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CTU delegates approve contract — but strike continues after mayor refuses demand for makeup days

The CTU House of Delegates met for more than two hours Wednesday night.

Teachers met Wednesday night to vote on a new contract.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The Chicago Teachers Union’s governing body voted Wednesday to accept a tentative agreement with Chicago Public Schools, but the city’s longest teachers strike since 1987 will continue after Mayor Lori Lightfoot refused to accept the union’s demand that the district make up all 10 school days missed during the walkout.

The tentative contract agreement passed in an unusually split vote, with 362 delegates in favor to 242 against at a contentious meeting with heated debate that eventually put the months-long battle on the verge of a resolution.

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey speaks during a news conference at the union’s Near West Side headquarters.
Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey speaks during a news conference at the union’s Near West Side headquarters.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

But the caveat that the mayor agree to make up lost time and pay appeared to leave the two sides distinctly far apart with, yet again, no clear end in sight.

At a late news conference, Lightfoot said union leaders, during a three-hour meeting at City Hall Tuesday, raised six issues that they said needed to be addressed for them to end the strike. Compensation for missed days was not among them.

“CTU leadership has chosen to throw a curveball into the process rather than say yes to victory for the members and our students,” Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot said she addressed the six issues of concern and called the deal the most “generous” contract in history.

“CPS has given the CTU a historic deal by any measure,” she said.

But it was too late to add to the agreement, she said.

“At this late hour we are not adding any new issues,” she said. “I’m not compensating them for days they were out on strike. ... I’m not going to negotiate.”

Asked about the missed days of instruction, Lightfoot admitted: “Harm’s been done to our children. The fact that our children will not be in school tomorrow is on them.”

Though union officials said teachers were willing to walk back into school the next day if the mayor called Wednesday evening to say she would agree to make up the lost time, CPS announced soon after that school was canceled Thursday, the 11th day of missed classes since the walkout Oct. 17.

Addressing reporters after the vote at the CTU’s Near West Side headquarters, union president Jesse Sharkey said “it’s a contract we can believe in,” but that teachers were adamant that they wanted to make up lost days.

“We’re not walking away from two weeks of school,” Sharkey said. “This has always been a thing. It’s labor law. Strikes end with a return to work agreement.”

Instead, Sharkey said, “what happened is this is a mayor who has felt personally affronted and challenged by the fact that teachers have been on picket lines.”

‘Tremendous gain’

Despite the decision to carry on with the strike, CTU vice president Stacy Davis Gates said the tentative agreement was filled with historic achievements, including $35 million to address class sizes.

“We’ve never had class size enforcement in the history of the contract,” Davis Gates said.

But that wasn’t so clear to nearly half the delegates in the room and potentially thousands of members across the city who told the union leaders that they were willing to hold out for a better deal on a myriad of issues, including class size, teacher preparation time and special education.

Several delegates — and even bargaining team members — voiced their displeasure publicly and on social media that the deal didn’t achieve more.

Davis Gates, however, said the deal on the table was still a big step forward for working conditions, and she said the agreement on the most contentious issue, class size, was a “tremendous gain.”

“We’ve been on strike for 10 days. You don’t go from zero to 100 in a moment. Our members are tired. They’re sleep deprived. We’re anxious,” Davis Gates said.

“We do not expect consensus in our house. ... What happened here tonight was absolutely expected. It is raucous in this house.”

All 25,000 union members still must vote to ratify the deal.

Though they were split on the deal, union members appeared unified on the demand that lost time be made up.

The days would mostly have to be added to the end of the school year for the teachers to get all their lost pay back. There are, however, a select number of days during the year when students don’t attend school and teachers don’t get paid. Those could be changed to attendance days to make up some lost time and pay.

The last day of school on the CPS calendar is June 16. If all the missed days were added to the end of the year, school could continue until June 30.

Contract terms

The deal approved by the governing board had a five-year term, the length the city had offered from the start of talks. The union had wanted a three-year deal.

It includes 16% raises over the life of the deal, and virtually no increase in healthcare costs.

The teachers had pushed hard for additional preparation time for elementary school teachers, but it appeared the only new prep time in the contract was for kindergarten teachers.

The union received a guarantee that there will be a full-time dedicated nurse and social worker in every school by July 2023 with staffing ramping up from now until then.

On class size, a new joint council will be created to address overcrowding. The council will get weekly updated data and will have $35 million per year to address situations on a case-by-case basis.

Overcrowded classrooms will only get relief, however, when they hit certain hard caps. Those limits are: 32 students in a K-3 class, 35 kids in grades 4-8 and 32 students in core high school classes. The district’s guidelines for normal-sized classes — ones it says it “shall aspire to stay within” — are 32 for K-3, 31 for grades 4-8 and 25 for core high school classes.

So remedies for overcrowding will only kick in when there are 4 or 7 students above what a normal class should have, according to the agreement.

The deal included a “net zero” increase in the amount of board-authorized charter schools over the contract’s lifespan.

There is also a provision that says CPS and the union will work on developing curriculum and training on restorative justice practices.

Help in Springfield?

On Tuesday, the mayor had rejected a last-minute demand from the union to back its push for a new law creating an elected school board and another bill that loosen restrictions on what CTU can strike over. She said she didn’t believe backing the union’s legislative agenda should be a part of contract negotiations.

On Wednesday, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and Illinois Senate President John Cullerton signaled support for both measures. That led the union to drop its demand the Lightfoot publicly support the measures.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said the statement intended to serve as a reminder of Madigan’s support for those bills.

“I think probably the CTU membership felt that a reminder was a good thing to have,” Brown said. “A good statement of support, if you will.”

Senate Democrats soon after sent a statement announcing they will push for both measures.

State Sen. Robert Martwick, D-Chicago, said on Facebook live that he had “just received word that as a result of some of the negotiations regarding the Chicago teachers’ contract, this bill, the elected school board is going to get receive full legislative consideration in the upcoming year,” Martwick said. “That’s right, ladies and gentleman, we are going to get a hearing on the elected school board here in the Senate, and hopefully we’ll vote on it and then really hopefully we pass it and it becomes law.”