Teachers Union in Chicago to Extend Strike Into 2nd Week

New York Times

Teachers Union in Chicago to Extend Strike Into 2nd Week

By and STEVEN YACCINO
Published: September 16, 2012

CHICAGO — Leaders of a teachers union extended their strike on Sunday, saying they needed more time to consider a contract deal reached by negotiators over the weekend and forcing 350,000 students around this city to begin a second week without classes.

The decision, which was certain to infuriate City Hall and frustrate parents already weary from juggling day care for a week, dashed earlier hopes that hundreds of public schools around the city might reopen on Monday. It came as a setback to the union’s bargaining team, too, which felt it had secured an agreement its leaders might accept, even if it did not quell every concern voiced at protests across the city over the past week.

“I do what they tell me to do,” Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said on Sunday, after a majority of nearly 800 union leaders — the House of Delegates — opted to meet again on Tuesday rather than immediately lift a strike in the nation’s third-largest school system. “There’s all kinds of stuff that they’re concerned about,” Ms. Lewis said of the delegates’ reluctance to accept the negotiated deal. “This is the deal we got.”

Around Chicago, the result meant more confusion for residents who had been anticipating quick approval of a deal on Sunday following a chaotic week in which parents struggled to rearrange work schedules, Mayor Rahm Emanuel called for classes to resume, and teachers wearing red T-shirts marched in picket lines and chanted outside schools. School could open on Wednesday at the earliest, Ms. Lewis said.

“The stress of logistics — we’re looking forward to that being gone and getting these kids in school learning,” Roger Wilen, a lawyer, said on Sunday, after he and his wife had tested nearly every option for their three children — a baby sitter, working from home, an alternative schools program, even bringing the children to work — and were, by now, feeling tested themselves. “We need them in school,” he said.

The delay followed days of marathon negotiations, at times lasting into the early morning hours, between leaders from the Chicago Public Schools and the teachers union. By Friday, negotiators on both sides said they had reached the outlines of a compromise on a new contract. And both sides were claiming victory about its contents, and at times disputing the other side’s depiction of various provisions of the deal.

Leaders from the school system said the most important provisions for changes to the schools — shifts pressed most notably by Mayor Emanuel — lived on in the latest proposal: Students here would attend school for more hours and more days a year than before; principals would decide which teachers were hired; and teachers would be evaluated, in part, based on student test scores.

But union negotiators said their strongest wishes, too, were intact in the proposal they brought to union delegates on Sunday.

Among them, according to the union: Teacher raises were maintained for those who seek additional education and for those who reach a certain experience level; the schools agreed to hire additional teachers to handle longer school days; and most experienced teachers could not be fired for the first year of the new evaluation system, which would be something of a test run.

The proposed contract — a three-year arrangement with an option for a fourth — would have given an average teacher a more than 17 percent raise if it ran all four years, above what had been offered a week ago. It was uncertain how the schools were going to pay for raises, which were predicted to cost in the “high $300 million” range at a time when the system has a significant budget deficit, estimated at $1 billion next year. Chicago Public Schools officials say teachers on average here make $76,000 a year, though union officials have said the figure is lower.

Whatever the provisions of a new contract, though, they seemed certain not to end the debate here. Around the city last week, teachers voiced broader concerns about a school system in which more than 80 percent of students come from low-income families and, in a wave of charter schools and budget cuts, increase fears that city leaders want to privatize public education.

Even after the strike here ends, the political fallout seemed unlikely to fade. Union leaders had viewed the strike — the first for teachers here in 25 years — as an important national show of strength and unwillingness to bend in a city with long and deep union ties.

Author: Michael J. Mikulka

President, AFGE Local 704, representing over 900 bargaining unit employees working at the U.S. EPA Region 5 Offices in Chicago, Grosse Ile, MI and Westlake, OH.

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