Monday, September 17, 2012


Teachers Union in Chicago to Extend Strike Into 2nd Week


Nathan Weber for The New York Times - Chicago Teachers Union delegates on Sunday. Union leaders and city officials had reached a tentative deal on Friday.

September 16, 2012 CHICAGO — The Chicago Teachers Union extended its strike into a second week on Sunday, after significant divisions emerged among union delegates over a deal that only a day before had been described by the union’s leader as “a good contract.”

How the Chicago Public School District Compares>>

<<Nathan Weber for The New York Times - Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, after the meeting on Sunday.

The announcement came after nearly 800 union representatives, the House of Delegates, convened for several hours to decide whether to end a strike that has drawn national attention in the debate over teacher evaluations, job security and the length of a school day.

The decision forced 350,000 students in the nation’s third-largest school system to begin another week without classes and with no strong indication of when they might resume.

Many Chicagoans had assumed school would start again on Monday, after union leaders and city officials reached the outlines of a deal on Friday, ending what had been days of long and sometimes contentious talks.

But inside the closed-door meeting of the union’s House of Delegates on Sunday, opinion was split. Some delegates wanted to accept the deal and return to school immediately, while others said they needed time to digest its details, which they had not known until Sunday’s meeting. Still others objected to the new terms of the contract entirely, suggesting that a resolution of this entire chapter may yet be far from reach.

“I think everybody wants to be back in the classroom, but I think everyone is nervous about a bad contract,” Kevin Hough, one of the delegates, said as he left the meeting on this city’s South Side, where delegates had decided in a “standing vote” to continue their strike. A clear majority, those present said, wanted to wait. “In the end I think it’s wise for members to have a day to review the contract,” Mr. Hough said.

The decision infuriated school system officials, who had advised parents on Friday to be ready to return their children to school on Monday, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has suggested since the teachers began striking a week ago that they ought to return to the classroom even as negotiators finished the contract. Mr. Emanuel said he was now instructing city lawyers to seek a legal injunction to end the strike. He deemed the strike “illegal on two grounds,” saying that it was called over issues that teachers are not legally permitted to strike about and that it endangers the health and safety of children.

“I will not stand by while the children of Chicago are played as pawns in an internal dispute within a union,” Mr. Emanuel said in a statement. “This was a strike of choice and is now a delay of choice that is wrong for our children. Every day our kids are kept out of school is one more day we fail in our mission: to ensure that every child in every community has an education that matches their potential.”

Beyond Chicago, the notion that the strike would not, as expected, end immediately could also prove troublesome for President Obama, who has so far stayed neutral in the fight between his former chief of staff and labor, though both are expected to play a crucial role in fund-raising and voter turnout efforts nationwide.

For some parents, the continuing crisis — and the news late Sunday that it would go on — created a crushing problem: How to juggle a second week with alternative child care. “We’re spending half of our life trying to figure out what to do with the kids this week,” Roger Wilen, a lawyer and parent of three, said on Sunday evening. “This is ridiculous.”

Last week Mr. Wilen and his wife had tested nearly every option for their children — finding a baby sitter, working from home, using an alternative school program, even taking the children to work — and were, by this weekend, feeling tested themselves. “We need them in school,” he said.

As they had a week ago when the strike began, schools officials said Sunday that they would open 147 schools with nonunion workers as a contingency plan for children with nowhere else to go. Attendance at those alternative programs had been low in recent days, as parents said they felt uncertain about sending their children to schools they did not know and supervisors they had not met.

Sunday’s developments came as a setback to the union’s bargaining team, which felt it had secured an agreement its delegates might accept, even if it did not quell every concern voiced at protests across the city over the last week.

“There’s all kinds of stuff that they’re concerned about,” Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, who played a pivotal role in negotiating the tentative deal, said as she emerged from the meeting with delegates. “This is the deal we got.”

The delegates agreed to meet again on Tuesday, Ms. Lewis said, adding that the earliest that schools could open would be Wednesday. Eventually, some 26,000 union members will need to vote on whether to ratify the new contract, but the delegates had been expected to end the strike well before a vote could be completed.

It is unclear whether the tentative agreement merely needs study by union delegates and members, or whether its terms are in more serious jeopardy. All along, the contract fight here has focused on an wide array of issues, including teacher evaluations, job security, pay, benefits and more.

Earlier, negotiators for the schools and for the union had seemed satisfied with the tentative deal they had hashed out. Both sides were claiming victory about its contents.

Leaders from the school system said the most important provisions for changes — shifts pressed most notably by Mayor Emanuel — lived on in the latest proposal: students here would attend school for more hours and more days a year than before; principals would decide which teachers were hired; and teachers would be evaluated, in part, based on student test scores.

But Ms. Lewis and the union negotiators said their strongest wishes were intact in the proposal they brought to delegates on Sunday. Among their claimed victories: Teacher raises were to be maintained for those who seek additional education and for those with a certain experience level; the schools would agree to hire additional teachers to handle longer school days; and most experienced teachers could not be fired for the first year of the new evaluation system, which would be something of a test run.

“We believe this is a good contract; however, no contract will solve all of the inequities in our district,” Ms. Lewis said, in a release issued on Saturday night.

The proposed contract — a three-year arrangement with an option for a fourth — would have given an average teacher a more than 17 percent raise if it ran all four years, more than had been offered a week ago, the school system said. It was uncertain how the schools were going to pay for raises, which were predicted to cost in the “high $300 million” range at a time when the system has a significant budget deficit, estimated at $1 billion next year. Chicago Public Schools officials say an average teacher here makes $76,000 a year, though union officials have said the figure is lower.

