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Teachers could strike April 1 if pension pickup taken away

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey talked about possible teacher layoffs Monday, Sept. 21, 2015. CTU Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle stood at right. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The Chicago Teachers Union will gear up to strike as soon as April 1, if Chicago Public Schools follows through on its threat to unilaterally cancel the 7 percent pension pickup it has made for decades, a top union official said Monday.

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey made the comment just hours after 62 members of his union were laid off, a fraction of the number the union had feared.

As the school district has ramped up pressure on the union — via layoffs — to sign off on a contract proposal to replace the one that expired last June, the CTU countered with its own threat of withholding labor in the middle of the second semester, earlier than previous predictions when parents might still support a teacher walkout.

Sharkey said CPS gave 30-day notice of potential plans to stop making a 7 percent pension contribution for union members — in effect, a 7 percent pay cut — about 28 days ago.

“The board claims they’ve got a right to do that. We’re sure they’re wrong,” Sharkey said.

“For them to say, ‘OK, you can’t go on strike but we can make a unilateral term change in employment by way of a 7 percent pay cut,’ we think that’s an outrageous violation of the way labor law works, and if they actually go through with it, you can expect our labor to prepare for an unfair labor practice strike on April 1.”

Addressing reporters outside Skinner North Elementary School earlier Monday, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said CPS hadn’t yet canceled the pension payment.

“We gave our 30 days notice to the union as is required in the contact in early February, and once that period is up we will work with our administrative team and notify the union of when that will take effect,” he said, fielding questions about the 62 CTU members who were laid off Monday morning as part of budget cuts, 17 of them teachers.

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The city’s chief labor lawyer, James Franczek, who has been negotiating the contract with the CTU, said state law is very clear about how teachers may legally strike — and that the process wouldn’t conclude until mid-May.

“There is no exception to the no-strike prohibition for unfair labor practices,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times.

And Franczek said the CTU can’t unilaterally decide they’ve been treated unfairly.

“Even if you take this foolhardy argument and give it some credibility, you still have to file an unfair labor practice” with the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board, which gets investigated, and assigned a hearing before any determination is made,” Franczek continued. “All of that takes time.”

But CTU lawyer Robert Bloch said Franczek was referring to the law governing how to negotiate a contract, rather than one ruling unfair labor practices.

“Under the National Labor Relations Act, employees may lawfully strike over unfair labor practices as a way to induce the employer to stop committing them,” Bloch said. “This would be over unfairly cutting teachers pay in the middle of negotiations.

Though the union once feared layoffs in the thousands, Sharkey called the cuts “17 teachers too many,” accusing CPS of wielding reductions to make a point both to the union and to the state from whom it’s seeking a lasting economic solution to its pension and budget woes.

Claypool has blamed a lack of a funding solution from state government for Monday’s unprecedented midyear layoffs and other recent cuts.

“We’re going to continue to protect our classroom but continue to whittle down our deficit while we wait for the state of Illinois and Gov. Rauner to wake up and finally realize they are protecting a discriminatory funding system which is penalizing not only kids in Chicago but poor minority kids throughout the state of Illinois — and that’s the ultimate solution to this problem to fix the state funding formula,” he said.

Though CPS has borrowed $725 million at sky-high interest rates to pay its bills, Claypool claimed CPS was “buying time” with cuts after CPS couldn’t secure an additional $125 million.

“Ultimately we are going to hit a wall and that wall is going to be the state of Illinois and its failed funding formula,” he said.

Across the board, schools lost 4.87 percent in per-pupil funding, but schools with poor students were given state and federal money for low-income kids CPS got permission to reallocate. CPS had urged principals to spare teachers, especially special education teachers, and most serving low-income students did not lose teachers.

Thanks in part to those efforts, even though CPS announced Monday it was making $85 million in cuts, the net impact was about $35 million.

The 62 employees losing their jobs include 43 full-time employees and 19 part-timers — including teachers, aides, counselors and security guards. Whitney Young Magnet High School lost two full-time teachers. Volta Elementary school lost a full-time teacher plus a teacher’s assistant. Sutherland Elementary school lost nine part-time aides. And Orr Academy High School lost four full-time workers.

Teachers at other schools that didn’t suffer layoffs have said their principals either cut everything else – field trips and materials and supplies — or read the financial tea leaves and squirreled money away all year with planning Claypool praised as “judicious and careful.”

Each of the laid-off CTU members are entitled to 21 more days pay, but CPS couldn’t say how much that will cost.

The union has said that the latest contract offer yields CPS no savings this year, saying all of the proposed money-saving tactics — asking teachers to pay more for health care and pensions — wouldn’t start until the 2016-17 school year.

The district had already let 227 central staffers go in late January and required those left to pay more toward their own pensions. CPS said all those reductions since Aug. 1 will save $45.1 million the next school year. That’s on top of $200 million in cuts to programs and staff right before school started.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel also blamed the latest round of layoffs at CPS on Gov. Bruce Rauner, the mayor’s old friend and former business associate and vacation companion.

“We’re making, unfortunately, very difficult choices trying to preserve any cuts from the classroom because our kids are doing tremendous and our teachers are doing tremendous work increasing graduation rates and test scores,” the mayor said.

“Yet, we have funding from the state of Illinois which is 48th out of 50th nationally . . . and districts with a concentration of poor kids are losing money from the state. . . . Chicago and other districts with poor kids would lose, in our situation, $75 million. . . . That is upside down. Our funding is upside down. Which is why Senator [John] Cullerton’s bill relates to rewriting [the school funding formula] and making sure districts with a concentration of poor kids are not being penalized by the state funding mechanism. It is time to reform that fundamentally.”

Emanuel signed off on a school budget that assumes $480 million in pension help from Springfield that may never come.

On Monday, the mayor was asked whether the most recent wave of layoffs would be followed by more and more job cuts without state assistance.

“We have made major changes on education and you’re seeing the educational gains. . . . We are continuing to make major financial reforms . . . because the state of Illinois has the wrong priorities as it relates to funding education. They are penalizing districts with poor children,” he said.

For months, Rauner has been trying to use the CPS financial crisis as a political lever to drive a wedge between Emanuel and state House Speaker Michael Madigan.

The governor wants Emanuel to pressure Madigan — as if that were even possible — to drop his opposition to Rauner’s pro-business, anti-union agenda.

That’s what’s behind the state budget stalemate that has placed Chicago State University in jeopardy and cut off state grants to colleges students across Illinois.

On Monday, Emanuel was asked about Rauner’s pledge to overhaul the school funding formula if he gets his “Turnaround Agenda.”

“We’re at a situation today where we’ve decided workers’ comp and a change to term limits are more important than a child’s education or college education. We’re vetoing bills as it relates to college education. We’re holding up legislation on funding as it relates to other issues because workers comp or term limits or anything else is taking a precedent in front of an education. Those are the wrong values for Illinois and the wrong values for kids and poor kids,” Emanuel said.

Turning to the crisis at Chicago State, he said: “They’re shortening their school year. Kids are not signing up for their second semester.”

Last month, top mayoral aides charged that CPS was forced to pay a “Rauner premium” on a $725 million borrowing because the governor hasn’t stopped talking about a state takeover that could pave the way for CPS to declare bankruptcy.

The mayor also blasted Rauner for launching a financial investigation into CPS that, the governor apparently hopes, will lay the groundwork for that state takeover.

CPS is facing a March 4 deadline to turn over a mountain of detailed financial information about cash flow, bonds, payroll and major contracts to the state, according to a letter signed by State Board of Education Chairman James Meeks and State Superintendent Tony Smith, another Rauner appointee.