Is a teachers deal close? Both sides say Saturday a pivotal day in negotiations

CTU and CPS officials were muted in their remarks Friday, indicating a settlement could be coming soon.

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Thousands of striking Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Local 73 members and their supporters march around City Hall before Mayor Lori Lightfoot was scheduled to deliver her first budget address during the monthly Chicago City Council meeting.

Teachers protested outside City Hall Wednesday, but things looked rosier between the two sides Friday.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

With negotiations for a new teachers contract entering crunch time, both city and union officials say they’re inching toward a deal and shying away from publicly attacking each other to avoid disrupting progress at the bargaining table.

But by failing to reach an agreement this week, the two sides are heading into the weekend with a pivotal day of bargaining set up for Saturday if they’re to avoid what would be the city’s longest teachers strike since 1987.

After talks ended for the day Friday evening, neither side would answer any substantive questions about the day’s discussions, continuing the previous day’s more muted approach in public.

Chicago Teachers Union president Jesse Sharkey said talks were progressing on some issues but there still weren’t any “critical breakthroughs.”

“We’re at a point in bargaining where there’s not a huge number of issues, but it’s the important issues and the things that we need to be talking about,” Sharkey said. “Hopefully we can get over the hump, but I will say that it still requires some resources and still requires some will from the political leadership of this city.”

Asked if the two sides were purposely pulling back the punches in public, something they hadn’t done until Thursday, Sharkey said “negotiations at this point are sensitive.”

“And, you know, we’re consciously trying to do our talking at the bargaining table and not just be out here throwing elbows,” he said.

Chicago Public Schools Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade said she’s “hopeful” talks could wrap up over the weekend but acknowledged there’s still disagreement on some key issues.

“I think we’re in a space where in any negotiations situation, you get to a point where there’s the big issues on the table that you just have to continue to work through. And that’s where we are,” McDade said.

The CTU’s full bargaining team was not at negotiations Friday, with only the union’s officers and attorneys present. Neither CTU nor CPS officials commented negatively on that decision — in contrast to earlier in the week when Mayor Lori Lightfoot criticized the fact the full team wasn’t there.

The two sides are set to go back to the bargaining table Saturday morning to try to hammer out a deal in time for the union’s House of Delegates — its governing body with 800-plus school-level delegates with voting power — to convene and put an end to the strike.

That fact that both sides said little Thursday and Friday —the sixth and seventh days of canceled classes for 300,000 students and the ninth day of the strike — is a good sign, according to Robert Bruno, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s School of Labor & Employment Relations.

“Typically the closer you are to a deal, the fewer words you speak at press conferences or [when] talking to the media,” said Bruno, who wrote a book about the 2012 CTU strike, which led students to miss seven days of school, and plans to pen another about the current strike.

Unscripted remarks could have consequences.

“You really don’t want to be saying things off the cuff,” he said. “There’s a lot to do and you don’t want to derail it because of a poorly expressed thought.”

With both sides saying they hope to get a deal done in time for school Monday, Bruno said that jives with what has happened in Illinois in the past. Typically, walkouts in Illinois do not move into a third week, he said.

“I guess we’ll see, it’s not an exact science, it’s more of an art,” he said of reaching a deal.

Police stop march from blocking traffic on Lake Shore Drive

In the afternoon, striking teachers and support staff rallied near Buckingham Fountain before taking off on yet another march through downtown.

At one point they tried to move their rally onto Lake Shore Drive, a move that was off-route from the planned path of the march and appeared to put into use the civil disobedience training the CTU hosted for about 400 members on Thursday.

But as a line of Chicago police officers on bicycles created a barrier to block the teachers’ path to Lake Shore, a police supervisor told the crowd the police couldn’t protect them if they deviated from a protected route and onto the busy motorway.

“If you go otherwise, you all saw Charlottesville,” the officer told strikers, referencing a car attack on protesters two years ago that killed a woman. “If someone hurts you, that’s on you. I cannot protect you.”

Friday also saw a pair of rulings on high school sports competitions, with a favorable decision for Simeon’s football team that would allow them to compete in the state playoffs if the strike ends before Wednesday, and another that blocks CPS cross country teams from competing this weekend.

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