On Sunday, as David Stieber, a delegate, left the meeting, he said he wanted more time to examine the contract in all its detail. He said he also wanted other teachers at his school on the city’s South Side to have a chance to look, and see what they thought.

Of the decision to continue the strike, he said, “We’re showing you an example of true democracy, and that means talking to everybody — even if that takes a little extra time.”

A version of this article appeared in print on September 17, 2012, on page A1 of the New York edition

Chicago teachers strike continues, Emanuel says he will sue to force end

By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah and Joel Hood, Chicago Tribune reporters |

10:55 p.m. CDT, September 16, 2012  ::  What was thought to be a done deal unraveled Sunday as Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis was unable to sell union delegates on ending the teachers strike, likely leaving more than 350,000 Chicago Public Schools students locked out of the classroom at least two more days.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel late Sunday called the walkout "illegal" and pledged to seek an injunction in court to force an end to the city's first teachers strike in a quarter century.

Delegates had met with Lewis for nearly three hours to review the tentative contract that had been brokered after months of negotiation, but ultimately extended the strike instead.

"They're not happy with the agreement. They'd like it to be a lot better for us than it is," Lewis said. "This is the deal we got. This is not a good deal by any stretch of the imagination, not (compared) to what our members are (used) to having."

Delegates expressed frustration that they hadn't been given more time to consider the lengthy contract revisions and said they would meet with their members Tuesday, after the Jewish holidays.

Lewis acknowledged returning to classes Wednesday may be optimistic, considering how difficult it has been for the union and CPS to find agreement on many key issues.

Emanuel called upon CPS officials "to explore every action possible" to return students to school. He has maintained for over a week that the two major sticking points in negotiations — evaluations and the ability to recall teachers who have been laid off — are not legal grounds for a work stoppage.

"I will not stand by while the children of Chicago are played as pawns in an internal dispute within a union," Emanuel said in a released statement.

It would appear the earliest that the district could get an injunction to get students back in school would be for Tuesday classes.

"That's one day they don't have right now," said Emanuel spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton. "Our signal is that we're serious about getting kids back in school."

Delegates could have ended the strike with a vote Sunday, but only the union's full membership of roughly 26,000 teachers and paraprofessionals can approve the contract. Lewis said delegates wanted more time to digest the details.

"To go on strike is pretty serious stuff, and to call off a strike is pretty serious," said Jay Rehak, a union delegate and veteran English teacher at Whitney Young High School. "We need to go to our members to know how they feel about this. We didn't want to speculate."

The vote Sunday was a surprise. Momentum had been building for a tentative agreement since Friday, when CPS officials and union leaders announced that they agreed upon a framework for a new teachers contract. All that had to be worked out over the weekend was some of the sticky details that had proven so difficult.

In the 10 months since contract talks began, Lewis and union leadership have riled up rank-and-file members with talk of being bullied and disrespected by Emanuel's aggressive approach to education reform. The mayor's push to lengthen the public school day and year without collaboration with the union, struck a nerve with union leaders who, in turn, entered negotiations demanding a 30 percent raise.

Lewis ended talks Friday saying she was "very comfortable" with the deal she was taking to delegates. But as the meeting unfolded Sunday, Lewis had the difficult task of reining in their high expectations.

"Let's be real," Lewis told them at one point, asking them to "have some honest conversations" about the deal in front of them.

"This contract is not going to solve everything," she said.

At one point, Lewis asked, "Are we going back to school?"

Delegates shouted back "No!"

Afterward, some union leaders were seen in tears, exhausted. They had been working 27 hours, around the clock since Saturday morning, on finishing the written language of the agreement.

Rehak said delegates understood the pressure on them to end the strike Sunday.

"That weighed on us," he said. "We thought about our children. We thought about our colleagues. We thought about all of that."

Lewis also said delegates are concerned about up to 120 schools being closed in coming years.

"That's what the big elephant in the room is with our members. They are concerned about this city's decision on some level to close schools," she said. "They are extraordinarily concerned about it. It under-girds just about everything they talked about."

But in continuing the strike, the union runs the risk of losing the support of parents who have backed them up to now.

"The exercise of the power to strike carries with it a special responsibility to those not at the table — the students and parents — and to the realities facing the district," said Terry Mazany, CEO of Chicago Community Trust and the former interim CPS chief. "To press further is to jeopardize the respect and good will gained over the past many months."

On Monday, CPS will again offer free meals and activities for students at 147 schools, as well as dozens of churches, libraries and other sites.

If the strike goes past Wednesday, Emanuel will consider other options to get kids back in school, an administration source said.

At least one alternative being looked at is opening up more slots in charter schools for students, according to the source. The administration considered that as part of its earlier contingency plan in preparation for a strike. But the process is labor intensive and would likely require Board of Education approval to create more slots at charter schools that are currently in operation.

The delegates' decision pushed the city's teachers strike into a second week and, once again, sent parents scrambling to find child care options on short notice.

"It's very frustrating," said parent Humberto Ramirez. "We all kind of put everything on hold in finding different ways to watch the kids and keep them entertained. It's been very, very frustrating, especially knowing that (last week) they were close, that they were simply going to be putting it to a vote."

Tribune reporters Diane Rado, Kristen Mack, Mitch Smith and Jennifer Delgado contributed.

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