicago Board of Education member Penny Pritzker at a recent Chicago Teachers Union rally, is planning a panel to help parents grapple with the vote’s aftermath. Titled “Changes and Challenges at CPS,” it will focus on “the parent-teacher connection during tough times,” according to outreach material.

Others are voicing their opposition to the vote taking place. The aldermen who chair the city’s Black and Latino Caucuses sent a letter to the union urging leaders to “hit the pause button” on the vote until a legally mandated three-member fact-finding panel proposes a compromise in mid-July, saying that it is “impulsive” to hold the vote so soon.

“We strongly feel that CTU’s recent actions are premature and hinder our children and families throughout the City,” the letter states. “We find it extremely disappointing that CTU is unwilling to finish this process.”

Also among the opposition to the vote are education advocacy groups Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform.

Stand for Children Illinois is sending organizers to Chicago neighborhoods to talk with parents about the vote and ask them to sign a petition urging compromise, says Executive Director Mary Anderson.

“We want parents to be able to have that information so they can make a decision for themselves about what their stand is on the negotiations,” Anderson says.

On Monday, Democrats for Education Reform rolled out ads on general-market, Latino and African-American radio stations that feature two women talking about the strike authorization vote.

The radio spot urges parents to text Democrats for Education Reform in order to sign an electronic petition against the vote, and supporting a CTU-CPS compromise. “Maybe if they hear from enough parents, they’ll do right by the kids,” it states.

Rebeca Nieves Huffman, the group’s Illinois director, says many parents are concerned that CTU appears to be making a “beeline” for a strike.

“The data will be used to display that there is support for a compromise. (We want) both sides to look at that and reach an agreement,” she says.

This article has been updated to correct an error in data on the number of teacher strikes so far this school year.