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35,000 Chicago teachers, school support staff and park district workers set joint strike date

The joint strike dates mean the schools and park system could be shut down at the same time.

Teachers at a house of delegates meeting voted to set a strike date of Oct. 17.
Nader Issa/Sun-Times

Chicago’s teachers, school support staff and park district workers have set a joint Oct. 17 strike deadline, giving the city and 35,000 public employees less than 15 days to hammer out deals and avoid leaving nearly 300,000 students out of school with the city’s parks shut down.

Though an actual work stoppage could still be averted if City Hall and the unions come to an agreement in the coming days, the strike date likely guarantees the tense negotiations will come to a head this month.

Leaders from the Chicago Teachers Union and Service Employees International Union Local 73 — the union that represents some school support staff and the majority of Chicago Park District workers — announced the unified deadline Wednesday evening as chanting workers in red and purple shirts filled the CTU’s Near West Side headquarters.

“The mayor has a difficult choice right now,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey told reporters after elected CTU delegates from schools around the city voted on the date. “The mayor can either do what’s right at the table, or can face a unified strike of both CTU and SEIU together.”

In and of itself, 35,000 public employees joining picket lines at the same time is a daunting prospect for city officials. But when joined with the fact that the school district has in the past opened Chicago Park District buildings to students during teachers strikes, the unified action could put added pressure on the city to get the deals done.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson said in a statement Wednesday evening that the city is “fully prepared” for a strike, and that school buildings would be kept open “to ensure students have a safe and welcoming place to spend the day and warm meals to eat.”

“We will continue bargaining at an aggressive pace to reach a deal that is fair to our teachers and staff, supports the record-setting progress we’ve made, and promotes the best interests of Chicago families, so that we do not have to open our school buildings without the educators and staff members who are so crucial to our district’s success,” the mayor and schools chief said.

The earliest the CTU’s 25,000 public school teachers and support staff — including clerks, teacher assistants and nurses — could have decided to walk out was this coming Monday. A strike deadline that early would have given the two sides only five more days to work out an agreement.

But the mid-October date allows more time for a deal to be worked out and lets CTU members walk out with SEIU’s 7,500 school support staff workers — which include special education classroom assistants, bus aides, security guards and custodians — and 2,500 Chicago Park District employees.

Sharkey said setting the strike date 10 days later than they could have is proof CTU and SEIU prefer to work toward deals at their respective bargaining tables, and that a strike would be their “last resort.”

“CTU stands side-by-side with SEIU,” Sharkey said. “The schools don’t work without all of us.”

Sharkey said the city made its first “serious” offer at the end of last week after teachers voted 94% in favor of a strike. Still, he said the school district’s proposal fell short in a number of key areas, including teacher preparation time, class sizes and how to address staffing shortages.

And though the union is willing to meet more often in an effort to get a deal done — they’re now meeting four times a week — the CTU wouldn’t look kindly on being pressured into accepting a last-minute proposal.

SEIU Local 73 President Dian Palmer said the support staff and park district workers are “united with CTU, and we are united with workers who are standing up for themselves.”

“One of the first questions that was asked of us is do we do we feel guilty that we will not be there for our children,” Palmer said. “But I have a question for the mayor, and I have a question for the people that run the parks and the schools: Do they feel guilty when they pay workers less than $20,000 a year?”

Higher wages, especially for the lowest-paid, part-time employees, have been the biggest issue on the table for SEIU 73 workers.

Lightfoot was asked earlier Wednesday whether she expected to begin her history-making administration staring down the barrel of such a massive disruption that could leave parents struggling to find childcare.

“The reality is we’ve got teachers. We’ve got police. We’ve got fire. There’s a lot of balls in the air. I’m not naïve about the complexities here,” Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot reiterated that the city has offered a “very fulsome compensation package” to school and park district employees. The same 16% raise over five years has been proposed to both CTU members and SEIU 73 school support staff.

“When we think about the possible disruption, cancelling of extra activities, kids who are applying for early college admission, the hardship and burden it’ll put on parents and students, we should get a deal done,” she said.