Chicago Teachers Union sets strike vote for Dec. 9-11

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Continuing to ramp up the pressure on a district that has threatened thousands of layoffs, the Chicago Teachers Union on Wednesday said its members will take a strike vote on Dec. 9, 10 and 11.

The House of Delegates, the CTU’s governing body of about 800, was informed of the vote Wednesday evening in a closed meeting that was not open to the press.

“We’d like to move the process forward. It’s time to do it. We have been in negotiations for over a year,” since November 2014, CTU president Karen Lewis said afterward. “Clearly what they’re wanting to do is just stall, stall, stall because they don’t want a strike. We don’t want a strike; we want a settled contract but that’s kind of hard to do without a strike authorization at this point.”

Lewis blamed a revolving door of staff at Chicago Public Schools for some of the delay. CPS underwent a change of leadership in July following a contract-rigging scandal. “We have new people at every single negotiation session. . . . It’s hard for us to have real negotiations,” she said.

The vote will span three days so all of CTU’s 27,000 members have a chance to participate, Lewis said. State law requires 75 percent of them to approve walking off the job. In 2012, nearly 90 percent voted to strike.

But CPS said it’s too soon to talk about striking, arguing that negotiations began only a few months ago.

“CPS is looking for solutions to our $1.1 billion budget crisis, and a strike isn’t the answer,” CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said in an email. “We’re negotiating in good faith with CTU leadership to reach a fair, multi-year agreement that protects teachers, their jobs and our classrooms – and we encourage CTU to join with us in Springfield to fight for equal funding for Chicago children.”

The district claimed the union’s proposals would cost an additional $1.3 billion — money CPS can’t afford since it’s still looking for $480 million to balance its current budget. The CTU denied that sum. Neither side would provide details.

Legally, a strike is still far off in the financially troubled school district. The earliest teachers could possibly walk out would be in mid-March, according to a process laid out a few years ago by state lawmakers.

Once a strike is authorized, the parties still have to walk through several steps, each of which has an assigned timeframe.

If CPS and the CTU fail to seal a deal after “a reasonable period of mediation,” they proceed to a fact-finding panel of one CPS representative, one from the CTU and one they choose together. In 2012, when teachers last went on strike, the panel was a CPS labor attorney, CTU’s vice president and arbitrator Edwin Benn. A mediator has been helping this fall during weekly bargaining sessions to hash out a contract to replace the one that expired at the end of June.

Union attorney Robert Bloch said the problem is that the law doesn’t define what is reasonable.

“We believe three months is reasonable,” he said. “It’s longer than we spent in mediation on the last contact in 2012.”

Union leaders officially requested fact-finding on Nov. 23, the day of their Grant Park rally, but CPS said it’s still too soon to give up on the mediator who’s still hearing out both sides. The district recommended that fact-finding begin on Feb. 8, the same day CPS says massive layoffs could take effect — which would push striking to May.

Fact-finding takes up to 75 days. Then both sides have up to 15 more days to accept recommendations — which then constitute the new contract — or reject them. If either side rejects the proposal, the CTU has to wait another 30 days before walking out.

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