Teachers set strike date: Sept. 10

August 30, 2012

The Chicago Teachers Union’s House of Delegates voted unanimously on Thursday for a Sept. 10 strike, union leaders said. Cheering was heard seconds before hundreds of delegates began streaming out of the meeting. “We have done everything that has been asked of us,” CTU President Karen Lewis said. “We do not want to strike, but apparently the board does.”

But district spokeswoman Becky Carroll says "We have continued to make progress over the last couple days. If there was truly an impasse we wouldn't be meeting every single day through the holiday weekend and into next week."

On Wednesday, the union filed a 10-day notice of intent to strike with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. Key issues that remain for the union are job security, pay, and a richer curriculum for students.

Lewis said the vote could help teachers gain more leverage in talks. “We are taking all of the steps we have to take. Every time we take a step, talks go better,” she said.

Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard fired back with a statement saying that “if our priority is our kids, then strike should never be an option. That's why we need to take advantage of each of the next 11 days and work until we reach a fair resolution for our teachers that will allow our kids to stay in school where they belong.”

CPS says that the strike will affect more than 350,000 students and that:

*Varsity sports for 11,000 student athletes will be suspended, though the district is asking the Illinois High School Association for a waiver that would allow practices and games to continue.

*More than 400,000 daily breakfasts and meals will no longer be served. The district’s strike contingency plan, rolled out Thursday, would allow students to have meals at 145 school sites.

*Transcripts and recommendations for 20,000 seniors will be put on hold.

But Lewis said the onus is on CPS to settle the dispute. “People should call the Board and put pressure on them to settle this… instead of talking to us about not striking,” she said. She claimed that CPS’ offer has not changed since May.

The union received more information at an executive committee meeting Wednesday as well as the delegates meeting Thursday about what teachers would need in order to avert a strike, but Lewis declined to discuss details.

She said the union and CPS have conducted over 45 negotiation sessions since last November. There were no negotiations on Thursday, but talks are scheduled to continue Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. The union has another House of Delegates meeting on Wednesday Sept. 5. If more progress is made in talks, the House of Delegates could vote to suspend the strike at that time.

CTU members have complained recently that Brizard has not participated in negotiations. But Jim Franczek, an attorney at labor law firm Franczek Radelet who has represented CPS in numerous negotiation sessions, says that former CEO Arne Duncan never participated in negotiations in 2007 and only stepped in once during 2003 negotiations.

“CEOs rarely participate in labor negotiations anywhere,” he notes.

Teachers give strike rationale

Before the meeting, some teachers said they expected a Sept. 10 strike date, but others said they wanted more information about what CTU was offering.

“I hope they tell us we don’t have to go on strike because they came to a wonderful settlement. But that’s not going to happen. It’s not a question of if we strike, but how long,” said Marie Szyman, who works at Nathaniel Greene Elementary.

Jeremy Peters, a teacher at Paul Robeson High School in Englewood, said that teachers have been angry for years about disinvestment in neighborhood schools and the lack of democracy at CPS. “We have been itching for this fight for a long time,” he said. “I hope it leads to a bigger fight across the country.”

One key question as the union gears up for a potential strike is how much support it will have from parents. Setting a strike for the second week of the regular-track school year, Lewis noted, will give teachers the first week of school to organize and have discussions in their buildings.

It will also allow teachers to reach out to more parents.

“The parents are as beat down as the teachers are,” Peters says. “When the parents are informed as to what’s happening [to teachers], there is outrage. But so many of them are dealing with bread and butter issues – housing, food, rent – that it’s a luxury to think about.”

The unanimous vote indicates that the strike appears to be getting broad support across different caucuses of the union. Mark Ochoa, an O’Toole Elementary phys-ed teacher, was the CTU’s financial secretary under prior union president Marilyn Stewart and is a member of the United Progressive Caucus – an opposition group to the current Caucus of Rank and File Educators leadership. He says the United Progressive Caucus is in support of the strike as well.

“We are unionists. We believe in doing what we need to do for the union,” he says.

'Angry we were pushed to this decision'

Retired teacher Lance Cohn, who also taught at O’Toole, says that the contentious dance between the union and the district “has been going on for many, many years.”

“It’s a question of continuing negotiations, because negotiations haven’t broken down,” he says. “There might be an impasse reached, but not tonight.”

He says that with involvement from community groups and parents, “I’m not going to say we are going to win, but the union will get something much better, that the union can live with.”

But one teacher who believes there will be a strike is Kennedy High School delegate Zulma Ortiz, who is a member of the contract negotiating team.

“We are very sad. We are angry that we were pushed to take this decision,” Ortiz says. “How can you send people to negotiate our contract, when they have no idea what is our job, what we do day to day? Not knowing what is the daily routine of the office clerk, the teachers, the social workers. [The negotiators have] no clue what is going on--broken desks, no resources, no materials.”