Lightfoot not surprised or alarmed by CPS teachers strike authorization

Mayor says there’s a “night-and-day” difference between the events leading up to the 2012 teachers strike and now, in part, because “I’m not Rahm.”

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot

Mayor Lori Lightfoot

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Declaring “I’m not Rahm,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Friday she’s neither surprised nor alarmed that 94 percent of Chicago Public School teachers have authorized a strike and remains hopeful of avoiding another walkout.

“They’ve been working hard and messaging for quite some time that they want to push towards a strike. But we just keep doing what we’re doing, which is getting them to the table,” the mayor said.

“We can get a deal done. We should get a deal done. It’s in everybody’s best interest to make that happen. And we’re doing literally everything that we can. I repeat my offer that I made last Friday. I will clear my decks seven days a week. We will put more resources on this. We should get a deal done.”

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said later Friday that some progress was made at the bargaining table after this week’s strike vote.

“Today was an important day. The board came with a serious proposal, quite comprehensive in a number of ways,” Sharkey said. “We’re glad they did. It’s too bad it took a strike authorization vote and a strike notice in order to make that happen.”

Sharkey, however, said the city’s 40-page proposal didn’t address any of the union’s main concerns on staffing and class size, instead focusing on compensation and job advancement for paraprofessionals and support personnel, and substitute teacher staffing.

The two sides are stepping up bargaining to four days a week moving forward. The CTU’s House of Delegates is expected to set a strike deadline at its meeting next Wednesday.

Seven years ago, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s bullying missteps instigated Chicago’s first teachers strike in 25 years.

Emanuel famously used profanity in an early confrontation with then-Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, infuriated her members by canceling a previously negotiated 4% pay raise for teachers, then added insult to injury by persuading the Illinois General Assembly to raise the strike-vote threshold to 75%.

Chicago teachers were so incensed, they blew past that benchmark easily, with 90% voting to strike. They remained on the picket lines for seven days and got the better of the mayor when the strike was finally settled.

Emanuel has told associates if he had the chance to undo even one of his decisions as mayor, he would never have canceled the teacher pay raise. The move was seen as sheer arrogance. So was Emanuel’s pre-strike decision to force immediate implementation of the longer school day.

Apparently determined to avoid her predecessor’s mistakes, Lightfoot has promised not to, as she put it, “lead with my middle finger” in dealing with the CTU despite the union’s support for vanquished mayoral challenger Toni Preckwinkle.

Asked Friday to describe the difference between the events leading up to the 2012 strike and now, Lightfoot said it was like “night and day.”

“There’s a ton of differences — not the least of which is, I’m not Rahm,” the mayor said, crediting her handpicked school board President Miguel del Valle with “laying that out in bold relief” in an op-ed in this week’s Chicago Sun-Times.

“There’s not taking back of resources. All of the other things that were an issue and that really animated the ... strike from 2012. Those issues aren’t present now. They’ve got a very good compensation package. A lot of the other issues that they’ve talked about that they wanted — we put that on the table. We baked it into our budget. It’s night and day from now to 2012.”

Lightfoot initially offered the teachers a 14 percent pay raise over five years. She sweetened the offer to 16 percent to match the recommendation made by an independent fact-finder.

Asked Friday whether she was willing to sweeten the pay raise yet again, the mayor said, “From what I’ve heard ... the compensation isn’t the issue at all.”

Teachers have acknowledged the contract fight is about more than money.

They want the new mayor to put in writing their demands for smaller class sizes and the hiring of more nurses, librarians and social workers in schools. The city has also worked to cut down on existing paid teacher preparation time.

On Friday, Lightfoot argued the issue is not whether the city can afford to honor those staffing increases; it’s whether CPS can find the nurses and librarians to fill those jobs amid shortages in both fields.

Contributing: Nader Issa

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