CTU says hopes ‘dashed’ for quick end to strike after letter from mayor, bad day at bargaining table

But Lightfoot said the day went well, and criticized the union for saying it won’t bring its full team to bargaining Tuesday.

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CTU president Jesse Sharkey talks to the media after negotiations ended on Monday, the fifth day of the strike.

Nader Issa/Sun-Times

With a fourth day of classes canceled and dozens of city soccer teams forced to forfeit state playoff games, the Chicago teachers strike is stretching on to Tuesday — and potentially much longer — as union leaders say their hopes have been “dashed” for a quick resolution.

Despite optimism from both sides heading into the day, the turn for the worse started early Monday, union officials said, when Mayor Lori Lightfoot urged the union to end its strike and send teachers back to work while negotiations continue.

Jesse Sharkey, president of the 25,000-member Chicago Teachers Union, said he walked into bargaining Monday morning feeling “hopeful” about a deal in “fairly short order.”

“But then later this morning I received a letter from Mayor Lightfoot,” Sharkey said.

“I don’t know if the mayor knows how labor negotiations work. ... We’re not going back to work without a legally binding agreement.”

Sharkey said the union was also irked by Lightfoot’s comments later in the afternoon that “there is no more money” left to offer.

“What happened today, in the letter and speech, dashed my hopes,” he told reporters outside Malcolm X College on the Near West Side, where negotiations wrapped up before 8 p.m., more than an hour earlier expected.

Union vice president Stacy Davis Gates said negotiations had become “stuck” after days of good signs.

Much of the day was spent discussing the city’s class size proposal, which the union said it was disappointed to realize didn’t include language to make caps enforceable, didn’t include harder class size limits and wouldn’t apply to high schools.

The union said it wouldn’t send its full bargaining team to negotiations Tuesday.

Late Monday, the mayor put a different spin on the day’s events, saying she thought negotiations had gone well and she criticized the union for not bringing everyone back to the table.

“We were encouraged today by the improved pace of bargaining and substantive discussions on key issues, so it is now deeply concerning to hear that CTU is pulling members of its bargaining team away from the negotiating table tomorrow at this crucial juncture,” she said. “Our full team will be ready first thing tomorrow morning to continue working toward the fair contract our teachers, students, and families deserve.” 

In Lighftoot’s letter to Sharkey, she noted the two sides have “made progress at the bargaining table, it is unclear that we can reach an agreement today given the current pace.

“The students and families of Chicago cannot afford to be out of school for any longer, which is why we are asking you to end the strike and encourage your members to return to work while bargaining continues,” the mayor wrote.

Signs of longer strike

While the day ended on a bitter note, signs were already pointing to an elongated strike.

The union is welcoming Democratic presidential candidate and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to town Tuesday morning and planning a rally outside City Hill on Wednesday during the mayor’s budget address.

The Board of Education also canceled its monthly meeting scheduled for Wednesday and the two sides booked their bargaining room at Malcolm X through the end of the week.

At a press conference later Monday afternoon, Lightfoot said the city had no more resources to give the union beyond the funding it has already committed.

“We cannot strike a deal based on the illusion that there is Lincoln Yards money available that we can just shift somewhere else,” she said, referring to more than $1 billion in subsidies that were committed to a massive new development on the North Side — a process which started under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “That’s not realistic and it just doesn’t work like that.”

She added: “Enough is enough. There is no further excuse to keep our kids out of school.” 

The CTU wish list would cost $2.4 billion and cause a 40% increase in the CPS budget, she said.

She said it wasn’t that long ago that a cash infusion thanks to Springfield moved CPS back from the brink of insolvency. But much of that windfall went toward shoring up pension funds, she noted.

“There’s not some unlimited pool of money that we can fund everything on the CTU wish list,’’ she said.

Lightfoot also complained that a 40-person CTU bargaining team is “unwieldy” and means CTU cannot “get back to us more quickly” on city proposals.

“I applaud them for their democracy, but that’s coming at a real cost, and the pace of this thing has to be accelerated,” Lightfoot said. 

The mayor may have received her wish, because the union said Monday night that it wouldn’t have its whole bargaining team show up Tuesday if no progress would be made. Instead, the union said only its four officers would be at the table until things started moving in the right direction again.

Sharkey originally says deal possible ‘later this week’

Before the day turned sideways, Sharkey had told reporters on the Northwest Side that the two sides could reach an agreement in “a day or two.”

“I don’t see any reason why it can’t happen later this week,” Sharkey said outside Gray Elementary in Portage Park.

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey speaks at the Chicago Teachers Union Headquarters in December 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

CTU President Jesse Sharkey said there was a “tremendous amount” of progress in negotiations over the weekend, but “we’re not there yet.”

Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Sharkey said he understood the strike was tough on students, parents and teachers who wanted to get back into the classroom. He said his own son’s high school soccer team qualified for the state playoffs and would miss out on its game.

Some of the issues he said still need to be addressed — other than the main points of class size and staffing — are wages for the district’s lowest-paid support staff, teacher preparation time and salary bumps for veteran teachers who have “no meaningful career ladder” after about a dozen years with the district, he said.

The union also called for bringing in the Rev. Jesse Jackson as a mediator to help move talks along. But the city has not been receptive to involving Jackson in the process, a source close to bargaining said.

Union won’t end strike because of Lightfoot’s letter: Ald.

Even before Sharkey’s night-time remarks, Ald. Michael Scott (24th) predicted Lightfoot’s letter wouldn’t help.

Scott, chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, agrees “we can’t have our kids out for two, three weeks at a time.” But the union won’t go along, he predicted.

“I wish they would, however, there’s no way in the world they’ll give up their leverage,” Scott said.

Scott also believes Lightfoot’s administration was “late to the game” in selling its position to the public.

“The CTU is a machine. They know exactly what they’re doing. They’ve been at this game for a long time. They’ve been through several strikes,” Scott said. “They are winning that battle.”

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