The cold reality of teacher contract negotiations in Chicago:
A deficit of $400 million hanging over talks.
A Republican governor.
A mayor unwilling to give in to the union.
I’m talking about the lay of the land in 1993 during some of the most contentious negotiations ever between the Chicago Teachers Union and the Board of Education.
In 1993, the teachers buckled for the first time. “In the history of the Chicago Teachers Union, 1993 will go down as the year its armor – traditionally plated in the strength of the Democratic machine – began to show chinks,” began a Sun-Times story in September 1993.
The late Jacqueline B. Vaughn, then the strong-willed union president, convinced members to come around on $60 million in concessions. For the first time teachers began paying part of their insurance premiums with contributions of 1.5 percent of their salaries. Their pay was frozen for two years. In previous years Vaughn had negotiated favorable deals for teachers, including a contract that gave 7 percent raises to teachers twice in the early 1990s.
But by 1993, times were tumultuous. Schools couldn’t open then without a balanced budget. Court orders kept CPS open except for two shutdowns.
Back then we had a Republican governor, Jim Edgar, and a Republican-controlled Senate. Senate President James “Pate” Philip talked of introducing school vouchers. It was said that Republicans were itching to carve up CPS into smaller school districts.
But Edgar worked publicly and behind the scenes during the crisis with House Speaker Michael Madigan, Senate Minority Leader Emil Jones, Mayor Richard M. Daley and then Board of Education President D. Sharon Grant.
That doesn’t sound at all like the behavior of our leaders today.
To close the budget gap, Edgar eventually signed off on a borrowing plan by the district.
“Edgar and I had a great relationship,” Grant said this week. “He would say what he could and couldn’t do. We understood the different ideologies. We also understood we were talking about children.”
Grant currently is executive director of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center Foundation. She remembers forging alliances with the business community to pressure the union to make concessions. “They began to say, ‘Why would the Board pick up that [health care] cost?’” she said. Chicago residents, most of whom paid more than 1.5 percent of their salaries for health care premiums, also took that view.
Twenty-three years later, the union and Board of Education find themselves in similar binds. CPS needs to plug a budget gap of $480 million. It wants teachers to start picking up pension contributions the board has made on their behalf since the early 1980s. Currently, the district pays 7 percent and teachers pay 2 percent.
“It’s huge,” Grant said of the cost likely to be passed on to teachers. “If cooler heads prevail, everybody is gong to feel the pain.”
The two sides were close to a deal in January, it seemed, but the union’s Big Bargaining Team voted against it.
Eventually, the union will have to give in for some of the same reasons it did in 1993.
But here’s what bothers Grant: The city diverted funds from pensions in tough fiscal times and took pension holidays.
“This is where I agree with the union,” she said. “People going into pension funds — they needed to stop that.”
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