Delegates: Strike is over

September 18, 2012

Claiming some major wins and gearing up for a renewed battle against school closings, Chicago Teachers Union delegates voted on Tuesday to suspend the strike. Classes will resume Wednesday morning, a relief for parents who had supported teachers but were ready for the strike to end.

Leaving the meeting, delegates looked happy and said they felt victorious. “We are happy to be able to go back with dignity,” said Adam Heenan, the delegate from Curie High School. 

CTU President Karen Lewis, who called the deal “the best they could get,” said the overwhelming majority of delegates wanted to return to the classroom. “We feel very positive about moving forward,” she said. “We are grateful that we are a united union.”

Lewis pledged to continue to lead the fight on outstanding issues that the union couldn’t get the district to agree on, such as a demand for air-conditioning in schools, a promise of maintaining class size limits and more social workers in schools.

But as negotiations dragged on late last week, Lewis had to come to terms with two realities: CPS was limited by current and projected budget deficits and the tide couldn’t be turned in this contract on larger reform initiative. 

“We couldn’t solve all the problems of the world with one contract,” she said.

According to the school district, the package will cost $295 million over three years or about $75 million a year. The Board of Education approved in August a budget that drained its reserves and, according to district officials, had no cushions. 

Battle looming on closings

Lewis said the strike and the issues it raised set the stage for the next big battle, against school closings.

CPS officials are now openly acknowledging that they plan to restructure the district by closing as many as 120 schools, though it has said it will open dozens of new charter schools at the same time. They have told community activists that some of these closing will take place in the coming school year. Lewis called this “the elephant in the room” and said the union is gearing up for a larger, comprehensive stand against closings.

“Now everyone is more mobilized on this issue,” she said.

Community activists and students, many of whom stood with the union during the strike, are poised to join CTU to improve conditions in the schools and keep open neighborhood schools.  

“We need 2,000 people here when the closings are announced,” said Erica Clark of Parents 4 Teachers in the lobby of CPS headquarters downtown. She and more than 100 students and parents crammed into the lobby of district headquarters on Tuesday, demanding they be allowed to deliver nearly 1,000 postcards supporting CTU’s demands to CEO Jean-Claude Brizard.

CTU and the community groups also want an elected Board of Education, rather than appointed as it is now.

Jane Averill, a preschool teacher at Ray Elementary, said she thought the vote to suspend the strike was partly due to delegates and teachers facing reality.  If they would have stayed on strike Wednesday, teachers feared losing public support, she said.

"To go out on strike and to not get things like class size limits, and restrictions on school closings and the creation of charter schools, is kind of heartbreaking," Averill said. "(But) those are things that have to be taken up legislatively."

Both sides claiming wins

When it came to the nitty-gritty of the contract, the union was able to claim several victories--chiefly, that Mayor Rahm Emanuel will have a stake in keeping the union happy. CPS originally wanted a five-year contract that would take CTU out of the picture until well after the next mayoral election.

But the union got CPS to agree to a three-year contract, with an option for a fourth year, if both parties agree. This could put the next contract negotiations right in the middle of the next campaign.

The three-year contract also allowed CTU to claim victory on teacher evaluation. CPS had proposed that test scores be factored into teacher evaluations at the minimum allowed by law in years one through three, but to go beyond the state minimum in years four and five. CPS still plans to increase the amount that test scores factor into evaluation in the future, but will have to again wrangle with CTU before they do it.

The union also prevailed against merit pay.And it won a promise of jobs for some teachers displaced by school closings.

CTU also released a fact-sheet claiming additional wins: an agreement by CPS to a monthly meeting on the budget and to outlawing teacher suspensions without pay. CPS also will allow teachers to vote by secret ballot for department heads.

Heenan said a “Christmas present” in the contract was the right for teachers to format their lesson plans in the way they want. 

“When that was announced, cheers erupted,” he said, explaining that it takes a lot of extra time to format lesson plans according to the district’s model, and can be antithetical to the way a teacher naturally puts them together.

But CPS also claimed some victories in the battle. At a brief press conference, Emanuel said that for the first time students “were at the table” in the negotiating room.

He touted that the contract includes provisions for the school day and year to be lengthened (though state law gives the district the power to do so on its own). “This gives a kindergartener today two extra years of learning by the time she graduates high school,” he said.

Also, he said the deal was good for taxpayers. As part of the agreement the union will drop its litigation against the Board of Education for rescinding a promised 4 percent raise in 2011. 

The final teacher salary increase was only 1 percent more than the original offer and will cost the district less than in previous agreements. 

The union had wanted CPS to agree to forcing principals to hire a displaced teacher when three qualified ones applied for a job. Doing this would amount to taking away a principal’s autonomy, Emanuel argued.

Instead—and this might have been the concession that broke the logjam—CPS agreed that it would try to make sure that half of its new hires would be displaced teachers. If not, then the most senior of the displaced teachers would be kept on for a year as long-term substitutes. 

Emanuel called the deal an “honest compromise.” But he refused to take questions about how he planned to pay for the raises and other concessions.