Chicago Teachers Union Delegates Approve Tentative Deal But Strike Continues

Chicago Teachers Union leaders address the media after its members voted to approve a tentative contract deal but remain on strike. WBEZ
Chicago Teachers Union leaders address the media after its members voted to approve a tentative contract deal but remain on strike. WBEZ

Chicago Teachers Union Delegates Approve Tentative Deal But Strike Continues

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Updated 11:30 p.m.

Chicago Teachers Union delegates voted Wednesday night to approve a tentative five-year contract in a tight vote, but they say teachers will remain on strike until the mayor agrees to make up the days lost due to the strike.

Soon after, Mayor Lori Lightfoot flatly refused to capitulate on her threat — made prior to the walkout — that teachers would not be making up the strike days. “I am not compensating them for the days they were on strike,” she said. School is canceled Thursday for an 11th day.

Lightfoot accused CTU President Jesse Sharkey of adding this as a demand, and she said she is not negotiating anything new at this point.

“The fact that our children aren’t back in school tomorrow is on them,” she charged.

To that, Sharkey seemed incredulous. Sharkey said return to work is part of any labor agreement and Lightfoot should have gotten that information from her labor attorney, who has been negotiating teacher contracts for decades.

He said this is really about Lightfoot being upset that teachers went on strike.

“Now we feel like we are just being punished because we had the audacity to defy the mayor,” he said. Making up strike days, he argued, was about recouping instructional time for students They also want to make sure their teachers are paid. He said he’s willing to negotiate around this issue.

Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery said it is common practice in Illinois for teachers to make up days after a strike. He said back in the 1970s, school districts would not make up days to punish teachers,

“Times have changed,” he said. “Our communities have rejected that philosophy.”

Sharkey urged teachers, students and parents to go to City Hall on Thursday at 10 a.m. and demand that Lightfoot give them the makeup days.

“Won’t go to bed in Portage Park and wake up in Lake Forest”

The continuation of the strike overshadowed the landing of a tentative agreement.

Under that deal, the union got the school district to agree to many of its core demands. This includes contract language that over five years will add a nurse and a social worker in every school. They also got the school district to promise to hire a host of other staff, including lots of special education case managers and homeless coordinators.

It also won $35 million to reduce overcrowded classrooms.

The union says they believe they’ve won commitments of enough money so that these promises won’t be empty. In the last few days, the union and school district were stuck over the issue of money.

Sharkey said the agreement was not perfect. 

“We are not going to bed in Portage Park and waking up in Lake Forest,” he said.

But it does have commitments around class size and staffing that have never before been in their contract.

The union also secured salary increases of 16% over the five years of the contract and minimal increase in health care contributions.

But there were some demands that the school district refused to relent on. The top one: Teachers wanted an additional 30 minutes of prep time and school district officials, who initially wanted more prep time to be principal directed, refused to offer it.

A strike for “educational justice”

The strike also did something else, beyond just producing a contract that includes language on and money for smaller classes and more staffing.

It shined a light on the bare-bones conditions in many Chicago schools. Sharkey declared at one rally that the strike was a revolt by all the people who work in or are impacted by Chicago Public Schools. He often said the strike was about educational justice.

Over the decades, Chicagoans had gotten used to schools with the bare minimum numbers of nurses, social workers, counselors, librarians, even teachers. And in the last decade of budget cuts and austerity, these staff became more scarce at many schools.

On the night the strike was declared, 25-year-veteran teacher Moselean Parker declared: “I am tired and I am not going to sit down anymore.” That seemed to be the sentiment of many teachers and staff as they walked the picket lines.

In press conference and at rallies, teachers, social workers, special education teacher assistants and even athletic coaches talked passionately about how their schools lacked resources commonplace in most other school districts.

Many teachers talked about having 40-plus students in their classrooms and they did not have any recourse.

The teachers talked about how they often had to serve as nurses or social workers because these staff were only available one or two days a week. One preschool teacher talked about how having too many children in preschool classes left some students sitting in urine for hours. Other teachers talked about how they had no help for traumatized students.

Athletic coaches said needed equipment was so sparse they often used their paltry stipends to buy bats and bases. One softball coach said her team picks up broken glass and other trash before starting practice.

Groundswell of support

And to perhaps the surprise of Mayor Lightfoot, many parents stood by the teachers. Parents said they knew firsthand how bad conditions were because their children were living it.

The novice mayor appears to have initially misread the situation. She tried to get ahead of negotiations early when she came out with an aggressive salary offer of 14% over five years. She later increased the offer to 16%, based on the recommendation of an independent fact-finder.

Then, she promised to hire hundreds more staff in school and insisted CPS put some of these hires in the budget for this school year. She might have underestimated the level of distrust in the system.

Still, she refused to put promises to increase staff in the contract and to commit to limiting class size, as the teachers union was demanding. In the days leading up to the strike, she noted that the school district wasn’t required legally to bargain over these topics and the union could not strike over them.

But, to her credit, she did not pursue this legal argument once the strike started and never moved, as her predecessor did, to have the walkout declared illegal. This, she must have realized, was a strike on moral issues and fighting it in a courtroom would not reflect well, especially on a mayor who ran as a progressive.

After all, she agreed the school district needed more support staff. But she said putting these promises in the contract would reduce the flexibility the leadership needed. It came down to a power struggle — who called the shots, the contract or the leaders of the school district?

Almost as soon as teachers hit the streets, Lightfoot changed her tune, promising to put staffing increases in writing and increasing the amount of money to reduce class size.

But Lightfoot and her team were only willing to go so far. They said the city couldn’t afford a penny more than what was already on the table. For most of the strike, they focused on trying to limit the city’s financial outlay and the limiting how much power the union was wresting from the school district through the contact.

Lightfoot and the school district also confronted a groundswell of support for the union. Organizers say the October 23 rally outside City Hall while Lightfoot delivered her budget address was the largest in recent history. They say it topped the massive marches and rallies of the 2012 strike.

And every day of the first week of the strike, there was at least one major rally that drew thousands.

Spotlight on post-Karen Lewis leaders

The agreement marks the end of months of contentious contract negotiations. The union presented city and school district officials with dozens of demands on January 15. But negotiations did not really start until after Lightfoot took office in May.

Sharkey insisted teachers would not go a full school year without a contract. Therefore, the union pushed to get a deal or strike in the first part of this school year. The last contract expired on June 30.

This was Sharkey’s first time leading negotiations as president of the union. He follows Karen Lewis, who in 2012 led the union’s first strike in a quarter of a century. Lewis, who has brain cancer, retired last year.

The negotiations also put a spotlight on CTU Vice President Stacey Davis Gates. She provided fiery rhetoric and insisted the contract fight was about social justice for students more than money. The current CTU leadership — beginning with Lewis — has been in the vanguard nationally among labor unions in shifting away from bread and butter issues and toward so-called bargaining for the “common good.”

It was also Lightfoot’s first round of teacher negotiations. At times, she appeared frustrated that the union tied her to her predecessor, who was vilified by the union. She wanted the union to trust her and accept her verbal promises as commitments.

But that didn’t happen. And as the strike wore on, she tried to draw the public to her side, arguing that the students were being hurt and she was going as far as she possibly could while remaining fiscally responsible.

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