Chicago school-lunch workers win raises

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Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean Claude Brizard hugs and UNITE Here Local 1member Florine Herbert before announcing a 5-year collective bargaining settlement with lunch workers and move toward serving fresh food at the Chicago H.S. for Agricultural Sciences. Thursday, May 3, 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Chicago Public School lunchroom workers will receive a 2 percent raise for at least two years and see a five-year freeze on converting “cooking” kitchens to “warming kitchens” under a deal announced Thursday.

The 3,2OO-member UNITE HERE Local 1 is the first of seven unions to reach a collective bargaining agreement with CPS – facing a deficit of up to $700 million next school year.

Jean-Claude Brizard, in announcing the first labor deal since Mayor Rahm Emanuel named him schools CEO, said the contract shows, “We are willing to work together to find common ground.”

Under the agreement, lunchroom workers who now make on average $12.50 an hour will see a 2 percent raise in each of the next two school years. If the Chicago Teachers Union – still locked in contentious talks – wins a bigger raise for their teacher aides at any time over the five-year lunchroom deal, lunchroom workers will win that raise, too, said Local 1 President Henry Tamarin.

“We encourage you to keep up the momentum with other bargaining units,” Tamarin told Brizard Thursday.

In contrast, CTU contract talks have moved into the fact-finding stage, a development triggering a strict timetable that could end in a strike vote if a contract can’t be reached.

“We are focusing on finding a solution to the teachers’ contract and we keep hearing about strikes,” Brizard said, referring to recent internal teachers union polls that indicated at least 75 percent of teachers at 150 schools are willing to strike if talks go unresolved.

After reneging on a promised 4 percent teacher pay raise this school year, the district offered teachers a two percent raise next school year only, followed by a one-year pay freeze and then three years of raises based on merit, union sources say. The offer comes amid plans to lengthen both the school day and year.

The CTU’s issues with CPS are so different that “We do not view the [lunchroom workers] contract as setting some kind of a precedent with us,” CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said Thursday. “It was adequate to them. I understand that one of their priorities was promoting fresh food and they got that.”

Both sides were beaming at the announcement of Thursday’s deal at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. One school cook presented Brizard with a white apron emblazoned with “Let’s Cook!” and then gave him a hug. Brizard in turn presented union workers with a food basket filled with items grown or made at the school.

Lunchroom workers had lobbied heavily against CPS’ increasing use of warming kitchens, which reheat frozen food, in one-third of the system’s elementary schools. Plus, most of the new schools built in recent years use the warming-kitchen model, which eliminates the need for lunchroom cooks.

A five-year freeze to the warming kitchen conversions amounts to “a five-year job security plan” for existing lunchroom workers, said one UNITE member, Stephanie Tonie.

And it also adds up to better food for kids, one Chicago Ag freshman noted.

Andres Tejeda said there’s a “big difference” between Chicago Ag’s freshly cooked food and the warmed-over frozen grub served at his old elementary school.

“This food tastes a lot better. … At our old school we got food in a cardboard box,” said Andres, 14. “I think cooking kitchens give more the feeling of home. The food tastes like it’s homemade.”

Other parts of the deal reached after two months of negotiations include:

â—† Free courses that allow workers to earn a sanitation certificate required for associate managers and cooks.

â—† A move away from the current sick day policy to a program that includes maternity leave coverage. Eighty percent of UNITE HERE members are women and Brizard said they shouldn’t have to bank sick days in order to accumulate enough time to care for a newborn.

â—† The formation of a union and CPS “Good Food” committee that will meet monthly to identify best practices promoting “healthy, fresh, sustainable and environmentally responsible food,” according to a statement.

District officials Thursday also unveiled a new website they said offers the public “timely and factual information” about negotiations with the district’s seven unions:

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