City Hall should prepare for a teachers strike — and be ready to tough it out

If the teachers get 16 percent raises over five years, you can bet Chicago’s cops and firefighters will ask, “Why not us?”

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Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey (center, right) and Vice President Stacy Davis Gates (center, left) march with members of the CTU and SEIU Local 73 through the Loop on Monday.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The likelihood of a teachers strike looms heavily over Chicago, and no one wants that.

But no responsible Chicagoan should want City Hall to buy labor peace at any price, either. That would be foolish at a time when our city is facing an $838 million budget gap and the threat of a hefty property tax increase.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her negotiating team, having already handed the teachers generous deals on pay raises and health care coverage, should hold the line on further contract concessions that would drive up the price for all Chicagoans.

If the teachers walk, so be it.

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As we write this editorial, we don’t know precisely what will be in the city offer that the union’s House of Delegates on Wednesday is scheduled to vote on. If the delegates reject the offer, 25,000 CTU members will strike on Thursday.

So, too, will 10,000 members of Service Employees International Union Local 73. which includes other school employees — teacher assistants, custodians, security officers and bus aides — and some Chicago Park District workers. Both unions will strike, unless both can reach a deal.

The CTU, as we see it, has already won, especially on bigger paychecks and no requirement to chip in more for their health insurance.

But what, we have to wonder, has Lightfoot’s negotiating team gained in return?

A union negotiation should be approached as an opportunity for a better contract by both sides. But what long-term win for the taxpayers or schoolchildren, such as perhaps a greater kick-in by the teachers into their pensions, can City Hall claim?

Nothing at all, best we can tell.

The city, right out of the gate, offered the CTU a guaranteed 14% raise over five years, with a modest 1.5% increase in health care costs and no change in the current pension payment structure. CPS would continue to pick up most of teachers’ pension costs, for teachers hired before Jan. 1, 2017. For teachers hired after that, CPS would continue to provide salary increases to cover the amount of the pension pick-up.

The union said, “No thanks.”

So City Hall sweetened the deal. It offered a guaranteed 16% raise over five years, a negligible 0.75% increase in health care costs and, still, no change to the pension payment structure.

Those 16% raises are effectively more than 20%, when “step” and “lane” increases for experience and education are added in.

The teachers will get all of that — come hell, high water or a likely national recession — and be pulling in average pay of almost $98,000 by the end of the five years.

But still the union is saying, “No thanks.”

Why are we focused on money issues while the union insists that their larger concern is advancing the cause of social justice by, for example, writing a provision for affordable housing into their contract?

Because this is where Lightfoot should be focused as well. Whatever deal she makes with the teachers on salary and other monetary benefits will become the floor for future negotiations with all other city unions.

If the teachers get 16 percent raises over five years, you can bet the cops and firefighters will ask, “Why not us?”

The mayor is not negotiating one contract. Practically speaking, she is negotiating three or four contracts, maybe more.

The union is insisting that class-size caps and hiring commitments be written into the contract, and we’re sure most other Chicagoans would love that, too — if it all came free of charge. Everybody wants smaller classes and more nurses, social workers and librarians.

But the additional hires and other union demands, school CEO Janice Jackson estimates, would cost the city up to $2.5 billion.

Who’s going to pay? In hindsight, maybe the city shouldn’t have offered those 16% raises so quickly.

The last thing Chicago can afford to do is return to the days of wholesale borrowing and pension payment “holidays.” That’s what got our town in the financial mess it’s in.

When Richard M. Daley was mayor, he gave the teachers 4% to 5% raises that the city could not afford, desperately wanting to avoid a strike.

Daley got his labor peace, but at too high a price, setting the stage for the teachers strike in 2012.

City Hall and Mayor Lightfoot should have seen this tsunami coming.

The CTU has been vocal about its social justice agenda for years, like other teachers unions across the country. And the same voters who swept Lightfoot into office also voted, in big numbers, for aldermanic candidates who supported the union’s activist agenda.

The CTU was never going to stick to bread-and-butter issues. And Lightfoot should have been better prepared to counter with her own educational and financial demands.

Nobody wants a strike. But we fear City Hall has already given away most of the store.

City Hall should be prepared for a strike — and ready to tough it out.

Or Lightfoot has zero negotiating leverage.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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