Updated 8:40 pm
The Chicago Teachers Union and two other unions, representing Park District workers and other school district staff, say they will strike on October 17 if no deal is reached before then.
“The mayor has a difficult choice right now — the mayor can do what’s right at the bargaining table or face a unified strike,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said Wednesday evening before a large crowd holding signs that said “We support Chicago teachers and staff.”
The unions called this an extraordinary show of force that could cause significant disruption. That’s because Park District workers and other school district staff, such as security guards and teacher assistants, were available to watch children during the last teachers strike in 2012.
Altogether, as many as 35,000 workers could strike at once. Sharkey made clear the unions intend to stick together until all three get deals they’re satisfied with.
In response, Chicago Schools CEO Janice Jackson and Mayor Lori Lightfoot released a statement and a video for parents saying school buildings will stay open if there is a strike, with principals and non-union support staff supervising. Libraries and a limited number of parks would also open for students.
“While we are doing everything in our power to reach a fair deal that prevents a strike, we are fully prepared for a work stoppage should one occur,” they said.
Officials from SEIU Local 73, which represents the other school staff and Park District workers, said the two sides are far from an agreement on wages. Park District staff say they’ve never gone on strike but believe they have no other way to have their demands heard. They say they are frustrated at the pace of negotiations.
And a CTU document the union circulated Wednesday shows the two sides have reached agreement on only a handful of 62 separate demands made by the union. Sharkey stressed that the union set the date for Oct 17 to create time to negotiate a deal, calling a strike a “last resort.”
Lightfoot this week said her bargaining team recently handed the teachers union a comprehensive set of proposals and is waiting for a response.
“What they ought to do is come back to us with a written counterproposal,” she said. “To have session after session where we come and we provide fulsome specifics in writing to the issues they have raised in the course of negotiations. And we get nothing back in writing for weeks on end.”
Lightfoot had been emphasizing CPS’ offer of “generous” raises of 16% over five years. But late last week, after Chicago Teacher Union members overwhelmingly authorized a strike, she said she now understands that the contract fight is about more than salary.
The proposal CPS gave to the teachers union last week attempts to address some of the union’s lingering demands. It would provide teacher aides for third grade classes deemed overcrowded. Sharkey called that proposal inadequate on Wednesday evening. The district already provides aides for overcrowded kindergarten, first and second grade classes.
Also, the school district previously promised to stop outsourcing clinicians. Currently, the school district contracts for many of its nurses. But because the school district must have nurses in schools for children with medical needs, this promise would force the school district to hire additional nurses. Lightfoot also has pledged to significantly increase the number of nurses, social workers and special education case managers over the next five years.
But the union wants contract language where the school district agrees to hire more staff, including nurses, social workers and librarians, and wants these staffing increases to be enforceable.
“If they’re going to really make good on promises to make schools better instead of just offering us money to buy us off, they have to put promises of better schools in writing,” Sharkey said.
The CTU also wants the school district to commit to lowering class sizes and wants those class size limits to be enforceable, as opposed to the guidelines in the contract currently.
The CTU document released Wednesday outlines 62 separate demands from the union. They range from providing clinicians a separate place to see students, to protecting decisions made by teams who write individualized education plans for special education students. The union says the school district has not even agreed to continue some provisions reached in the last contract, such as a moratorium on new charter schools and school closings.
According to this document, only a handful of agreements have been reached. They are on sanctuary schools, teacher-to-student ratios for preschools, providing substitute teachers time to each lunch and providing training for substitute teachers. The school district didn’t immediately respond to questions about the document.
Lightfoot and school district officials have noted that state law does not require the district to bargain over a number of these issues, including class size and staffing. The law also limits the issues over which teachers can strike over to compensation only. The union, however, contends that state law only applies to the Chicago Teacher Union and is discriminatory.
The union has noted that current Board President Miguel del Valle opposed the provisions limiting bargaining when he was a young state senator almost 30 years ago. Those provisions were part of the law that handed over control of the Chicago Public Schools system to the mayor.
Del Valle said he still opposes mayoral control and wants to see an elected school board in Chicago. But until that happens, he said he is supporting the mayor’s decision not to negotiate over these issues.
Del Valle said he plans to join the contract talks soon but has yet to set a date.
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.