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Teachers strike is over, but Lightfoot faces political fallout

Lingering animosity between the Chicago Teachers Union and the mayor could define her tenure. And bargaining missteps by the rookie mayor could make negotiating with police and fire unions more difficult and costly.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday, discussing the deal reached with the Chicago Teachers Union that has halted their strike.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Teachers Union finally reached a deal on Thursday, but even then, the union would not agree to appear with the mayor at a news conference to discuss the end of the strike. That animosity could linger.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The 11-day teachers strike, Chicago’s longest since 1987, is over for students and their striking teachers.

But the animosity between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot lingers in a way that could define the mayor’s tenure.

So could bargaining missteps by the rookie mayor that could make negotiating with police and fire unions infinitely more costly and difficult.

Lightfoot stubbornly drew a line in the sand, declaring she would not compensate teachers for days spent on strike — then agreed to five paid make-up days.

That effectively means a six-day pay cut for striking teachers, and that hurts — so much so that CTU President Jesse Sharkey and Vice President Stacy Davis Gates refused to stand with Lightfoot when the mayor announced the agreement Thursday outside her office.

“I’m deeply disappointed in our mayor. … It signals to Chicago something more ominous as it relates to how our education will be governed,” Davis Gates told reporters in the lobby of City Hall.

“Our mayor has taken out retribution on members who have fought for and won social workers and nurses every day in their school communities. … These are all of the things the mayor promised. ... In the history of return-to-work agreements, you are never docked this many days. ... That’s mean. It wasn’t an agreement. It was an or-else.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa (35th), dean of the City Council’s six-member Socialist Caucus, said Lightfoot should have come to the table “the moment she took office” to talk about the social workers, nurses and class-size limits she promised in a new teachers contract.

“If she had come to the table earlier and compromised and not been so stubborn on a number of things, this strike could have been avoided altogether or ended a lot sooner,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

“We’re seeing a similar dynamic play out right now with the real estate transfer tax. Springfield and progressive aldermen have said we need a compromise to have funding for homeless services. And the mayor is saying, `No, no, no.’”

Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), Lightfoot’s hand-picked Education Committee chairman, has already acknowledged the machine-like CTU out-maneuvered the mayor in winning public support.

On Thursday, Scott was asked whether it was a mistake for the mayor to draw a line in the sand against strike-day compensation.

“Things could have been handled differently. ... I believe she understands that,” Scott said.

Having boxed herself in with an education platform that reads like the CTU playbook, Lightfoot had no choice but to essentially give away the store to a teachers union that backed her opponent, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

In a desperate attempt to honor her “not-on-my-watch” promise to avoid a teachers strike, she quickly agreed to a 14% pay raise over five years, then upped the ante to 16%, matching the recommendation of an independent fact-finder.

The strategy violated Negotiations 101: When facing a difficult adversary, hold something back. Give yourself room to maneuver.

“She wanted to end the [threat of a] strike early, so she put a great offer up-front. It’s unfortunate that the other side didn’t see it as a great offer,” Scott said.

Former Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th) was a longtime Education Committee chairman. Chicago both endured and avoided many teachers’ strikes during his 36 years on the council.

O’Connor said the generous offer that ended the strike — and the “lines in the sand she drew that vanished” — will impact negotiations with police and fire unions, whose contracts expired nearly two-and-a-half years ago.

“Other than the fact that they can’t strike, it’s a blueprint for what they’ll want and what they’ll demand. And they’ll get a sense that, when they’re told, ‘This is it. This is the bottom line,’ they might not believe it,” O’Connor said.

Lightfoot has pegged the cost of the five-year contract at $500 million. She has insisted Chicago Public Schools, which benefited from the windfall of state funding secured by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, can afford it.

O’Connor is not so sure.

“If you look at this situation and the current budget proposal, there’s a lot dependent on other people. You just hope that she’s covering her bases to make sure those people come through,” he said.

An exhausted, but relieved Lightfoot acknowledged Thursday she “learned a lot” from the strike. She’s “grateful that it’s over and grateful that we got a five-year deal.”

Pressed on what she won, she replied: “I refuse to even talk about this in terms of winning or losing. Given the hardships that our students and families have endured, I think that’s an offensive term. Nobody wins in a circumstance like this.”