Brown: One more thing to worry about — another teachers strike

SHARE Brown: One more thing to worry about — another teachers strike
SHARE Brown: One more thing to worry about — another teachers strike

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In retrospect, I suppose we should have seen it coming.

With state and local government finances going to hell in a hand basket, it was too much to think Chicago Public Schools could get through a teacher contract year without drama.

Yet that’s the way it had looked, with both sides mostly making nice and toning down the rhetoric as they worked toward a stopgap one-year contract extension, that is, right up until Friday when the threat of another teachers strike suddenly loomed large.

It was CPS under the direction of new CEO Forrest Claypool that triggered the blow-up with a decision Thursday to withdraw its one-year contract offer and start anew on a multi-year deal.

It was Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis who raised the prospect of a work stoppage, suggesting Claypool was trying “to force us into another strike” with demands that teachers pay the full cost of employee contributions to their pension plans.

The so-called “pension pickup” may not be the only issue, but it surely is the thorniest one.

OPINION

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For more than three decades, CPS has been picking up seven of the nine percent of salary that Chicago teachers are required to contribute toward their pension plan under state law.

It’s a collectively bargained feature of the teachers’ contract that is common in school districts across Illinois, primarily as a back door method of increasing pay.

The pension pickup has become part of a teacher’s overall compensation package, no different from determining how the employer and employee split health care costs.

Most important, taking it away at this point would amount to a seven percent pay cut for Chicago teachers. That’s not pro-labor spin. It’s how you would look at it if it were happening to your paycheck.

“I’m saying that to take a seven percent pay cut is strike-worthy, yes,” Lewis said in case anybody didn’t get the point.

RELATED:Karen Lewis bashes Claypool over ‘strike-worthy’ contract demand

I can see how a good argument could be made that if there’s a sound public purpose in requiring government employees to pay part of the cost of their pensions, then it doesn’t make much sense for the employer to do so.

But that ship sailed when we started allowing everybody to do it some 40 years ago, and it makes no sense now to single out the city of Chicago for this “reform.”

What makes Chicago unique is that its taxpayers shoulder the entire burden of the employer’s cost of teacher pensions, while the state pays nearly the entire employer share for Downstate and suburban teachers (leading to the double taxation of city residents.)

Yes, the Chicago teachers pension fund is in financial trouble, but not quite as bad as the pension fund for suburban and Downstate teachers, where many districts follow the same practice.

If we now want to take that back, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Claypool are proposing, there’s no reason to think teachers are just going to sit back and accept what amounts to a $140 million giveback, especially when there is still no movement toward coming up with more revenue to fund the schools or the pensions.

For the teachers, who say they had agreed not to take a pay raise for this year, that’s what labor negotiators call a “non-starter,” meaning forget about it.

I don’t think Emanuel can afford to forget about it, especially not if he can make it part of some larger CPS bailout legislation in Springfield. It’s still unclear at this point whether Democratic legislative leaders would go along with a proposal to remove the pension pickup as a matter open to collective bargaining.

A visibly weary Lewis, still showing the effects of her battle with a brain tumor, suggested the union would be in no hurry to take a strike vote, while emphasizing that one could come at any time.

Because of legal timelines built into the bargaining system to avoid strikes, it would be late fall or early winter before the union could actually go out on strike, she said.

Chicago teachers were empowered by their 2012 strike, and I don’t think they’d hesitate to go out again.

Whether they’d find as much support this time from the public is another matter, with the severity of the whole pension funding problem now three years better implanted into the public consciousness.

Follow Mark Brown on Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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