Mayor seeks legal action as Chicago teachers union votes to continue strike

September 16, 2012

Linda Lutton and City Room

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(WBEZ/file)

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration on Monday asked a Cook County judge to order striking city teachers back to work, but the judge didn't immediately agree to hear the issue until Wednesday, according to a city Law Department spokesman.

Emanuel's plan to file an injunction against the union came Sunday night, a couple of hours after the governing body of the Chicago Teachers Union, its House of Delegates, voted to continue its strike. The delegates plan to meet again Tuesday and could vote to end he strike then, putting kids back in school on Wednesday.

In its legal filing, the Chicago Board of Education argued getting kids back into school immediately is a matter of public safety.

"All of these students now face the all too real prospect of prolonged hunger, increased risk of violence, and disruption of critical educational services, and all because of decisions not of their making, in which they did not have a voice or a vote," the city's filing reads.

The city also argued the Chicago Teachers Union strike, now in its second week, is illegal because teachers are striking due to some non-economic reasons, which the city says violates state law.

Meanwhile, the union renewed its war of words with Emanuel's administration in a statement released shortly after the Board of Education filed its motion.

“CPS’ spur-of-the-moment decision to seek injunctive relief some six days later appears to be a vindictive act instigated by the mayor," CTU spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin said in the statement. "This attempt to thwart our democratic process is consistent with Mayor Emanuel’s bullying behavior toward public school educators." 

Sunday was the first day union delegates got a look at the plan. Union leaders said they wanted to take the tentative language for the next contract back to teachers before deciding to end the strike.

After the meeting, union president Karen Lewis said delegates were not entirely happy with the resolutions on teacher evaluation and recall rights, and they need more time to consider the contract.

Lewis said teachers want greater protections for teachers laid off due to school closings, and they want guarantees that a new teacher evaluation system won’t label good teachers as "bad."

"You have a population of people who are frightened of never being able to work—for no fault of their own.  They are concerned about this city’s decision on some level to close schools. They are extraordinarily concerned about it. It undergirds just about everything they talked about," she said.

The union says a “clear majority” of delegates voted to continue the strike. Susan Hickey is a social worker at two elementary schools and has been on the union’s negotiating team.

Hickey says she actually voted to return to school, but she understands the desire to scrutinize the contract.

"What does the agreement look like?" Hickey said. "It’s like 188 pages, so what they got today was a shorter version of that. And it was not necessarily cleaned up, because they’ve been bargaining all night. I could see both sides. I could see going back to school, because I’m concerned about the parent support piece. When do we lose that? And that’s a fine line."

The two sides made some headway in the negotiations. 

The union touted defeat of merit pay and preservation of so-called "step and lane" salary increases, while also claiming a three percent pay increase in first year, followed by two years of two percent raises. 

The union said a "hiring pool" would ensure that half of all CPS hires must be displaced teachers, and that for the first time the contract will guarantee that all students will have their books on first day of school. 

Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Becky Carroll sent out the district's statement on contract points. 

CPS says salary increases "averages out to a 4.4% salary increase over four years (if the fourth year is taken as an option)." She pegged the total cost of the tentative deal at $74 million per year. The last contract cost $129 million per year, she said.

The details released by CPS outline major provisions the district views as wins:

  • A longer school day and year
  • The introduction of performance-based hiring
  • And in the contentious issue of hiring, it says principals will retain full authority to choose teachers.

Lewis said when teachers actually see some of the provisions of the new contract, she thinks they’ll feel more comfortable. There are no plans right now for more negotiations. Teachers will be talking about the contract at their schools today. Delegates reconvene tomorrow afternoon and vote again on whether to call off the strike.

Lewis has maintained that what teachers are fighting for is also good for kids—she says keeping veteran teachers in the district means stability and experience for students.

The strike has put her in the national spotlight, and made Lewis and Chicago teachers the symbol of resistance to reforms being pushed nationally, including closing low-performing schools, charter schools and rating teachers by how much their students learn.

Speaking of students, there’s stress there, too… Oscar Martinez goes to Schurz High School. He’s been sleeping in, and spending lots of time at a skate park under the Kennedy Expressway.

"I would prefer to be at school right now. Because it’s gonna suck once we have to go back to school. Like, these days that we’re missing we’ve gotta make them up at the end of the school year. I don’t really want to do that. And, yeah. I hope they figure it out soon!" Martinez said.

Meanwhile, the district is expanding online courses to grammar school students and operating 147 school sites where parents can drop off children.

And a judge will likely take up the question of whether the strike is illegal or endangering the safety of children.