The Chicago Teachers Union announced today that – by a wide margin – its members are prepared to strike if the union and Chicago Public Schools management cannot agree on a contract before the 2012-13 school year begins. The vote does not mean a strike is imminent, even with CPS and CTU escalating their public rhetoric, and the parties being significantly apart on teacher raises and other issues.
The Chicago Teachers Union announced today that – by a wide margin – its members are prepared to strike if the union and Chicago Public Schools management cannot agree on a contract before the 2012-13 school year begins.
The strike authorization vote is a tactical step in a complex negotiation. It does not mean a strike is imminent, even with CPS and CTU escalating their public rhetoric, and the parties being significantly apart on teacher raises and other issues.
“Strike authorization votes are very common and most times don’t lead to strikes,” says Robert Bruno, a professor at the University of Illinois Chicago and director of the UIC school of Labor and Employment Relations. “The current bargaining relationship between CPS and CTU appears very strained, but contracts have been settled and relationships repaired between even more acrimonious parties.”
According to CTU figures, 92 percent of their 26,500 members voted between Wednesday and Friday of last week on whether CTU could opt to strike if contract negotiations hit an impasse.
Of those that voted, 98 percent – or 23,780 members – said CTU should have the option, according to the union. That means 89.7 percent of total CTU members voted ‘yes’ – clearing the 75 percent approval threshold laid out in a state education law. That piece of legislation, which passed last year, largely dictates CPS-CTU negotiations.
At a news conference this afternoon, Lewis kept repeating the 98 percent figure, which she claimed “put an end to all speculation about how people in schools really feel.”
Lewis declared that an anti-union national education reform movement, typified by groups like the Oregon-based Stand for Children – which pushed the state education law, set CPS policy. CPS pays heed to these national groups, Lewis claimed, while ignoring teachers.
As for how CTU operates, Lewis contended that the strike vote “bubbled up” from rank-and-file members. “We listened to our membership,” Lewis said. “We are being lead by what our members have told us.”
But there are lingering questions about the vote.
Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association, notes CTU did not use an outside auditor. Past CTU votes featured “irregularities and investigations,” Shaw points out. CTU turned to an outside auditor in their 2010 election for union president.
CPS requested last week that the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board provide documents regarding the vote – and CTU filed an unfair labor practice complaint in response, saying CPS was interfering with their vote.
CPS has demurred on whether it may legally challenge the vote.
In a statement released this afternoon, CPS Chief Executive Officer Jean-Claude Brizard argued that, “The Chicago Teachers Union leadership pushed their members to authorize a strike before giving them the opportunity to consider the independent fact finder’s compromise report due in July. That’s a shame.”
Indeed – as per the new state law – both sides agreed that a fact finder review proposals regarding salaries, benefits, and health care.
The fact finder must give his recommendation by mid-July, at which point both sides get fifteen days to review and then accept or reject the recommendation. If CTU rejects the proposal, that opens the door for a strike, though subsequent negotiations might prevent a walkout.
As for the substance of each side’s current proposal, CPS and CTU are far apart on salaries. CPS wants to give teachers a two percent raise over the next two years.
Salary increases are especially important in this contract, because CPS plans to extend the school day to seven hours next year. According to CPS, this will boost the teacher work day by ten percent, from 420 minutes to 460 minutes a day.
CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll called the two percent raise “a starting point,” saying CPS wants to create “a joint committee with CTU” to discuss teacher compensation, among other issues.
CTU has so far rejected the joint committee idea. The union wants their raises written in the collective bargaining contract.
Even if the two sides agree on salaries, there are key issues outside the fact finder’s jurisdiction that could trip up a final deal. Among them: CTU wants air conditioning in classrooms, a broader curriculum that includes arts and music, and libraries in every school.
Barbara Radner, a professor at DePaul University and director of the school’s Center for Urban Education, says that a number of factors – an impasse on specific contractual items, unions on their heels nationally, and CTU anger toward new Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel – means that a strike is possible.
“The whole situation is unprecedented,” Radner says. “This could be the start of a new relationship between the mayor and the union, or it is the last hurrah for the unions.”
Radner says CPS-CTU relations could be at their worst since 1987 – the last time teachers walked out.
Zev Eigen, a Northwestern University law professor who studies labor issues, says that a strike authorization vote does not necessarily mean a strike, but instead a potentially bitter contract negotiation. “The vote is used as a signal to management that the union is preparing for battle,” Eigen says.
image: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green