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Pedro Martinez

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez speaks at City Hall on Jan. 4, 2022. The Chicago Teachers Union recently blasted Martinez as a “Lightfoot leftover” over his approach to contract negotiations.

Manuel Martinez

The Chicago Teachers Union criticizes CPS leadership over state of contract negotiations

After helping elect one of their own to the mayor’s office, CTU is now at odds with the previous mayor’s pick to lead CPS – calling him a “Lightfoot leftover.”

The Chicago Teachers Union is blasting Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez as a “Lightfoot leftover,” referring to former Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and criticizing his approach to contract negotiations, marking a rapid deterioration of the relationship between the powerful union and the head of the city’s schools.

While the teachers union is only escalating through words so far, not actions, they aren’t ruling out more significant steps — even a potential strike vote if they don’t see progress in bargaining by the end of the summer, CTU Vice President Jackson Potter said.

“Hopefully, we won’t face that,” Potter said in an interview Thursday. “Part of us raising our concerns in an animated and sharp way right now is because we want to do everything in our power to avoid that kind of impasse.”

In a letter to members posted on the CTU website, Potter said the union must start taking a harsher tone in negotiations. The CTU contract expired June 30, but contract negotiations typically last past expiration through the summer and into the fall.

While this represents a fracture between the union and school district, it also shows that both are in precarious positions as they get into the thick of these negotiations. The union is under pressure to deliver a good contract for its members, especially after spending big money to get former CTU organizer Brandon Johnson elected mayor. But the school district is facing a budget deficit of more than $400 million and even more in future years. And lobbying efforts by the mayor’s office, CPS and CTU for more state funding didn’t yield results this spring.

With the CTU unlikely to criticize Johnson directly, Martinez has become the union’s main target.

In response to Potter’s letter, school district officials said they have been following the union’s lead and negotiations are set to ramp up. In coming weeks, CPS plans on negotiating with the union twice a week and for full days, said Ben Felton, CPS’ human resources chief. The district has also agreed to public bargaining sessions, which have never been done before.

“CPS is committed to continuing to work with CTU to reach a fair contract,” Felton said. He also said there were a lot of details to be worked out before any agreements are made, noting the union has presented the district with hundreds of proposals.

Felton also pushed back on Potter’s suggestion that Martinez should have attended the first public bargaining session. He said CEOs never get involved this early in negotiations.

The CPS-CTU acrimony of the past had died down the last couple years. Martinez’s tenure got off to a shaky start with difficult return-to-school negotiations in January 2022 over concerns of the pandemic. But the schools chief and union had forged some peace even while former Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who hired Martinez and was a sworn enemy of the union, was still in office. And once Johnson, a former CTU organizer, was elected mayor last year, Martinez had no choice but to build a positive relationship with the union.

That seemed to be working; the CTU has spoken positively of Martinez over the past year, and Johnson opted not to hire his own CPS CEO.

Martinez and the CTU even traveled to Springfield together in May to advocate for more state funding for the district. While CTU leaders heralded this as a breakthrough, they also criticized Martinez for not putting it together sooner.

“We cannot afford to wait late into the legislative session to make a clear case for equity and critical investments to ensure fairness in the educational system,” Potter said at the June Board of Education meeting. “Please don’t be like the Cubs and start playing in the ninth inning. It’s not going well for that team. It won’t go well for us.”

Still, Potter was somewhat measured in those comments last week. But then on Wednesday, Potter and union leaders blew up any public appearance of harmony, directly pointing the finger at Martinez for the negotiating troubles.

“Going into negotiations, we were prepared for things to be different,” Potter wrote, citing Johnson’s election. But he added the union was “still leery of the ‘Lightfoot leftovers’ in key positions at CPS.

“While some members of the CPS bargaining team and the newly configured labor department within the mayor’s office have facilitated our progress in multiple ways, one large issue is presenting itself: Pedro Martinez’s old approach,” the letter read.

Potter told members CPS hasn’t provided “a single substantive proposal throughout this process” and isn’t talking in detail about the union’s proposals. The CTU also lamented recent layoffs of CPS staff and claimed “CPS is setting up a scenario where special education is at risk if they replace essential staff with cuts.”

Asked if the union is calling for Martinez to be replaced, Potter said CTU leadership has not reached that point and is still hopeful they can see progress in negotiations and build a better relationship.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on X @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

Nader Issa covers education for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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