Brown: The waiting game paid off for teachers

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Stacks of picket signs wait for Chicago Teachers Union members to pick up outside union’s strike headquarters Monday, Oct. 10, 2016, in Chicago. (AP File Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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Looks like Chicago teachers weren’t so crazy after all back in February when they rejected a contract offer from Chicago Public Schools that union leaders had embraced.

By waiting eight more months and taking negotiations right up to a strike deadline, the Chicago Teachers Union appears to have come up with a much better deal for most of its members than the one it had been on the verge of accepting back then.

And during the wait, the union’s intransigence forced city and state leaders to show their cards first and put up some of the additional revenue needed to make the new deal work.

I was among the critics who couldn’t understand what CTU leaders were thinking in February when they announced the union’s Big Bargaining Team had turned down a CPS contract proposal that union president Karen Lewis had touted as “serious” including a “lot of things that were great.”


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The move created additional uncertainties at a time CPS finances were already dangerously circling the drain and amid pressure from Republicans in Springfield to nudge the district into bankruptcy.

At the time, even Lewis said she’d been caught by surprise by the opposition to the deal, although she quickly got in line with her members, who rejected key concessions and demanded additional financial support for the school system upfront.

I’m still not sure it’s any way to run a railroad, but from the union perspective, it’s hard to argue with the results.

Back in January, teachers were looking at a deal that would have required them to start contributing 7 percent of their salary toward their pensions, an amount currently paid by the district. Although the change would have been phased in, teachers quite reasonably viewed it as a 7 percent pay cut.

To help compensate for the loss, that earlier deal would have paid them annual cost-of-living raises totaling 8.75 percent over the four-year term—0 in the first year, then 2.75, 3 and 3.

In the tentative deal reached late Monday, CPS will continue to make the 7 percent pension payment on behalf of current teachers.

The tradeoff is that the teachers’ cost-of-living raises will be smaller, just 4.5 percent over the four year deal—0, 0, 2, 2.5.

When you add it up, that still leaves them well ahead of the January offer.

The catch is that newly hired teachers will have to pay the 7 percent of salary toward their pensions (offset by a 7 percent hike in starting salaries), which over the long haul will eventually remove the pension obligation from the school district.

That part of the deal serves to answer critics who philosophically believe all public employees should have to contribute something toward their pensions, just as private sector workers have part of their pay withheld for Social Security.

As a rule, unions try to avoid splitting their members in a way that creates two classes of employees. Among other things, it can create an incentive for the employer to get rid of the older workers.

In this case, I think the political realities were such the union had to compromise that principle.

It’s doubtful this will qualify as the sort of pension reform sought by Gov. Bruce Rauner as a prerequisite to him signing a measure already approved by the Legislature that would provide an additional $215 million in funding for CPS. Without that money, CPS will be in trouble again by spring.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his CPS team have been careful to avoid spiking the ball while waiting for union members to OK the deal. But Emanuel argues the tentative agreement is good for taxpayers, too, citing the two years with no raises plus savings on health care costs.

Having successfully flexed their muscle again, this time without a strike, it’s hard to imagine teachers failing to approve this deal.

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