Teachers in Chicago Inch Closer to Possible Strike

Chicago's last major teachers strike was seven years ago

Teachers in the nation's third-largest school district are inching closer to a strike that could happen as early as next month.

After rejecting the district's latest offer, Chicago educators are back at the bargaining table negotiating issues including pay, staffing shortages and class size. The dispute follows teacher strikes this year over similar issues elsewhere, including in West Virginia, Denver, Los Angeles and Oakland, California.

Chicago's last major teachers strike was seven years ago, but the tone, issues and financial backdrop this time around are totally different. Still, shutting down roughly 600 schools could create major hassles for nearly 400,000 students and their families.

Here's a look at the situation:

WHAT ARE TEACHERS DEMANDING?

The Chicago Teachers Union, which represents about 25,000 educators, argues that the district has repeatedly shortchanged schools over the years by cutting budgets. That has led to cutbacks of critical staff members, including nurses and librarians.

The union wants a nurse and librarian at every school, more social workers and class size limits that are strictly enforced.

As for pay, the union wants a three-year contract with annual pay raises of 5% and a rollback of employee health care contributions that were raised in a previous contract.

Among other things, the union is also seeking stronger sanctuary protections for immigrant students.

"We're about more than just money," CTU president Jesse Sharkey said. "We're trying to get an agreement that is both fair to people in the schools and people who go to the schools."

WHAT HAS THE DISTRICT OFFERED?

Chicago Public Schools officials say they've made a generous offer, namely, a 16% total raise over a five-year contract, including 3% raises in each of the first three years and 3.5% in the last two. By the district's math, a second-year teacher who makes $53,000 could have a salary of $72,000 by the end of the contract, factoring in other raises based on years of service.

CPS officials acknowledge the years of staffing cuts, but they say they are committed to increasing support staff after years of budget reductions and have publicized plans to add 200 social workers and 250 nurses over five years.

On health insurance, the district says a rollback would be difficult because of rising costs. It has proposed increasing the amount employees contribute to their health coverage in the last two years of its proposed five-year contract.

"We will do everything in our power to come up with a resolution," said schools CEO Janice Jackson. "Disrupting school is something our children can't afford."

HAS THERE BEEN PROGRESS?

Union members and district officials are negotiating several times a week, and the tone has been serious but cordial.

District officials hoped to reach a deal before the school year began, but the union rejected the district's last offer, which bumped the total raises over the five years from 14% to 16% and was based on an independent fact-finder's report.

The union says the raises don't benefit all educators across the board and that some support staff still earn low wages. Both sides say they have made progress on sanctuary policies but have work to do on health care, staffing and class sizes.

While both agree there should be more nurses, social workers and librarians, the union wants it in writing. The district says that promise doesn't belong in the contract because schools should have local control over staffing instead of mandating it.

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. For example, most elementary grades hover around 20 students per class. Still, there are examples of overcrowding. One kindergarten class temporarily had 40 students this year. The union's demands on class sizes have fluctuated.

If an agreement isn't reached, the union will take a strike vote starting Sept. 24. If at least 75 percent approve it, teachers could walk off the job on Oct. 7.

WHAT'S AT STAKE?

The clash with the union is one of Mayor Lori Lightfoot's first major tests after taking office this year.

The former federal prosecutor campaigned on a progressive platform, including school reform, and the fight with the powerful union will set the stage for years to come. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel had a contentious relationship with the CTU, and its former president, Karen Lewis, even considered running against him for mayor.

Other school employee unions, including custodians and bus drivers, are also in contract fights that could lead to simultaneous strikes. The unions say the strikes elsewhere in the U.S. this year, in which teachers generally fared well, show the public is on their side.

The labor disputes come amid ongoing financial problems.

School officials recently approved a $7.7 billion budget and the borrowing of billions more to make critical facility upgrades.

The district is in better financial shape than years past, thanks in part to revenue from a property tax hike approved in 2015 and the state's new school funding formula. But financial experts say more needs to be done to address the district's long-term finances. CPS still has a junk status credit rating.

WHAT HAPPENED IN PAST CHICAGO TEACHERS STRIKES?

CTU staged a one-day walkout in 2016 over unfair labor practices. But the last lengthy strike was in 2012 and lasted seven days. Teachers demanded higher pay, job security and disputed the proposed teacher evaluations, which they argued were unfair.

The walkout was the city's first in 25 years and the latest flashpoint in a public and nasty feud between Emanuel and Lewis. The district also faced more dire financial problems, as Emanuel inherited a district with a $700 million budget hole. He later moved to close more than 50 schools.

The first Chicago's teachers strike was in 1969, and there was a series of walkouts in the 1980s over pay.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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