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CTU chief tells rallying teachers: 'When we must, we will withhold our labor'

The Chicago Teachers Union plans to show its numbers Monday evening in Grant Park as its 26,000 members prep for a vote that could authorize the second teachers strike in three years. | Sun-Times file photo

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said Monday night at a Grant Park rally that teachers don’t want to strike, as they did in 2012, but they will, if they must to protect “our professions and our classrooms.”

In front of a screaming crowd of thousands who braved a frigid night to show their strength, and joined by legislators, pastors and other labor leaders, Lewis said, “It is time for us to act.”

“We must show the city, the mayor’s handpicked Board of Education and even our students and parents that Chicago’s public school educators will stand up for what is just and fair, and together we will fight to protect our professions and our classrooms,” Lewis said.

“No teacher wants to go on strike,” she continued, as the crowd bundled up in the union’s signature red shouted, “No”.

“We prefer to be in front of our students, but we know that when we must, we will withhold our labor. Because this is the root of our power as organized labor, and if we must strike, we do so to protect the interests of our students.”

The CTU still has no contract to replace the one that expired June 30. Negotiations continue on a weekly basis at what Chicago Public Schools characterizes at “a normal pace,” but lately with help from a mediator. And CPS still needs $480 million to fill its current budget hole, money it’s been seeking in vain from Springfield. The district says it’ll have to borrow more money and make deep cuts if help doesn’t come through.

State law requires the CTU to muster at least 75 percent of its members before striking. In 2012 when members struck for the first time in 25 years, about 90 percent of them voted in favor of it. In what the CTU called a practice poll taken earlier this month, 97 percent of voting members said they’d vote to strike for the second time in four years.

CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey told the thousands who faced the cold that “Very soon, you will have the chance to answer the question of how much resolve you have. When you do the answer will be yes.”

Afterwards, Sharkey would not say exactly when the union might call for such a vote but only that the city “should expect it.”

The parties still must seek help from a fact finder, another step required by that same law that takes about 100 days to conclude, before teachers can walk.

The CTU formally asked on Monday to begin that process, meaning the soonest the union could walk out is early March, about a month after CPS could lay off an unknown number of teachers and other CTU members.

CPS wants the fact finder to start on Feb. 8, which is the start of second semester and the first day those massive cuts would take effect. That would push the strike until late spring at the earliest, closer to the end of the school year.

In an interview with the Sun-Times’ Editorial Board earlier Monday, CEO Forrest Claypool said negotiations were “progressing at a normal pace,” with the mediator so far listening to both parties.

But Claypool vehemently denied any practice vote was taken, calling the four questions posed to teachers a “push poll.”

“That’s not a strike vote. Saying you agree with the union to fight for this and fight for that isn’t a strike vote. There was no strike vote, despite what you reported there was no strike vote.”

“I would look at the questions,” he continued. “You can’t draw a line from any of those questions to a strike.”

“I think it’s normal if you ask teachers, ‘Do you want a contract and are you concerned about a contract?’ — that’s not the same thing as saying we all want to strike.”