CTU members may vote on strike next week

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CTU members and their supporters attended a rally Nov. 24 in Grant Park where President Karen Lewis said union members were prepared to strike later this school year, as they did in 2012, if necessary.

Photo by Max Herman

CTU members and their supporters attended a rally Nov. 24 in Grant Park where President Karen Lewis said union members were prepared to strike later this school year, as they did in 2012, if necessary.

The Chicago Teachers Union is preparing to ask members to take a strike vote as early as next week.

The planned vote comes after thousands of CTU members rallied last week in downtown Chicago in near-freezing temperatures. Union President Karen Lewis told the red-clad crowd that “we know that when we must we will withhold our labor.”

CTU officials did not respond to requests for comment, but sources confirmed that the House of Delegates is expected to take up the issue at its next meeting, scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. The House is responsible for deciding how members vote to strike, according to the union’s Constitution and bylaws.

NBC Chicago first reported that the actual strike vote will take place Dec. 9. Sources confirmed to Catalyst that members are supposed to take the strike vote sometime before school lets out for winter break on Dec. 18.

According to state law, 75 percent of  union members must vote in favor of a strike before a walkout could occur. Three years ago, about 90 percent of union members voted in favor of authorizing a strike.

The planned vote doesn’t surprise many educators, who for months have been told to set aside money for a possible strike. Members have been working without a contract since July. 

And earlier this month the union asked members several “practice” strike vote questions. Although none explicitly asked whether members were willing to walk out, CTU officials said the results indicated that 97 percent of members will vote to authorize a strike.

“If that’s what we have to do, it’s what we have to do,” said a reluctant Nancy Johnson, when asked about a potential strike during last week’s rally. Johnson is a case manager and special education teacher at Harper High School.

An overwhelming vote in favor of a strike could help strengthen the union’s position during contract negotiations, which have been moving at a snail’s pace over the past several months. Insiders say Chicago Public Schools officials have been unwilling to bargain on many of the economic points, as they wait to see whether lawmakers in Springfield will provide pension relief to the cash-strapped district.

If relief does not materialize, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool has threatened as many as 5,000 layoffs next semester or more “unsustainable borrowing” in order to close a massive, mid-year budget gap. This fall the CPS Board of Education approved an operating budget that relied on a half-billion dollars in unappropriated pension relief from Springfield. Lawmakers and Gov. Bruce Rauner have been unable to agree on the state’s own budget – let alone on whether to provide assistance for CPS.

In a statement, CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said the district “is looking for solutions to our $1.1 billion budget crisis, not a strike. We’re negotiating in good faith with CTU leadership to reach a fair, multi-year agreement that protects teachers, their jobs and our classrooms.”

Timing of walkout

Even if enough CTU members vote in favor of a strike, a walkout would not take place immediately. That’s because CPS and the CTU are still going through mediated contract negotiations.

The union sought a mediator after contract talks broke down in August. At that time, the two sides were close to an agreement on a one-year deal that did not include  pay raises but preserved the so-called pension “pickup” and the steps-and-lanes salary structure. Ultimately, CPS pulled the tentative deal off the table after disagreements over the layoff order for some teachers based on evaluations, among other issues. The district is now seeking a multi-year agreement.

The next step in the lengthy pre-strike process, which is mandated by law, is “fact-finding.”

CTU leaders sent an official request last week to the district and the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, a move they timed with the union’s rally at Grant Park. CPS officials say they’re reviewing the union’s request but believe it’s premature to start that process as the mediator has not yet heard all outstanding issues.*

Once the fact-finding process begins, CPS and the CTU each must appoint one member to the panel, and agree on a third member. In 2012, the panel included arbitrator Edwin H. Benn, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey and CPS deputy counsel Joseph Moriarty.

The panel would have up to 75 days to review both the CTU’s and CPS’s most recent contract proposals and issue recommendations, which are made public. Afterward, both sides have up to 15 days to either accept or reject the panel’s report. If accepted, the recommendations will make up the new labor contract.

If either side rejects the settlement proposed by the panel, the union must wait 30 days before it can strike.

That pushes a potential strike back until about March.

Reporting intern Stephanie Choporis contributed to this report.

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board had not received a formal requests for fact-finding.  An official with the labor board later said he located the request, which was dated Nov. 23. Story updated at 5 p.m. Nov. 30.