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CTU hopes mayor's political troubles help them get fair contract

Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, speaks during the union's Martin Luther King Education Justice Breakfast at the IUOE Local 399 Hall, Friday. | Ashlee Rezin/For Sun-Times

Teacher contract negotiations have become “more intense” and will take place on Monday, the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday holiday, between the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools, union officials said Friday.

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey suggested that the movement by the cash-strapped Board of Education with a“serious offer” stems from the political troubles of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Many groups, including the CTU, have called for his resignation over he has handled the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

“The way it’s been put is, the mayor can’t afford a teachers strike politically right now and I think that’s right,” Sharkey said after the CTU’s MLK celebration Friday. “The mayor is struggling for legitimacy politically, and one of the things he campaigned on is that there wouldn’t be another teachers strike . . . I think the only way to achieve his political ends is to try to find an agreement for this union.”

Both parties negotiating on the contract that expired last June agreed this week that absent a contract by Feb. 1, they will then start fact-finding — a state-required step in the lengthy process governing when teachers can strike. That start means the earliest teachers could walk of the job is mid-May, about a month before classes end.

Chicago Public Schools has said that the parties are trying to reach an agreement that will avoid any teacher layoffs in the middle of the school year.

Union officials have said they do not want to strike. But asked whether the CTU might take to picket lines so late in the year as students were preparing for finals and graduation, Sharkey said, “Some might say that’s a good time to walk off the job.”

Asked whether the mayor’s political woes were helping to grease some wheels, spokeswoman Shannon Breymaier wouldn’t answer directly. Instead she sent a statement saying that “both sides share the goal of making sure our focus stays on our children and their academic progress. Getting a contract deal done that reflects that goal is an important step forward that will enable us to take on the real challenge of fair funding in Springfield.”

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner wouldn’t comment on whether the Board believed it could reach a deal by Feb. 1.

Bittner did say that “CPS negotiators are focused on reaching the best agreement for Chicago’s teachers and children, and they’re working diligently in good faith to arrive at a fair contract that would prevent midyear teacher layoffs. If we succeed in reaching an agreement, it would be a show of unity to our leaders in Springfield as we continue to work to end the inequity of Chicago students getting 15 percent of the state’s funding despite making up 20 percent of the state’s students.”Union president Karen Lewis said she didn’t know either. But she wants to.“I would love to have a deal, I’m tired of this,” said Lewis, who had a brain cancer scare in late 2014. “Negotiations every day is tiring.”