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CTU, CPS step up bargaining, agree to ‘fact-finding’ on Feb. 1 if no deal

The Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools have begun meeting daily for bargaining sessions to focus on reaching agreement on a new contract.

The two sides have also agreed to forego help the teachers union sought from the state to force Chicago Public Schools to take the next legal step in negotiating a deal. The daily meetings began last week.

CTU attorney Robert Bloch said both sides will postpone a hearing scheduled for next week before the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board for a month, and proceed to fact-finding on Feb. 1 if no contract has been reached by then.

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said the reason was that “both parties agreed that it’s important to concentrate our energy on reaching an agreement that would prevent midyear layoffs, and we continue to negotiate in good faith on that critical goal.”

This recent intensifying of the meetings and removal of distractions could signal real discussions and progress, said Robert Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who is co-authoring a book about the 2012 CTU strike.

“It’s meaningful because bargaining has a rhythm, a pacing that occurs, and typically when more meetings are being held, obviously the pace has quickened and the increase in pacing usually means genuinely substantive meat-and-potatoes discussions,” he said. “It’s typically a good sign that there is a lot of meetings and that they’re scheduled. It means that they constructively have something to talk about. You wouldn’t meet every day if you didn’t. And it signals some belief that you’re better understanding the position of the other party.”

Then again, Bruno said, “they had a whole bunch of sessions back in 2012 and that didn’t stop a strike from happening.”

State law lays out the process for Chicago’s teachers to negotiate before they can legally strike. They must bring in a mediator once bargaining alone fails. Then the parties must seek help from a fact-finder — an agreed-upon third-party arbiter who hears both sides and makes recommendations. Those recommendations can become the new contract if the school district and union approve them. Teachers cannot strike until the fact-finder has weighed in. And at some point, they must also take a strike vote, which CTU members did in December with a 88 percent approval rate that far exceeded the 75 percent needed.

Should negotiations fail before Feb. 1, the soonest teachers could walk off the job is mid-May.

In an email, Bloch said: “Not holding my breath that deal will be concluded by Feb 1.”

But union officials have repeatedly said they don’t want to strike. Their contract expired last June.

The union is now considering a four-year contract proposal CPS CEO Forrest Claypool offered in December that he says will avert huge layoffs at the start of second semester on Feb 8. Initially, it required teachers to pay 7 percent more into their pensions immediately, but also includes pay raises in the last two years of the deal, as well as reductions in paperwork and standardized testing as the union has requested.

CTU officials say that deal doesn’t net a raise, rather it constitutes an approximate 12 percent or 13 percent cut over all four years. They have submitted counter-proposals.

CPS is supposed to run out of cash later this month, according to Ernst & Young. Claypool has said he also plans to cut tens of millions of dollars from central district departments. An he hopes that along with a CTU deal and some additional borrowing, Springfield will be persuaded to approve pension help that will close a $480 million budget gap.

Meanwhile, teachers are bracing themselves for layoff notices, the union said. The teacher contract requires CPS to give 21 days notice and pay before letting CTU members go, and Monday marks three weeks from Feb. 8.