About a dozen people each from Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union sat at the bargaining table at the front of the room in October 2019.
Another couple dozen, the CTU’s “Big Bargaining Team,” sat behind their union leaders, passing up notes when they had a useful thought.
They negotiated for months, first in a city attorney’s office then at the union’s headquarters. Eventually they spent two long weeks at Malcolm X College on the Near West Side. When it was time to consider a proposal, each side would break off into its own room, working through countless disagreements with the shared goal of ending what would turn into the city’s longest teachers strike in three decades.
Fifteen months later, CPS and CTU are at yet another breaking point — but talks are nothing like the spectacle of 2019.
Meeting virtually on video calls, the CTU’s top leaders and a couple of union attorneys have met with a small group of CPS officials and their lawyers. The mayor’s office has had no presence at these negotiations.
Schools chief Janice Jackson this week repeated a line she and Mayor Lori Lightfoot used repeatedly in the weeks leading up to the 2019 strike: “Frankly, there is no reason we shouldn’t have an agreement right now.”
CPS officials have pointed to the nearly 70 bargaining sessions held since last summer as proof that the union’s input has been considered in the district’s reopening plan.
The CTU has a different view, largely because of who hasn’t been at the table.
Chief education officer LaTanya McDade and chief operating officer Arnie Rivera attended negotiations until August, around the time a dust-up started over whether school clerks should be required to report to work in-person at the start of the school year. They hadn’t been in any meetings since then until they returned for the first time last weekend, when the CTU was on the verge of a walkout.
Together, McDade and Rivera have as much knowledge as any duo about the ins and outs of reopening CPS and have decision-making authority.
McDade is in charge of the teaching and learning side of the school district, and this year has overseen the adaptation of lessons from classrooms to computers. McDade’s first contract talks were in 2019.
Rivera is in charge of CPS’ operations, including facilities, and has run point on getting school buildings cleaned and ventilation systems upgraded or supplemented with portable air purifiers. He negotiated with CTU during the 2012 and 2019 strikes.
Since August, CPS has had three representatives at the table: Human resources chief Matt Lyons, labor relations officer Kaitlyn Girard and attorney Sally Scott.
Lyons has handled the challenging task of staffing schools during a pandemic. It’s his responsibility to ensure buildings have enough teachers and other workers to reopen, and it’s up to him to figure out solutions for shortages.
Others notably missing from negotiations are two City Hall representatives, deputy mayor for education Sybil Madison and senior mayoral adviser Michael Frisch, and Jim Franczek, the city’s hired labor lawyer since the 1980s, working now under his third mayoral administration on contracts with unions all over the city. Franczek has been briefed by Scott, a partner at his firm, and is still heavily involved in the city’s negotiating strategy.
With the absence of Madison and Frisch, the mayor’s office has had no representation in negotiations. Some insiders have viewed that as a positive, allowing for more productive discussions between the district and the union.
CEO Jackson has not been in meetings either — schools chiefs in the past have only gone to negotiations when it was time to close the deal, though in 2019 that fell to the mayor in a controversial City Hall meeting.
Both CPS and CTU have brought in others as needed. This week, City Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady made an appearance to share her perspective on safely reopening schools. The union has not had an epidemiologist at the table but has brought in Dr. William Mills from Northern Illinois University, whose expertise is in public health, to discuss ventilation.
The usual suspects have led the CTU’s team: Union President Jesse Sharkey, Vice President Stacy Davis Gates, recording secretary Christel Williams-Hayes and financial secretary Maria Moreno. Field representative Zeidre Foster has also been in negotiations, as has policy analyst Pavlyn Jankov for the past two weeks.
Sharkey and Davis Gates are the faces of the union, both former teachers whose children attend CPS schools. The pair has spent the past decade pushing the CTU toward social justice causes, fighting for issues that extend beyond the classroom in a progressive platform that has viewed schools as the basis for injustice in the city.
Sharkey is considered a pragmatist at the table and in public. Davis Gates is as much of a policy wonk as the union boss but is known for her more blunt talk that energizes members to support the fight. Williams-Hayes and Moreno were both part of the 2019 negotiations.
Instead of bringing in the “Big Bargaining Team,” the four CTU officers meet virtually with their executive board — made up of union members who still work in schools — on a nightly basis to give updates on talks.
Robert Bloch, the union’s general counsel, has continued to represent the CTU at the bargaining table as he’s done over the past decade. Deputy general counsel Thad Goodchild is at negotiations again, as he was in 2019, and is seen by union officials as a bright legal mind and rising star.
Contributing: Lauren FitzPatrick, Fran Spielman