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CTU to take new strike authorization vote — but hasn’t set date

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis speaks to the media about the strike vote after the Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates first session of the school year on September 7, 2016. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

The large governing arm of the Chicago Teachers Union, fed up about failing to reach a contract after nearly two years of negotiations, decided Wednesday night to ask members to take a second strike authorization vote in case they decide to walk picket lines later this school year.

In a show of hands, hundreds of members of the House of Delegates agreed to pass petitions at their schools between Sept. 21 and 23 to revisit how many members at large want to authorize a strike. Many walked out of the meeting carrying flyers for parents and bags of red #FairContract buttons.

A vote taken in December by secret ballot turned out 88 percent of total voting membership supporting strike authorization, but the Board of Education is challenging the validity of that vote’s timing, saying that negotiations weren’t far enough along. State law requires a 75 percent threshold.

While the new vote would shore up the union’s position, it does not answer the question on the city’s mind about whether teachers actually will walk off the job this year. For that, the CTU has to give at least 10 days notice to the state before walking out for the second time in four years, and ask the delegates to approve a start date. Neither of those has happened.

Flanked by a stage full of delegates, CTU president Karen Lewis

predicted the vote would be even higher than in December because the union opposes any pay cuts.

“I am going to defend our right to be paid,” she said.

Or as Jenner Elementary teacher Tara Stamps put it after describing conditions at many schools, “I think if you continue to treat us the way we’ve been treated, you’re asking for a strike.”

Chicago Public Schools teacher Tara Stamps speaks after CTU’s House of Delegates first session of the school year on September 7, 2016. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times
Chicago Public Schools teacher Tara Stamps speaks after CTU’s House of Delegates first session of the school year on September 7, 2016. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

As it stands, the Board of Education proposes phasing out the 7 percent it pays into pensions on teachers’ behalf in exchange for raises in the last three years of a four-year contract. Union leadership had taken that proposal to its 40-member Big Bargaining Team in January after Lewis called it a “serious offer,” but that negotiating group voted it down.

They’ve also recommended a strike if no deal is reached by October to replace a contract that expired June 30, 2015.

But talks resumed Wednesday, during which some new ideas were floated to the Board that are being considered, Lewis said.

CPS has described the offer that stands as “very generous” to teachers, but stresses that the Board is as flexible on the particulars as its sorry finances will allow.

City and school leaders have repeatedly denounced any strike for disrupting academic gains CPS students have made in recent years, such as graduating at rates that have climbed year over year, despite the district’s ongoing financial woes.

“A strike can be averted, and CPS will work tirelessly to make sure children’s education and progress is not interrupted,” spokeswoman Emily Bittner said in an email. “CPS teachers do great work — especially propelling the Chicago students’ remarkable academic gains — and we want to give them a fair raise that works within our budget constraints,”

The union wouldn’t hear it.

“The mayor didn’t get those gains ­— who got the gains?” Lewis

wondered, and then could barely be heard above her delegates’ cheers, “and quite frankly, the people who did the work got the gains.”