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Could upcoming CTU elections affect negotiations?

On Tuesday, Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey said: “Everyone is very united. We want a fair contract. We need revenue to get it,” he said. | Sun-Times file photo

As the Chicago Teachers Union gears up for a one-day strike on April 1, the mayor’s City Council floor leader is arguing that the window for the union and Board of Education to secure a contract is all but closed.

If negotiations stretch through the summer while a cash-strapped district scrapes together a $670 million pension payment due in June, without any help from Springfield, the chances of a smooth start to the next school year diminish.

But with the governor threatening to take over Chicago’s public school system, the union and district both say they haven’t yet given up hope for a deal.

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th) told the Chicago Sun-Times that upcoming union elections will complicate contract talks that hit a setback in January, when the CTU’s big bargaining team rejected an offer their leader called “serious.”

“If not closed, it’s pretty well done,” said O’Connor, the longtime chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee now serving as Emanuel’s floor leader. “If you’re looking for collaboration and concession, as you get closer to a union election that becomes harder and harder to do. . . . If they make an agreement, they’re labeled a sellout.”

Bargaining to replace the contract that expired on June 30 has been going on for well over a year.

Union president Karen Lewis, who once hoped contract talks would gum up the early 2015 re-election campaign of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is facing re-election on May 20, days after her 27,000 members become legally able to walk picket lines at the end of fact-finding.

The union will know on March 28 who, if anyone, will challenge the popular Lewis and her leadership team. That’s when nominating petitions are due, but a contested election isn’t expected.

A City Hall source acknowledged that the “likelihood of anyone winning against Karen and Jesse [Sharkey] are remote . . . but they still have to worry about appeasing the left wing” of the union, which opposed the earlier serious offer the source called “a balanced deal with a lot of money and concessions and a lot of things they wouldn’t get in a million Christmases.

“If they couldn’t sell that deal, it’s hard to believe they could sell any deal,” the source continued, calling it “extremely unlikely” a contract will be reached before September.

Sharkey, the CTU’s vice president, said internal elections aren’t a factor.

“Really, the difficulty with our contract right now is the board made an offer and we’ve said there are parts of that offer that we like. We said they would need to figure out a way to close some loopholes, which I don’t think is impossible,” Sharkey said. “What the board is telling us is they are having a hard time agreeing because of their economic reality.

“Internal union politics has nothing to do with this,” said Sharkey, whose members will confirm on Wednesday evening what the April 1 walkout will entail.

“Everyone is very united. We want a fair contract. We need revenue to get it,” he said.

The school district also expressed optimism.

“CPS firmly believes that an agreement is possible, because we already reached a tentative agreement with the CTU’s leadership in January,” spokeswoman Emily Bittner said. “With regular negotiating sessions continuing, CPS is committed to bargaining in good faith — and will meet as often as possible — until we reach a final agreement.”

In mid-April, CPS and the CTU will learn the fact-finder’s recommendations. If both accept his conclusions, they become the new contract.