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Brown: 'Practice' your patience — CPS-teacher talks could get bumpy

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. File Photo.| Ashlee Rezin/For the Sun-Times

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Some believe Gov. Bruce Rauner would like nothing better than for the Chicago Teachers Union to go out on strike again, the image of teachers abandoning their students during a budget crisis perfectly fitting his narrative of the greedy, out-of-touch public employee unions.

The worse off Chicago public schools, goes the thinking, the more pressure on Chicago Democrats to agree to portions of Rauner’s “turnaround agenda.”

CTU President Karen Lewis isn’t buying it.

“I think that’s wrong, and I think that’s wrong calculus, and it’s not surprising,” Lewis told reporters after announcing a “practice strike vote” scheduled for later this week and warning her members to start saving for a long work stoppage.

Lewis never exactly explained why she has a different interpretation of Rauner’s political equation, although she seemed to argue that Chicago teachers, students and parents are going to mobilize to prevent it from getting that far.

“If you think it’s about putting pressure on Chicago legislators, no, this is about the governor putting pressure on his friends to do their fair share,” Lewis said, who promised to wage demonstrations in “the banks” where she believes Rauner’s friends can be found.

OPINION

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I’d sure like to think that somewhere behind the scenes CTU leaders and CPS brass are talking sensibly about how to keep this from going where it seems to be headed, but I wouldn’t advise you to be particularly hopeful.

Brinksmanship seems to be the name of the game all the way around right now, and the truth is that there are few good options.

Lewis made it clear the union does not accept the threatened layoff of up to 5,000 CPS teachers during the second semester as a viable option.

She said the layoffs would be so disruptive to students and teachers as to be totally impractical.

Her message: If CPS officials proceed with up to 5,000 teacher layoffs in the second semester to close a budget gap, they might as well plan on the union shutting the whole place down.

“We cannot blow up schools because you don’t have any money,” Lewis said.

While I appreciate the sentiment, I’m not really sure what else the union expects if indeed there is no money and no help forthcoming from Springfield without union concessions.

We certainly would not expect the teachers to work for free.

And the alternatives put forth by the union Monday — pulling more money out of tax increment financing districts and levying a transaction tax on La Salle Street bankers — sounded like more of the same old wishful lefty thinking.

It’s not really clear what will be accomplished by the “practice strike vote,” which I would regard as meaningless considering that teachers could confidently cast their vote knowing it would not lead to an actual strike.

Lewis framed it almost as a way to poll CTU members on where they stand on various contract issues, while also preparing them for a real strike vote later.

“We want to make sure when we take the real one we know where we stand,” Lewis said.

CPS CEO Forrest Claypool answered Lewis’ saber-rattling with a statement accusing the union of “putting politics over what’s right for our teachers and our children.”

I hope Claypool isn’t making the same mistake Mayor Rahm Emanuel did the last time and think he can separate the teachers from their union. It’s not happening.

Claypool reiterated his request that the union join the school district in lobbying Springfield for fairer state funding.

But the union has resisted efforts to tie increased state funding to a demand — from Rauner, Emanuel and Claypool — that Chicago teachers begin paying the 7 percent employee contribution to their pension fund, an amount currently picked up by the school district. The teachers see that as a 7 percent pay cut.

“The answer to this crisis lies with Gov. Rauner and legislators in Springfield, not in strike threats,” Claypool said.

Strike threats or layoff threats. Neither is the answer.

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