Could school resume Monday? ‘That is absolutely our hope,’ CTU says after good day of negotiations

With a 7th day of classes canceled, this year’s strike now matches in length the bitter 2012 walkout.

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Chicago Teachers Union members briefly shut down the intersection Damen and Carroll during civil disobedience training Thursday.

Tom Schuba/Sun-Times

While Chicago students are set to miss a seventh day of classes Friday, meaning this year’s strike now matches the length of the bitter 2012 city teachers strike, Chicago Teachers Union leaders said Thursday that it’s “absolutely our hope” kids would be back in school Monday.

The more upbeat tone struck after the day’s negotiations marked a clear shift from a turbulent few days that saw thousands marching in the streets against Mayor Lori Lightfoot as both sides lobbed attacks at each other.

“I’m standing here tonight with our bargaining team and our officers after a full day of bargaining where we’ve made good progress,” CTU chief of staff Jennifer Johnson told reporters after Thursday’s talks. “Today was a good day.”

Asked whether the union expects to get a deal in time for students to be back in class on Monday, Johnson said, “That is absolutely our hope. And we’ll see where we are tomorrow.”

City and schools officials matched the teachers union’s optimism Thursday night, saying in their own news conference that they were “focused on continuing to have productive conversations.”

“I think that we’ve made some great progress, and that is very encouraging for us moving into tomorrow,” said LaTanya McDade, Chief Education Officer of the Chicago Public Schools. “And so we’re really hopeful that the progress we made today will lead us one step closer to getting to a really strong agreement.”

CPS officials said earlier in the day that the district’s latest offer included a full-time nurse and social worker in every school, something the union has been demanding for months. CTU leaders Thursday night didn’t contest that assertion — contrasting with the past few days when they were quick to point out deficiencies in the city’s proposals.

In their back-to-back press conferences, neither side gave substantive answers to questions about the day’s discussions, likely hoping to avoid disrupting progress in the fragile negotiations.

Matches 2012 strike

Still, the duration of the strike matching the one seven years ago comes as a surprise given the stark difference in events and rhetoric leading up to the walkouts.

This time around, it comes against a new mayor in Lightfoot who campaigned on a progressive platform that mirrored CTU’s priorities for schools and who offered generous raises. There were also relatively muted attacks between the two sides in the weeks preceding the strike.

In 2012, the CTU waged war against former Mayor Rahm Emanuel after he canceled raises and sought to impose a longer school day and year. The teachers union despised Emanuel enough to try to unseat him with their own charismatic president in the next mayoral election until she fell ill, though their leadership also backed Lightfoot’s opponent in the most recent race.

The positive end to the day came as Lightfoot offered frustration over the toll of the work stoppage earlier Thursday.

During a morning announcement of the expansion of mental health services in Chicago, Lightfoot said “every day that goes by there is another cost to our students and their families.”

She added: “I wouldn’t say bargaining has stalled, but we are certainly not making the level of progress on a day to day [basis] that we need to. We hear every single day the hardship that this [is] causing ... students and families.”

She lamented the impact the strike was having on kids in the college application process.

Civil disobedience training

The union, too, seemed to brace for a longer walkout earlier Thursday when it announced a Saturday morning rally with other unions at Union Park on the Near West Side. It later announced a rally for Friday at Buckingham Fountain.

And in an effort to ratchet up pressure to reach a deal, members of CTU and SEIU underwent civil disobedience training, where many said they would be willing to face arrest for doing things like blocking traffic and shutting down building lobbies.

“What we want to do is ... advance our message as clearly as possible and put as much possible pressure on the mayor to settle this problem as quickly as possible,” said Alex Han, a staffer for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, who helped lead the training.

The members emphasized that demonstrations would remain non-violent. As part of the training, they briefly shut down the intersection of Carroll and Damen avenues Thursday afternoon.

While anyone arrested will likely be issued a citation and released on a recognizance bond, union officials said they would offer legal services and support. However, striking teachers could still be reprimanded by the school district.

A spokesperson for the teachers union, who asked not to be named, noted that CPS “has a track record of retaliating against members ... who participated in political actions that have resulted in arrest.”

“Any retaliation that CPS engages in against a member is something that we will bring the full force of the union forward to defend them,” the spokesperson said.

‘Pulled too thin’

At a news conference earlier in the afternoon, a couple hundred special education teachers and case managers called for increased staffing and support to handle the needs of the district’s students.

Samantha Heatley, the case manager at Farragut Career Academy High School, said her caseload has 170 students with Individualized Education Plans, which detail the support the district must provide for individual special education students.

“Something has to be done. There’s not enough time in the day for me to do everything I need to do and hold meetings.” Heatley said.

“I cannot do it all by myself. I just get pulled too thin. Some days I have 12 meetings scheduled. There’s not 12 hours in a school day, so how do I do it?”

The union said the goal is to eventually have one case manager at every school in the district with more at schools that have a high number of special education students.

SEIU asks Lightfoot to come to the table

Meanwhile, the president of the union representing 7,500 striking school support staff workers wrote a letter Thursday morning urging Lightfoot to go to the bargaining table and personally help end the work stoppage.

SEIU Local 73 President Dian Palmer asked the mayor to “sacrifice your time and stay at the table until a fair agreement is reached.”

”We can come to an agreement, one that will give our members, some of the lowest-paid workers in CPS, a pathway out of poverty,” Palmer wrote.

At a news conference discussing the letter, Larry Alcoff, the head negotiator for the union, said the request for the mayor to join negotiations “is not a publicity stunt. It is not playing a game.”

In her own letter Thursday evening, Lightfoot shot back at Palmer, saying she “will not be drawn into a political stunt.”

Lightfoot wrote that she is “happy to participate directly in negotiations at any time that it would be helpful,” but that the union must “demonstrate first a willingness to negotiate in good faith” before she joins talks.

The critical letter from the mayor signaled a sharp escalation of the rhetoric surrounding the tense negotiations.

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