Chicago teachers extend strike

2012-09-17 09:02
Public school teachers cheer as they march on streets surrounding the Chicago Public Schools district headquarters. (AP, File)

Public school teachers cheer as they march on streets surrounding the Chicago Public Schools district headquarters. (AP, File)

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Chicago - The confrontation between Chicago teachers and Mayor Rahm Emanuel escalated on Sunday when their union extended a strike and the mayor said he would go to court to block the walkout, risking more friction within President Barack Obama's political coalition as the 6 November election nears.

There will be no classes in Chicago public schools on Monday and Tuesday, affecting 350 000 kindergarten, elementary and high school students.

The showdown left in doubt a deal on wages, benefits and education reforms for 29 000 unionised teachers that negotiators thought they had struck on Friday to end the biggest labour dispute in the United States in a year.

It also could widen a rift within the Democratic Party between education reformers such as Obama's former top White House aide Emanuel, and organised labour, which the Democrats need to get out the vote in the election.

Chicago union President Karen Lewis said about 800 union delegates met on Sunday and decided to consult with rank-and-file members before voting whether to end the walkout.

"There's no trust [of the school district and mayor]," Lewis said. "So you have a population of people who are frightened of never being able to work for no fault of their own."

Court injunction sought


Union delegates will reconvene on Tuesday to discuss the feedback from rank-and-file members, Lewis said. Parents should plan for their children to be out of school until at least Wednesday, she said.

No formal vote was taken during the meeting, but delegates were asked to stand up so that the leadership could get a sense of those for and against ending the strike, delegates said.

"A clear majority wanted to stay out. That's why we are staying out," Lewis told a news conference after a three-hour meeting of the delegates.

Emanuel called the strike "illegal" and said he would go to court to seek an injunction to block the labour action.

"I will not stand by while the children of Chicago are played as pawns in an internal dispute within a union," Emanuel said, adding that the union walked out over issues that are not subject to a strike under Illinois state law.

Emanuel's gambit takes the dispute into uncharted territory. No injunction request has been filed in an Illinois educational labour dispute since 1984, when the state gave Chicago teachers the right to strike.

Backtracking

Teachers revolted last week against sweeping education reforms sought by Emanuel, especially evaluating teachers based on the standardised test scores of their students.

They also fear a wave of neighbourhood school closings that could result in mass teacher layoffs. They want a guarantee that laid-off teachers will be recalled for other jobs in the district.

"They're still not happy with the evaluations. They're not happy with the recall [provision]," Lewis said of delegates.

Before the meeting of delegates on Sunday, Lewis had called the agreement a "good contract". But after the decision to extend the strike, she backtracked, saying: "This is not a good deal. This is the deal we got."

Emanuel's chief negotiator, School Board President David Vitale, said the union should allow children to go back to school while the two sides complete the process.

"We are extremely disappointed that after 10 months of discussion reaching an honest and fair compromise that [the union] decided to continue their strike of choice and keep our children out of the classroom," Vitale said.

Frustrated parents

During the first week of the strike, opinion polls showed parents and Chicago voters backing the union, with some parents and students joining boisterous rallies. A key question is whether the public's support will waver as the strike drags on.

"I'm very fed up and I'm very upset," said Crystal Blakeley, a single parent of a daughter in second grade on the South Side of Chicago. Blakeley said she was paying for child care during the strike.

Candace Johnson, a barista at Starbucks, said she had been taking her 8-year-old son to the library on Chicago's North Side.

"I'm trying to be as patient as possible, but the longer it takes, I don't know what else I'm going to do with my child," she said after the strike was extended.

Former Chicago City Council member Dick Simpson said Emanuel may have made a mistake by going to court to block the strike.

"If I were advising the mayor, I would have advised him to be patient for a couple of days," said Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. By waiting, Emanuel could have put the onus on the teachers if they rejected the contract later this week, Simpson said.

Failing reform


Both sides appeared to win some concessions, according to details of the tentative agreement released by the parties.

Emanuel compromised on the design of the first update of the evaluation system for Chicago teachers in 40 years. He agreed to phase in the new plan over several years and reduced the weighting of standardized test results in reviewing teachers.

Teachers won some job-security protections and prevented the introduction of merit pay in their contract.

The Chicago strike has shone a bright light on a fierce national debate over how to reform failing inner-city schools. The union believes that more money and resources should be given to neighbourhood public schools to help them improve.

Emanuel and a legion of financiers and philanthropists believe that failing schools should be closed and re-opened with new staff to give the students the best chance of improving.

The agreement calls for a 3% pay raise for teachers this year and 2% in each of the next two years. If the agreement is extended for an optional fourth year, teachers get a 3% increase.

Downgraded credit rating

The deal would result in an average 17.6% increase over four years, the district said. Chicago union teachers make an average of about $76 000 annually.

The deal could exacerbate the Chicago Public Schools financial crisis. Emanuel said the contract will cost $295m over four years, or $74m per year.

Debt rating agencies had previously warned that the new agreement with teachers could bust the school district budget and lead to a downgrade of its credit rating.

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