Photo: Ashlee Rezin Garcia, AP
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CHICAGO (AP) — A Chicago teachers strike could be weeks away if there isn’t a last-minute deal between the union and the nation’s third-largest school district.
The Chicago Teachers Union on Wednesday set a strike date of Oct. 17 as contract talks continue over issues including pay and benefits, class size and staffing shortages. Negotiations resumed with fresh urgency this week as the vote loomed.
Without a deal, a walkout could mean major headaches for the district’s nearly 400,000 students and their families.
A closer look at the issues:
THE UNION’S DEMANDS
The Chicago Teachers Union, which represents about 25,000 educators, maintains the school district’s years of budget woes has led to cutbacks of critical staff members, including nurses and librarians, which makes conditions worse for teachers.
The union wants a nurse and librarian at every school, more social workers, class size limits that are strictly enforced and movement on what they call “social justice” issues, like further sanctuary protections for immigrant students.
As for pay, the union wants a three-year contract with annual raises of 5% and a rollback of employee health care contributions increased in a previous contract.
“This is on more than just money,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey. “We are making clear to the other side and the public that the issues we care about have to do with our teaching and learning conditions in the schools.”
THE DISTRICT’S OFFER
Chicago Public Schools officials say their “historic” offer includes a 16% raise over a five-year contract. By the district’s calculations, a second-year teacher earning $53,000 could have a salary of $72,000 by the fifth year, considering other raises based on years of work. A new teacher would start at nearly $55,000.
CPS officials acknowledge staffing cuts and have announced plans to add 200 social workers and 250 nurses over five years. They’ve also promised not to privatize certain support staff.
On health care, the district says a rollback isn’t possible with rising costs and proposed increased contributions the last two years of the contract.
“Our offers represent fair deals that can be reached quickly,” CPS officials and Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in an open letter this week. “No one wants a strike, and with these comprehensive offers on the table, we are hopeful that one will be averted.”
Negotiations resumed with fresh urgency this week after over 90% of the union’s voting members last week authorized a walkout.
The union says the raises don’t benefit all educators equally. Both sides say they have made progress on sanctuary policies but are far apart on others.
While both agree there should be more nurses, social workers and librarians, the union wants it guaranteed in writing. The district says that promise doesn’t belong in the contract because schools should have local control.
The district has said it doesn’t have money to lower class sizes further and argues that it has made progress. State data show class sizes remain, on average, below district targets. But there have been instances of overcrowding.
Because of a 1995 state law, teachers technically can’t strike over many issues outside compensation, like class size. But they’re allowed to negotiate them at the bargaining table. The district and union are negotiating four days a week.
The dispute with teachers is one of Lightfoot’s first major hurdles after taking office this year.
The former federal prosecutor campaigned on a progressive platform, including school reform. The outcome of the labor fight sets the stage for her first term in public office and comes as two other unions connected to schools _ for park district employees and support staff like custodians _ have also inched closer to strikes.
The teachers union says strikes elsewhere nationwide, in which teachers generally fared well, show the public is on their side. There have been recent strikes over similar issues in West Virginia, Denver, Los Angeles and Oakland, California. Also, CTU has also boosted its social media, added a teacher podcast and revamped its website to focus on negotiations.
CPS has also tried to win public backing, including launching its own website this week on the status of negotiations.
The district released its strike contingency plans late Wednesday, saying schools would remain open during a walkout but no classroom instruction would take place. Breakfast and lunch would be served with administrators and nonunion employees staffing schools.
The contract fight comes amid district financial problems.
School officials recently approved a $7.7 billion budget and the borrowing of billions more for facility upgrades. The district’s finances are better than previous years, due in part to revenue from a property tax hike approved in 2015 and Illinois’ new school funding formula. But financial experts say systemic issues remain as CPS still has a junk status credit rating.
While there was a one-day work stoppage in 2016 over unfair labor practices, the last major strike was in 2012.
It lasted seven school days as teachers demanded higher pay and job security, and argued that proposed teacher evaluations were punitive. The strike was Chicago’s first in a quarter century and came amid a tense public feud between then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former CTU President Karen Lewis. The district also faced a $700 million budget hole.
The first Chicago teachers strike was in 1969, with a series of walkouts over pay in the 1980s.
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