Union to vote Tuesday: Suspend strike or go back to negotiations

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On Tuesday, one of two things will happen in the ongoing Chicago teachers strike: The House of Delegates will suspend the strike, or they will send their leaders back to the negotiation table—a move that will likely kick off a complicated legal battle over whether the strike is legal at all. 

On Monday, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Peter Flynn declined to hold a hearing on the city’s motion for an injunction to “immediately” get students back in school, questioning why a hearing couldn’t wait till Wednesday, when the strike could be over.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Sunday night that he was directing city lawyers to file for an injunction after union delegates decided to take a day to review the proposed contract. He called the strike “illegal” because of state law that prohibits Chicago teachers from striking over matters other than pay and benefits.

Meanwhile, delegates went out to their schools and talked to teachers about the deal that was presented to them Sunday afternoon. Several delegates say they were hearing from teachers that they felt comfortable going back to work on Wednesday and letting union leadership hammer out the details of the contract.

Susan Hickey, a delegate for clinicians, says the emphasis is on suspending the strike, not canceling it. “We trust the union leadership,” she says. 

When teachers went out on the picket line on Monday, some teachers were worried that the community would peel back support, says David Stieber, the delegate for Team Englewood High. But instead, a lot of people let the teachers know they are still behind them. 

After picketing, Stieber and his teachers went to a local library and gathered in a room to discuss the contract. At times, they even called union officials to ask specific questions. 

By the end, Stieber says he felt comfortable letting the process go forward, meaning he will vote Tuesday to suspend the strike and let the union leadership finish hammering out the details. Once the contract is written in full, all members will vote on whether to approve it.

Some delegates say they used the online service Survey Monkey to gauge the opinions of their colleagues, while others took formal votes. Jay Rau, a delegate from Benito Juarez Community Academy, says that he is going to leave his decision on Tuesday up to the staff.

“I will bring a ballot box Tuesday morning at the picket line,” Rau says. “I don’t know how other people are going to operate, but that’s what I am going to do. I am going to let the staff decide if they want me to do it or not.”

Adam Geisler, the delegate from Batemen Elementary, won’t take a formal vote or survey. He says he talked to his colleagues and told them that if they had any specific concerns or points he should bring up, they should call him. 

Adam Heenan, who is the delegate for Curie High School on the Southwest Side, says he spent Monday morning talking to his colleagues about what was won and what was given up.

He says one of the “clean” victories was the ability of teachers to file a grievance over their evaluation. Yet Heenan says teachers were upset that the union couldn’t win more of the items that would improve schools for students. 

“Nothing was in there as far as [smaller] class size for students, and they are still worried about the impact of testing on the school day,” he says.

Yet there is some recognition among teachers that the contract dispute might not be the right place to resolve these issues. 

“Some of them must be taken to Springfield and some to the Department of Education in Washington D.C.,” Heenan says. 

Stieber also says his teachers were disappointed that there was no promise of lowering class size and providing more services for students. On Tuesday evening, he will participate in community meeting in an attempt to get residents more engaged in fighting for these things for students.

Geisler, a delegate from Bateman Elementary, says members at his school were concerned about the wellness plan.  In the deal, CPS agrees to freeze health care contributions, which they originally attempted to increase.  In exchange, employees have to sign onto the city’s wellness program or pay $600 to opt out.

Move for injunction “not surprising”

The delegates say the move for an injunction will not sway them one way or the other. Yet they are upset about it. 

“It just shows we have a mayor who will do everything possible to fight against better teaching and learning conditions for students,” Heenan says. “Teachers will decide what is best for teachers and students.”

Dunbar Academy delegate Shari Nichols-Sweat agreed, saying “[The mayor] does what he does, we do what we do.”

Hickey says that the injunction was “not surprising.” “I think the CTU was half-expecting it,” she says. “They have been very careful about what we were striking for.”

Getting the injunction is not a straight forward issue. Emanuel and CPS are accusing the CTU for striking on issues that the state law does not allow them to strike on: job recall rights and teacher evaluation. They also say the strike poses a health and safety risk to students.

In a statement, CTU leadership says they believed CPS’ attempt to get an injunction was misdirected. Rather than the courts, CTU leadership says the district must file a complaint with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.  

John Brosnan, special counsel to the IELRB, says that the issue is not clear-cut. The law specifies that an employer can ask a judge to file an injunction if there is a clear and present danger to the public health and safety. Count two of the complaint asking for the injunction is based on CPS’ opinion that the safety of students is compromised by the strike. 

However, count one of the complaint alleges that the CTU is striking over issues that the law says they cannot strike over, and Brosnan says that complaint is under the jurisdiction of the IELRB.