Chicago Teachers Strike: Negotiators Agree To a ‘Framework’ To End Strike

Chicago Teachers on strike at Currie High School

The city’s nearly weeklong teachers strike appeared headed toward a resolution Friday after negotiators emerged from marathon talks to say they had achieved a “framework” that could end the walkout in time for students to return to class Monday.

Both sides were careful not to describe the deal as a final agreement and declined to release the terms. They expected to spend the weekend working out details before union delegates are asked to vote Sunday on whether to call off the strike.

David Vitale, Chicago Public Schools Board President

School Board President David Vitale said the “heavy lifting” was over after long hours of talks placed “frameworks around all the major issues.”

Union President Karen Lewis agreed, saying there were no “main sticking points right now.” But she reiterated that there is also no contract yet and the strike remains in full effect. Despite the apparent progress, she said, the union is still suspicious of the board after being burned in the past.

On September 10th, 26,000 Chicago teachers walked out on 400,000 Chicago kids, abandoning the classroom for the picket lines.  The walkout, the first by Chicago teachers in 25 years, canceled five days of school for public school students who had just returned from summer vacation.

Anytime, teachers abandon school kids, it is the children and their parents who suffer the greatest–and Chicago Teachers Union knows this. As the union had been negotiating for months with the offcials in Chicago Public School system, the union could have struck anytime during the summer. Instead, the union’s strike was deliberately chosen to have the most impact–on the children and their parents.

Karen Lewis, Chicago Teacher’s Union President

To be clear, this is Karen Lewis’ strike. Any leader bears the responsibility of choosing to where and when to lead his or her troops into battle. In Karen Lewis’ case, by her own admission, negotiations were “intense, but productive.”

The coverage of the strike has obscured some basic facts. The money has continued to pour into Chicago’s failing public schools in recent years. Chicago teachers have the highest average salary of any city at $76,000 a year before benefits. The average family in the city only earns $47,000 a year. Yet the teachers rejected a 16 percent salary increase over four years at a time when most families are not getting any raises or are looking for work.

The city is being bled dry by the exorbitant benefits packages negotiated by previous elected officials. Teachers pay only 3 percent of their health-care costs and out of every new dollar set aside for public education in Illinois in the last five years, a full 71 cents has gone to teacher retirement costs.

A Chicago Public Schools classroom.

But beyond the dollars, the fact is that Chicago schools need a fundamental shakeup — which of course the union is resisting. It is calling for changes in the teacher-evaluation system it just negotiated by making student performance less important.

Small wonder. Just 15 percent of fourth graders are proficient in reading and only 56 percent of students who enter their freshman year of high school wind up graduating.

Teacher pay, benefits, and job security were all issues upon which the two sides failed to agree.  Lewis had the choice to recommend to continue negotiations. Instead of ramping up the rhetoric and riling up her membership to the point they were ready for war, she could have been a calming voice and continued to work out a deal that didn’t stick Illinois taxpayers with a higher price tag for a failing system. Instead she pulled the trigger and put, not only her 26,000 highly-paid members out on the streets, but 400,000 kids as well.

At one point, the district offered a 16 percent raise over four years – far beyond what most American employers have offered in the aftermath of the Great Recession. But teacher evaluations and job-security measures stirred the most intense debate.

The union sought a plan for laid-off instructors to get first dibs on job openings and for an evaluation system that does not rely heavily on student test scores.

The district offered compromises, including provisions that would have protected tenured teachers from dismissal in the first year of the evaluations and created an appeals process. Another proposal offered laid-off teachers the first right to jobs matching their qualifications at schools that absorb the children from their closed school.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the union had accepted those provisions.

The strike by more than 25,000 teachers in the nation’s third-largest school district idled many children and teenagers, leaving some unsupervised in gang-dominated neighborhoods.

Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union and Vice president Jesse Sharkey talk to the media as Chicago Public Schools

The showdown in Chicago is seen as a test of just how much clout the public-employee unions wield at a time when the budget pressures they’ve created threaten to break the budgets of America’s major cities.  Regardless of how long the Chicago teachers continue leaving school kids on the streets (whether a day, a week, a month or longer), when union bosses like Karen Lewis wonder why unions are vilified today, all they need to do is look in the mirror.

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