With Dolly Parton's "9-5" and Aretha Franklin's "Respect" energizing the crowd, thousands of teachers and their supporters gathered inside Chicago's Auditorium Theatre before taking off on foot to protest outside Chicago Board of Education headquarters.
"We want what's best for the children. It's not about us. It's not about [Mayor Rahm] Emanuel. It's not about [Schools Chief Jean-Claude] Brizard. It's about the children. And that is what we are here for," Tiffany Robinson of Burnside Scholastic Academy said Wednesday.
Teachers say they're upset with contract talks, especially the offered two percent raise to work a longer school day this fall. They also take issue with a possible new pay system designed to award high-performing teachers and those who teach hard-to-staff subjects such as math and science.
Busloads of teachers and supporters arrived at the theatre at 50 East Congress Parkway for a 4:30 p.m. rally. Those who couldn't make it inside gathered in a sea of red T-shirts at a nearby park near Michigan and Congress.
One sign seen at the protest likened Emanuel to Hitler.
"I think it's apropos. The way they're coming down on unions and coming down on the middle class it's wrong, and I think it's time we stand together in solidarity and let our concerns be known," said James Karalus.
When they took off to march through the Loop, they were shepherded along once again by Chicago's barely-rested bicycle cops, and they seemed to find a lot of support from passersby.
"I think it's great because teachers are the most underpaid people, I think, in the world," one woman said.
Nearly 80 percent of teachers voted down the latest contract offer. A 75 percent vote is needed to authorize a strike.
CPS hopes that action can be avoided.
"We respect our teachers and the work they do on behalf of our kids every day," Brizard said in a statement. "They deserve a raise for that work, but our children can’t afford a strike. That’s why we are working with an independent negotiator to find a compromise proposal that fairly compensates our teachers and starts the school year on time."
An independent panel is reviewing offers from both sides, and a CPS spokeswoman said the union should wait until after they see the report "that could serve as a compromise for both CTU and CPS to consider to avoid a strike."
"The CTU today should fully commit to this process and declare no strike authorization votes will be taken before allowing their members to first review the independent fact finder’s compromise report," Becky Carroll said in a statement.
The union doesn't think that argument makes sense, given that the report doesn't come out until July when school is already out. They say a strike vote could be taken when most appropriate. CPS urges them to wait.
"We support providing all of our teachers with a raise and fairly compensating them as they are charged with the most important work of all in educating our children," Carroll said. "However, it is up to the independent fact finder to analyze all such collective bargaining issues."
Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey said during a Tuesday press conference the city is "heading in the wrong direction."
"There is no funding for a longer day," Sharkey said, noting "there are 160 schools with no libraries" and "the city is opening 60 new charter schools."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday morning was scheduled to announce "two innovative partnerships between CPS and two Chicago colleges to improve access to a high-quality education for children in Chicago neighborhoods."