Contracts with organized labor usually come down to salary and benefits, but the Chicago Teachers Union says it will go to the mat on a different issue entirely: to get firm commitments for more nurses, librarians, special education case managers and other staff.
The CTU contract expired June 30, and the union has taken the necessary legal steps to strike in September if no deal is reached by then.
CTU President Jesse Sharkey said he now believes Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the school district have no intention to include language in the contract that ensures staff-to-student ratios will decrease in key areas. This comes after what Sharkey described as a disappointing bargaining session last week.
“It puts us on a collision course with the district right now,” Shakey said. “We cannot stand for what is essentially a threat that they are going to take something as important as whether or not our schools are adequately staffed and they are not going to deal with it in the contract.”
The calls for more nurses, librarians, special education case managers and social workers have ramped up in recent years. That’s because these staff were cut during the many budget crises over the past decade, often without acknowledgement from officials.
For months now, the union has repeated that a key part of their contract fight will be getting contractual promises of staff increases. They also said they expected Lightfoot to embrace their demands. As a candidate, she promised to bring more staff into schools.
But the issue likely isn’t whether the mayor and school district will bring on more staff — they continue to insist this will happen — but rather whether they are willing to write enforceable language in the collective bargaining agreement that compels them to maintain set staffing levels.
The city likely worries that codifying the staffing levels puts too much power in the CTU contract and takes the decision-making power away from the mayor and school district leadership.
The latest statement by Lightfoot’s office says “CPS can and will expand services, staffing, and programs whether or not strict requirements are set in the contract.”
The school district has yet to release its budget for next school year, which it typically does in early July. This leaves open the possibility that Lightfoot could announce a staffing increase over the next month and a half, perhaps hoping to undercut the CTU’s demand to codify these commitments in the contract.
But Sharkey insists there must be language in the contract. He said this will ensure promises are kept and that staff-to-student ratios, once reduced, are sustained.
“Verbal promises are not really worth anything,” he said. “Our experience is that it needs to be contractually enforceable.”
Legally, the union can’t strike over staffing levels, and the school district doesn’t have to bargain over them.
However, in the past, the union has convinced the school district to talk about other so called “permissible” subjects, which the school district can bargain over but is not legally required to do so. For example, in the last contract the CTU won a teaching assistant for kindergarten classes that had more than 32 students.
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.