As teachers cast votes, CPS wants access to ballots

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As Wednesday’s strike authorization vote began, a battle began brewing between the district and the Chicago Teachers Union over the voting process itself.

CEO Jean- Claude Brizard’s team asked the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board to issue an emergency order to have the union secure election material and provide the IELRB and the district access to them. The district wants 20 different pieces of material from a copy of the ballot to the “educational flyer provided to each member explaining the reasons for the strike authorization vote” to information on the messenger services retained to deliver ballot boxes.

In a letter to the IELRB, district lawyers argue that because Senate Bill 7 sets out a process for how a strike should occur, the labor relations board has the power to monitor it.

“We want to make sure there is integrity in the process,” Brizard said.

CTU President Karen Lewis countered that CPS has no right to the material. Union officials already said they planned to have local clergy observe the vote-counting and will preserve the ballots.

“They are fishing, and we don’t participate in fishing expeditions,” said Lewis. She and other union officials made high-profile appearances at their former schools to cast their ballots.  

Voting at Ray School.A spokeswoman for the labor board said both the Chicago Teachers Union and CPS had filed documents with the board in recent days, but she declined to make them available without a Freedom of Information Act request. Law firms for the parties involved did not respond to requests to release additional documents.

The conflict underscores the importance of the strike authorization vote and the high stakes of the outcome. Brizard walked a fine line on Wednesday, saying that on one hand, regardless of the results, CPS and CTU will continue negotiating toward the goal of reaching an agreement before school starts in the fall.

But Brizard also emphatically argued that teachers should delay the vote and allow an independent fact-finder to issue a report on July 16.

“Teachers are being asked to vote on inaccurate information,” he said. “This is a serious process.”

He added that teachers only get one vote. Once teachers authorize to strike, they can’t reverse that decision, added spokeswoman Becky Carroll. (The vote, however, does not require the union to call a strike.)

Lewis and other union officials countered that the new process for calling a strike and requiring 75 percent approval makes it critical that the vote take place before school lets out for the summer. Once teachers disperse for the vacation, it would be difficult to get enough members to participate, union officials said.

Lewis said Wednesday morning she was confident that she can get enough members to authorize the strike. Showing the union can reach that threshold and that a strike threat is real will speed up the negotiation process, not thwart it as Brizard has maintained, she said.

“We want to get there [and reach a contract settlement] before August 27. We don’t want to wait till then,” she said.

 

Out in schools

Early Wednesday morning, Lewis went to King High School to cast her ballot. Lewis, who taught at King before taking the helm of the CTU, was greeted with hugs from students, teachers and even the police officer stationed at the school.

Throughout the morning, King’s teachers unceremoniously picked up their ballots in the main office, filled them out, stuffed them in envelopes and went back to their classes. Students were taking finals on Wednesday.

Many of the teachers wore red shirts to show their support for the union. Social studies teacher Andrew Lambert had donned a blue shirt, but said he did vote to authorize a strike. “I am young and didn’t do the laundry,” he said. “I think that this vote is more important for young teachers because we have to live with the consequences for our entire career.”

Still, it was unclear whether King would get 100 percent participation or approval this first day. David Robbins, one of the union delegates, said that 59 of 70 members of the staff participated in a survey last month that was meant to be a dry run for the vote: 56 of 59 responded that they thought the union should reject the existing CPS contract offer.

Robbins said there’s a mix of reasons why people might sit out a vote, which essentially will mean they are casting a “No” vote. 

But at other schools, delegates expected 100 percent of union members to vote in favor of the strike. CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey appeared at Senn High School at 7:30 a.m. to cast his vote and talk with teachers. “People said, ‘What are you doing here? This building’s 100 percent (in favor). Go somewhere they need your help,’ ” he said.

At Ray School in Hyde Park, teachers were eager to cast their ballots. By 8:30, all but 15 of 60 teachers had already done so. Teachers also contributed to a pot-luck breakfast, and a table nearby was heavy with donuts, coffee and other treats.

Union delegate John Cusiack said he expects everyone will authorize the strike.

Like other teachers interviewed on Wednesday, he said that the overall direction of CPS, and education reform generally, is what teachers are voting against. He said he is against efforts such as firing tenured teachers and replacing them with new staff, which happens in turnaround schools.

“In some schools they have done that several times and it is still no different,” he said.

Therese Wasik, who is retiring from Ray this year, said she was glad she got a chance to vote.  Her first year in the district, she worked one day and then went on strike. She said she remembers being nervous that her job wasn’t safe. Because she’s retiring, she has no such concerns.

“I have been in the union for more than 30 years and I know what I would want if I were here,” she said.

At Gale Elementary in Rogers Park, Head Start teacher Maxine Gladney – who has been with the district since 1968 – said that CPS’ treatment of veteran teachers had persuaded her to vote for the strike authorization.

“It’s something we should be doing, or we’re going to end up like Wisconsin, like a lot of other places, and we’re going to have nobody to protect us,” Gladney said. “We are blamed for things we are not responsible for, decisions [CPS] makes that are not up to us.”

Joseph Hill, a special education teacher, said that he supports the vote as well. “We are the only city employees that are asked to work longer for free,” he said.

 He is not optimistic that a vote will pressure CPS to cave in to the union’s demands. “They’re not going to give us a pay raise. We’re just going to need to go on strike,” he added.

But parent volunteer Tameka Leonard, who has three children at Gale, said she was unhappy about the vote. “I think it’s too early to be talking about a strike. It’s summer break. You’ve still got time to negotiate,” she said.

And, she noted, she’s pleased with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s initiative to extend the school day because of the number of kids she sees running around the neighborhood with nothing to do after school.

[Photos by Marc Monaghan]

Brizard’s letter to teachers

CTU Press Release