Emanuel calls teachers strike ‘one of choice — not of necessity’


Mayor Rahm Emanuel talks about the teachers strike on Thursday, saying: “This notion of taking a strike — it’s one of choice, not of necessity because you have a 13 percent pay raise on the table,” he said. “We had a basic agreement. It not only secured their pay raise. It secured their pensions. That’s why they agreed to it.” | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Chicago’s second teachers strike in four years would be “one of choice — not of necessity,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Thursday, calling a pay raise on the table a “fair offer” that would stabilize teacher pensions.

In branding the walkout set for Oct. 11 as a “strike of choice,” Emanuel employed some of the same rhetoric he used during the 2012 walkout by the Chicago teachers, the city’s first in 25 years.

It didn’t work then. The strike dragged on for seven days and ended with the Chicago Teachers Union getting the better end of the deal.

The mayor can only hope that the same rhetoric works now with Chicago homeowners, who have just been hit with a $250 million property tax increase for teacher pensions.

“This notion of taking a strike — it’s one of choice, not of necessity because you have a 13 percent pay raise on the table,” he said. “We had a basic agreement. It not only secured their pay raise. It secured their pensions. That’s why they agreed to it.”

Emanuel did not mention the givebacks CPS asks of teachers, such as the elimination of a 7 percent pension benefit and the doubling of health care contributions in its proposal.

Rather, the mayor pointed to the inconvenience endured by parents, and a strike would compound that parental scrambling at a time when school enrollment is continuing to decline because of recent budget cuts and political uncertainty.

“Think about it from your own experiences when a child is sick — just sick for a day. What that does to your schedule. . . . How you’ve got to make all of these arrangements. This is totally unnecessary. . . . This is avoidable. It’s not necessary to put this unfair burden on parents,” Emanuel said. “I’m optimistic because I don’t think this is necessary. . . . We can work this out. Put politics aside.”

There’s no way teachers are getting 13 percent more pay, CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey said at the end of a third straight day of bargaining.

“I know the mayor hasn’t been at the negotiating table. If the Board of Education was truly offering a 13 percent raise then I don’t think economics would be an issue in this contract,” Sharkey said.

“He really has to take a look at, rather than taking money out of the school system, look at how he can put money back into the school system,” Sharkey continued, calling on Emanuel to tap surplus millions from tax-increment financing districts to pay for the contract. “When we say the mayor has the power to solve this problem, what we mean is is a political solution that’s in the process which would move enough money to the schools to settle the contract.”

But on Thursday, Emanuel sloughed off that pressure from the CTU to agree to a stalled ordinance co-signed by nearly 40 aldermen that demands that TIF money “not pledged, earmarked or designated for payment and securing of TIF contractual obligations” be forwarded to CPS.

The policy would provide an estimated $130 million to the Chicago Public Schools this year, roughly enough to offset the need to phase out a 7 percent pension pickup granted to teachers years ago in lieu of a pay raise.

And it would continue during any year when the CPS bond rating is “below investment grade” and total operating expenses exceed operating revenue by “five percent or more,” the ordinance states.

“In every one of my budgets, we have swept TIF surpluses to help strengthen [CPS] finances]. We froze downtown TIFs last year. We will in my budget have another sweep of TIF surpluses,” Emanuel said.

“But don’t mistake long-term stability for a short-term, one-time [bailout]. That’s all that TIF does. . . . What about the following year? What about the year after? The goal of this budget is to stabilize and strengthen the finances for every year going forward — not for a one-year. . . . The taxpayers in Chicago who were asked to step up was not one-time. It was permanent stability. When the state did what they did, it was also . . . the permanent part of the solution.”

The mayor also noted that CPS has been the “primary beneficiary” of TIFs — to the tune of $100 million last year and $1 billion over the last decade.

As he did four years ago, during a strike that battered his national image long before his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video, Emanuel said he would “work tirelessly of course” to help avert a strike.

He can only hope that parents turn up the heat on the union to call off the walkout and agree to a deal that CTU President Karen Lewis called a “serious offer,” only to have the union’s 40-person bargaining unit turn thumbs down before an independent arbitrator upheld the agreement.

Taping the WLS-AM Radio program “Connected to Chicago,” to be broadcast at 7 p.m. Sunday, Gov. Bruce Rauner said another teachers strike would be a tragedy for Chicago students, their parents and taxpayers in general.

But if it happens again, Rauner — who once used the words “virtually illiterate” to describe “half of teachers” in CPS — urged his old friend Emanuel to be a whole lot tougher on the teachers union than he was in 2012.

“An elected official has to be able to withstand a strike and manage through it. That’s their job. Otherwise, whatever the taxpayer-funded union wants, they get to dictate terms,” said Rauner, who beat the drum against the CTU during the 2012 teachers strike.

“Rahm didn’t do that four or five years ago,” he said. “And that allowed a group against the taxpayers to overrun him.”

At a press conference, he also described a strike as “terrible,” saying “CPS has been financially mismanaged and structurally mismanaged for decades. The mismanagement is coming home to roost. I hope that they can work it out.”

Meanwhile, schools CEO Forrest Claypool said details of a $15 million contingency plan to keep kids safe and occupied during strike days will be released next week. He refused to say whether he can envision an agreement that preserves the 7 percent pension payment.

Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson argued that a “disruptive” strike “can be averted.”

“It gives a heightened level of uncertainty for our parents. They don’t deserve that. We just came off a very tough year,” Jackson said. “Our job is to work as hard as we can, continue to negotiate so we can bring about the stability that the children and families of Chicago need and deserve.”

Emanuel, Claypool and Jackson addressed that imminent threat of a teachers strike after a student assembly at Skinner North Classical to celebrate its designation as one of only 329 schools in the country named as “national blue-ribbon schools.”

The biggest cheer from the assembled students came when the student body president announced that Skinner students would be rewarded with an extra recess next week.

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