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Negotiations back on track, but still no end in sight to CPS teachers strike

There’s no end in sight as the Chicago Teachers Union strike heads into its seventh day.

Striking Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Local 73 members rally on the picket line outside Oscar DePriest Elementary School on the West Side, Tuesday morning, Oct. 22, 2019. Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

First they were stalled. Then there was progress. Then hopes were “dashed.” And now they’re back on the right track.

The whirlwind that’s followed negotiations between the city and the teachers union since a strike began last week didn’t end on Tuesday, but it might have stabilized a bit.

The two sides went back to the table Tuesday morning after setbacks and heightened rhetoric the day before, and they spent much of the day discussing the union’s proposal on better funding sports programs.

“We had an incredibly powerful meeting with 25 sports coaches from around the city —elementary and high school coaches,” said Chicago Teachers Union chief of staff Jennifer Johnson.

The coaches gave a presentation on the need for better equipment, transportation and facilities for student-athletes of all ages. They said the short-term impacts of kids missing games during the strike were tough to watch, but the long-term fixes are needed.

‘Human costs of work stoppage’

Earlier in the day, Mayor Lori Lightfoot sympathized with student-athletes whose seasons are being interrupted by the strike, including boys soccer teams which are being forced to forfeit their state playoff games.

“What we’re seeing is real human costs for this work stoppage,” she said.

The mayor was also critical of the CTU’s decision to not bring its full bargaining team to the table Tuesday. Only the union’s six officers and its labor attorneys showed up while the rest of the team went back to picket lines.

“It’s unfortunate that the larger bargaining team has decided that they’re going to take the day off,” said Lightfoot. “There should be a sense of urgency all the way around.”

The mayor had in previous days, however, criticized the union for involving too many members on its bargaining team, which she said was a reason contract talks were dragging on at a slow pace.

While there were also discussions Tuesday about class size and staffing of nurses, librarians, social workers and counselors — two of the main issues on the table — there wasn’t much progress there, the union said.

CTU leaders said the school district hasn’t committed to enforceable contract language on staffing and hasn’t agreed to harder caps on class sizes. Chicago Public Schools officials and Lightfoot have said they’re still discussing various proposals to address those concerns.

“The oxygen left the room yesterday. We rebuilt some of that energy today,” union vice president Stacy Davis Gates said Tuesday night.

Moving forward, both sides say they’re hoping the strike ends sooner than later, but they’re also making plans in case a work stoppage stretches through the end of the week or possibly even into next week.

Downtown march planned instead of school pickets

Aiming to up the pressure on Lightfoot, the union is planning a 10 a.m. rally Wednesday morning around City Hall during her first budget address.

Instead of picketing at the city’s hundreds of schools, teachers and support staff are planning to meet at four different locations on the edge of the Loop before they march in toward City Hall.

Streets in the Loop could be shut down from as early as 8 a.m. until around noon as potentially thousands of teachers and staff march through downtown. City officials urged people take mass transit and said streets could be closed on a rotating basis, including Randolph, Washington, Clark, LaSalle, Franklin and Wacker Drive.

Several community and student groups have said they’re planning to attend.

”The message is that we have the backing of students, members, parents, community allies, and that the city needs to pay attention and prioritize the needs of children and schools in communities that are low-income, that are black and brown,” said Johnson.

For Thursday, the CTU is calling for a national day of action, asking teachers around the country to show support for Chicago’s striking teachers.

“What you can do to help support is you can wear red this Thursday, October 24,” CTU president Jesse Sharkey says in a video posted to the union’s Twitter account.

A CTU spokeswoman said the union is hoping a deal gets done quickly, but that officials are making plans in case it goes into next week, too.

“We have to hope for the best and plan for the worst,” spokeswoman Chris Geovanis said. “We’re planning on this going the rest of the week. We’re assuming we’re going to be on strike. We hopefully won’t be.”

Warren, Biden lend support

Meanwhile, two major presidential candidates lent their support to teachers, including U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who joined striking workers at DePriest Elementary School on the West Side for a rally alongside Sharkey, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and other elected officials.

“I’m here to stand with Chicago teachers. I’m here to stand with Chicago nurses. I’m here to stand with Chicago’s librarians,” Warren told the crowd of a couple hundred gathered in a soggy field outside the school.

“I’m here to stand with every one of the people who stand for our children every day,” the senator said. “Everyone in America should support you in this strike.”

Warren didn’t answer a question about whether she had spoken to Lightfoot — which would be customary for a Democratic presidential candidate in a majority Democratic U.S. city.

“What I want to do is I want to give cities like Chicago a good federal partner,” Warren responded. “What we need to do is we need to ask those at the very top to pitch in a little more so that we can actually make the investments in every single child in this country. That’s how we build a future.”

Before Warren’s appearance, former Vice President Joe Biden called Sharkey with “a message of support and to say that he supports the struggle for teachers to improve our conditions in the schools,” Sharkey said.

Lightfoot downplayed the gestures, saying, “People are going to come in to catch a moment and then they’re going to leave.”

“I would expect all Democratic candidates for the presidency to support workers, that’s who we are as a party,” she said. “But at the end of the day what’s going to get it done is what happens at the bargaining table.”