The Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates is set to vote this afternoon on whether to call a one-day walk-out on April 1 — a proposal that’s causing some division among weary rank-and-file educators who already are angry about three upcoming district-imposed furlough days.
During a conference call on Monday, union leaders responded to questions from members, some of whom said they feared for their jobs and had concerns about parent support.
Some educators told Catalyst they’re still confused about the purpose of the action and question its legality — but are resigned to support whatever the House of Delegates decides. As one North Side educator explained, “That’s what a union is, right?”
But a few teachers already are planning to break ranks and go to work even if a strike is approved.
“If school is still open, and that’s an option, then I will still walk in that day, and I will cross that line for my students,” says Lindsay Miller at Audubon Elementary in Roscoe Village, who nonetheless worries about the potential backlash from her co-workers.
Union leaders, who are pushing for a two-thirds yes vote, declined to comment for this story. A press conference is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.
The union has said that a walkout would focus attention on stalled contract negotiations and the need for more education funding, just as state legislators go back to work after a month-long break.
CTU leaders also have argued that they’re allowed to strike now because the district, they contend, has engaged in unfair labor practices. CPS officials disagree and likely would file a charge with the state’s educational labor relations board if a walk-out takes place.
Meanwhile, CPS and union officials were meeting today as fact-finding continues.
During today’s Board of Education meeting, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool asked the union to focus its energy on contract negotiations instead of a potential walkout.
A tough sell
Sarah Chambers, a teacher and delegate at Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Little Village, blames the district for creating a sense of fear among teachers.
“If we’re all doing this together, we’ll be safe,” she says, echoing an argument made by CTU leaders during the Monday conference call.
A number of other union locals, including those for university faculty, transit workers and healthcare workers, plan to join the walk-out, should one occur. They want to shut down government services to protest the state’s budget impasse.
Their numbers will be bolstered by about some of the 2,000 or so union activists from across the country who will already be in Chicago for a Labor Notes conference.
Chambers called the one-day strike a good opportunity for the union to go on the offensive against the district — instead of constantly “putting out the fires. We’re going out and saying we need progressive revenue to fully fund our schools,” she says.
For years the union has called on district and city leaders to find new, sustainable revenues to support the school system — including surplus tax-increment financing dollars — instead of cutting school budgets. Schools have been hit by budget reductions and layoffs throughout the school year, as district officials struggled to close a mid-year budget gap.
Last month the district announced three furlough days for all staff, a move they say would save $30 million.
“If you don’t stand up to them, they just take and take and take,” says Michael Flynn, a longtime teacher and delegate at Otis Elementary in West Town who supports the one-day strike.
But Flynn admits it was a tough sell to his co-workers at Otis, although they eventually came on board. “I don’t think the union — and they’ve admitted this — did a particularly good job in communicating this and rolling it out,” he says.
Initially the union had called for some sort of action on April 1 to protest the district’s threat to halt the pension pickup. State law requires teachers to pay 9 percent of their salaries into their pension fund. Decades ago, the Board agreed to pick up 7 of those percentage points in lieu of granting a salary increase.
Initially, the Board planned to halt the pension pickup starting in April but subsequently put the threat on hold. Some teachers were surprised that CTU leadership wanted to press ahead with the action anyway.
“When the other side changes what they’re doing to try to be more accommodating, then I think we need to change our strategy, too,” says Jillian Onque, a teacher at Grimes Elementary in the Clearing neighborhood. “When you see confusion at the top, there’s going to be some confusion and tension among the members.”
Onque, who says staff at her school were split over the proposed walkout, says she would probably cross a picket line and go to work next Friday if the delegates vote in favor.
Meanwhile, the uncertainty also is creating confusion for parents — who would have to find alternative care not only for April 1 but also the previous and following Fridays, when classes will be out due to furloughs and planned professional development days.
“It’s so hard for a parent that even tries to figure out what’s going on to understand who has cancelled what for what reason,” says Phil Huckelberry, a community representative on Prussing Elementary’s local school council. “The whole system is totally nuts right now.”
But Huckelberry doesn’t blame the union for causing the instability, even though he wishes the messaging around the April 1 strike was more clear.
“When you’re in the middle of an earthquake, anyone who is trying to keep the situation balanced, sometimes they’re going to succeed, sometimes they’re not going to succeed,” he says. “If they misstep in any point in time, that doesn’t mean they did something wrong. That just means you’re in the middle of an earthquake.”