Talks between Chicago’s school district and its striking teachers union were “not close” to a deal late Saturday night despite making steady progress, leaving the two sides increasingly unlikely to reach an agreement in time for students to head back to school Monday.
More specifically, they were $38 million apart by the end of the night with little indication that would change anytime soon. Few other details were available from bargaining at Malcolm X College as negotiators remained at the table until midnight, when city officials emerged from negotiations appearing exhausted and disappointed by the lack of a deal.
“We spent the last 14 hours bargaining today, and we are not close to where we need to be on the big issues,” said Sybil Madison, deputy mayor for education. “We’re going to return tomorrow and work diligently to close the divide.”
Soon after, Chicago Teachers Union president Jesse Sharkey and vice president Stacy Davis Gates said that the union’s most recent proposal asks for an additional $38 million in funds over the city’s last offer.
“That’s the distance that remains between the two parties,” Sharkey said. “We feel like we need to be able to get there.
“We have made what we believe is a reasonable proposal, which would bridge the final gap and get a contract done. It’s not very far apart,” he added. “We need the board to make an effort and get that last distance.”
However, Sharkey said the city’s last offer did not address the union’s concerns about class sizes for 60% of the district’s schools. Preparation time for teachers also remained a sticking point.
The teachers union is seeking a three-year deal, while the city has asked for five years. Sharkey said that if the city met its demands on the additional funding and addressed class size and teacher preparation time, “only then” would they consider accepting the longer timeline proposed by the city.
Sharkey said a CTU House of Delegates meeting had not been scheduled for Sunday, adding that they’re “looking to have something more definite” before calling a meeting.
For school to resume Monday, the House of Delegates — the union’s governing body with 800-plus school-level delegates — would have to meet by Sunday and vote to approve any tentative deal. If the strike results in the eighth day of classes being canceled Monday, it will have officially surpassed the bitter 2012 strike and become the city’s longest schools walkout since 1987.
The whirlwind day started with an apparent disruption in talks when a top Chicago Public Schools official Saturday morning accused the CTU of a “breach of trust” at the bargaining table, throwing a wrench into negotiations.
City officials wouldn’t specify what spurred their concerns and union leaders said they weren’t sure what caused the newfound friction. Both sides since Thursday have avoided incendiary public comments that would derail talks while trying to hash out their remaining disagreements.
But the CPS official’s comments Saturday followed the leak of a sensitive bargaining document that included details from a federal mediator about the latest discussions between the two sides. The release and contents of the document, which was only available to negotiators at the table, had not previously been reported.
The one-page document, which the Chicago Sun-Times obtained Friday, included a so-called “supposal” from the mediator, Emil Totonchi, who has sat in on negotiations since May. Totonchi since 2016 has worked for the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, a government agency that acts as an independent intermediary in labor negotiations.
The document was labeled as “off-the-record confidential” and did not reflect Totonchi’s own independent recommendations.
But it did include details on some of the union’s latest proposals that they created with his help in hopes of reaching a deal. Those included an extra $32 million on top of the district’s current offer to reduce class size, $10 million more to increase staffing, $19 million more toward salary hikes for veteran teachers at the top of the pay scale and low-paid paraprofessionals and another $10 million to increase stipends for athletics coaches.
All in all, the document showed that, as of Friday night, the two sides remained $71 million apart for the first year of the contract.
Although the gap had been cut in half by Saturday night, it was unclear what specific progress had been made on the issues that had not been resolved.
Walking into contract talks Saturday, LaTanya McDade, the district’s chief education officer and second in command to schools chief Janice Jackson, said she had “serious concern” about a breach of trust but didn’t go into further detail.
“We left the table [Friday] night really determined to bridge the divide across the table on some of the really big key issues that are still at play, that we’re going to be addressing this morning,” McDade said.
“Following the close of negotiations yesterday evening, there was a breach of trust that gives us some serious concern as we come back to the table this morning. Our plan is to address that at the table, and we will continue to bargain in good faith and work really hard to get to a place where we can reach an agreement that gets our students back in the classroom as soon as possible.”
A CPS spokesman declined additional comment, saying he wouldn’t go into any detail about the school district’s concerns.
CTU president Jesse Sharkey told reporters after a Saturday morning rally in Union Park that he didn’t know what the breach of trust was, adding that they were in a “sensitive” part of negotiations.
“It’s not uncommon when negotiations are at this stage for emotions to be high,” Sharkey said. “We just have to manage our emotions and keep at the hard work that’s required to go through and try and get a contract that represents fairness in our schools.”
Until Saturday morning’s frustration, both sides had spent the past two days publicly expressing real optimism and hope that a deal could be reached over the weekend to send the district’s 300,000 students back to school at the start of the week.
But despite both sides publicly saying they had reached a point where they could focus on the key issues at the table, a union memo sent to the CTU’s 25,000 members before negotiations Saturday showed only partial agreements on 11 of 35 outstanding demands — and partial agreements or “movement” on just five of 13 “priority issues.”
That document, separate from the one that likely caused the “breach of trust” comment, showed there was “movement” on the key issues of class size and staffing, though there were holdups on the union’s demand to put in firm limits on class size.
The memo also showed the union was still pushing for its demands on secondary issues such as teacher evaluations, CPS’ school rating system and stipends for teachers to buy school supplies. There was “no movement” on many of those topics, according to the memo.
‘This is what makes our movement strong’
Activists from all corners of Chicago’s organized labor community attended the Saturday morning rally at Union Park for a show of solidarity with the CTU and the 7,500 striking school support staffers with SEIU Local 73.
“This is what makes our movement strong [and] why we’re able to go to the bargaining table and win real improvements in our schools,” Sharkey told a crowd of a few hundred. “It’s because we represent the will of the people in every neighborhood in the city.”
Sharkey said while the union wants to reach an agreement that would reopen schools soon, it won’t settle for a deal that doesn’t “represent clear advancements for our schools.
“Our members want to get back to school, but we need to be able to reopen the schools in Chicago with the members of SEIU Local 73 and the members of CTU Local 1 walking back into school together,” Sharkey said. “We’re going to have a deal that gets this done for both of our unions. That is solidarity.”
Evelyn Davis-West, a CPS special education classroom assistant and SEIU Local 73 member, gave an impassioned speech calling on the city to reach a fair contract agreement that would bring students back to school.
Davis-West said she is raising two CPS children, but is supporting the strike so they can return to a more equitable education.
“I’m not raising no fools. I’m raising scholars, and we need our kids back in school, Mayor Lightfoot,” Davis-West said. “We’ve always been at the bottom of the barrel, but enough is enough... We’re fighting for our livelihoods and for families to have more.”