Quick Hit Steven Ross Johnson Thursday June 7th, 2012, 11:38am

Controversy Surrounds CTU Strike Vote & Ballot Count (VIDEO)

A group of religious leaders said Wednesday it has been asked by the Chicago Teachers Union to take on the role as witnesses to ensure the validity of the ballot count, as union members currently vote to determine whether to authorize the city’s first teachers' strike in 25 years.

Voting began Wednesday morning for the more than 25,000 members of the country’s third largest teachers' union, after nearly a year of negotiations between the educators and the Chicago Board of Education that have stalled over issues regarding the length of school days, class sizes, pay raises and job security.

Amid a backdrop that included the front of the Merchandise Mart building – the location of where the vote count is to be conducted – clergy members of the worker-rights advocacy group, Arise Chicago said their involvement in the ballot count process was to ensure the integrity of the process, and not to lend their support to any one side.

“Our role is simply to observe, we don’t come with opinions about a decision,” Arise Board Member and Chicago Theological Seminary Professor Rev. John Thomas said. “We come simply to ensure for the public – that has a keen interest in this issue – that this was a fair, open and honest process. “

Here’s more with Thomas as he further explained his group’s role in monitoring the proceedings:

CTU Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle said having clergy members present to observe the ballot count shows the union’s intent to make the process transparent and attempts to quell any concerns over the count’s validity once the final tally was complete.   

“The Chicago Teachers Union invited Arise because we have nothing to hide,” Mayle said. “We wanted transparency in this vote and who better than the clergy to give us an honest assessment of how this went.”

But not everyone is convinced that the clergy members' oversight is sufficient. Yesterday, Andy Shaw, head of the Better Government Association, questioned whether their oversight was enough during an interview on WBBM radio.

“If teachers are going to take a strike vote, they really need to make sure the voting has integrity and accuracy," said Shaw. "We’d feel more comfortable with an outside auditor looking at the ballots being counted rather than a few ministers.”

Nonetheless, the vote is expected to conclude by Friday, with results expected in the next several days, according to Mayle. Under a state law passed last year, no less than 75 percent of union members must vote in favor of a strike in order for the authorization measure to pass.

In response to news that Arise Chicago was asked to monitor the ballot count, CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said given the potential ramifications that a strike could have for the more than 400,000 students enrolled within the school system, all should be done to ensure the integrity of the vote.

“It’s very important that parents, students, teachers, have peace of mind that these votes are being conducted in a way to ensure that there is integrity in the process,” Carroll said. “A potential strike would impact hundreds of thousands of families across the district – so this is a very serious vote and it should be conducted in a serious and deliberate manner.”  

CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard has criticized the timing of the vote, calling it “premature” since it comes prior to the scheduled July 16 release of the recommendation of an independent fact-finding panel looking into the contract issues separating the two sides. Once the panel’s report is released, the two parties will have 15 days to either reject or approve the proposal.

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey contended the timing for the vote was appropriate since waiting until July — after schools close for the summer — would make it more difficult to get a large enough turnout to reach a 75 percent majority.

“It is a vote intended to give us leverage in bargaining,” Sharkey said. “It’s time the district started negotiating seriously and if we do it now, hopefully, we can reach a fair agreement before school starts next fall. I think it’s disingenuous for people whose agenda all along has been to take the educators’ voice away to complain that we’re doing [a vote] because I believe that their goal all along has been to remove our voice — taking this vote in the summer would be impossible.”

Carroll disputed Sharkey’s claims, arguing that a vote could be held when the school year began again in August, which she said would have allowed members to make their decision based on the merits of the fact-finding panel’s recommendations.  

“It’s unfortunate that the CTU would ask members to vote to authorize a strike before the independent fact-finder’s compromise report was released,” Carroll said.  “Members ultimately are voting to authorize a strike before they have an opportunity to see the compromise on the table.”
 
The district has proposed a five-year contract that guarantees teachers a 2 percent pay raise with an eventual switch to a “differential pay” scale over the last three years. CTU is asking for a 24 percent pay raise by this fall, with an additional 5 percent increase the following year.  Last year, the district rescinded a 4 percent pay increase teachers were to receive as part of their current contract, which is set to expire June 30. The district currently faces a $700 million budget deficit.

If union members vote in favor of the strike authorization, the earliest an actual strike could begin would be mid-August since, under state law, teachers would have to wait 30 days after the date the union rejected the panel’s recommended contract proposal before beginning a walkout.

In an internal poll conducted last month, CTU claimed that more than 90 percent of its members thought the current contract proposed by CPS would “harm students and lower the education quality of their schools.”

Despite such sentiments, Carroll was confident a fair agreement could be reached as was done recently this week when it was reported CPS reached a tentative agreement on a three-year contract with the Service Employees International Union* Local 73.  

“We’ve made it very clear to CTU leadership and the public that we are intent on reaching an agreement that is fair to our teachers, our students and our taxpayers,” Carroll said. “Our children cannot afford either a strike or the uncertainty that comes with a potential strike hovering over the summer into the start of the school year.”   

Check back with Progress Illinois for more on this developing story.

* The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this web site.

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