Teachers could walk out as soon as the second week of September following the Chicago Teachers Union’s issuance of a 10-day notice of intent to strike on Wednesday. A strike would be the first in 25 years.

The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board confirmed the union filed the notice shortly after 4 p.m., and union leaders announced the move at a press conference a few minutes later. However, no strike date has been set. The earliest teachers could walk out is Sept. 10. The union’s House of Delegates will meet tomorrow evening to discuss next steps.

“We remain at the table,” said CTU President Karen Lewis. She added that CPS did not “negotiate seriously” until after the union brought thousands of members out to a May 23 demonstration, and did not “really negotiate seriously” until after the strike authorization vote and the independent fact-finder’s report, which was released in mid-July.

The union has reached accords with CPS on several issues, like making sure textbooks are available on the first day of school, teachers have working computers, and counselors and social workers have private space for working with students. But bigger issues remain like job security, longer-day implementation, and pay (which Lewis says the two sides have not even discussed yet.)

When asked whether CPS could avert a strike by agreeing to open up more permissive subjects of bargaining, like staffing levels and other working condition issues, Lewis said that “we haven’t had that discussion with our leadership. That’s why we asked them here today.”

Even larger conflicts loom down the road, like the unconfirmed rumor – which Lewis repeated at the press conference – that CPS could close over 100 underutilized schools a year or two down the line.

“We have been belittled, bullied, and betrayed by this administration,” Lewis said. “They denied us our 4 percent raises when there was money in the budget to honor our agreement; they attempted to ram a poorly thought-out longer school day down our throats; and, on top of that, they want us to teach a new curriculum and be ready to be evaluated based on that curriculum – as well as our students’ standardized test scores.”

CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said in a statement that “Everyone knows that a strike would only hurt our kids. They can’t afford to be removed from the classroom just as they’re making progress with the new full school day. That’s why we’ll continue to meet every day until we reach a fair resolution for our teachers and avoid any disruption to our kids’ school year. If CTU leadership decides to strike, we will be prepared to provide our students with the services they need to keep them fed and in a safe environment with positive activities.”

The district’s contingency plan would not include classroom instruction but it could involve using school buildings, or the facilities of other organizations. “We cannot provide classroom teachers for our kids. That’s unfortunate,” Brizard said at a Wednesday morning event at Brunson Elementary.

He declined to say what have been sticking points in the negotiations, but said that “we have been serious about providing 8 percent [raises] over four years” to teachers.

It’s not clear why the union delayed a possible strike until the second week of school, but staff coordinator Jackson Potter confirmed that it was partly for health insurance reasons. Teachers must work at least one day per month to maintain their health insurance during the school year. In addition, they must work the day after a holiday, like Labor Day (Sept. 3), in order to be paid for it.

A strike would be the first in Chicago since 1987.  “This step is a necessary step, and frankly one that could have been avoided, had CPS worked with us from the very beginning,” Lewis said. “Instead, they have fought us every step of the way.”

She said that the union and district had taken about “23 out of 100” steps toward a contract.

“There is no trigger” issue that will resolve a strike, Lewis said. “It depends on how far they want to go with us.”

Barbara Radner, a longtime observer in CPS and director of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University, says that budgetary conflict over the contract may ultimately force school-level cuts.

But “the last thing we need is smaller class sizes and fewer enrichment classes,” she says. And the district has already cut professional development time in its interim agreement with the union, which she thinks is “a costly mistake.”

She expects that Mayor Rahm Emanuel will intervene and help come up with a solution before a strike occurs. “Usually the mayor shows up and rescues the situation,” Radner says.  “We cannot afford a strike. The price we pay for a strike is much worse than the price we pay if we end up borrowing money. We cannot afford false starts [to the school year]. We need a good start.”

National attention

Steven Ashby, a professor in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s School of Labor and Employment Relations who is on the steering committee of the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign and has done consulting work for the union’s contract, says that CPS has acting “the way that corporations act when they want to provoke a strike.”

But now, people from around the country are watching the union’s battle with CPS, Ashby says.

“Since early 2011 there have been unprecedented attacks on public sector unions, including teacher unions,” he said. “Of course Wisconsin is the best known; many other states have seen attempts to pass legislation rolling back employee rights for public-sector unions. If there is a strike in Chicago it will have ramifications and an impact far beyond the city.”

Ashby says there have already been pro-CTU events, forums and Skype meetings in Madison and Milwaukee, Wisc.; Bloomington, Ill.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Austin, Tx.; New York City; and Oakland, Calif.

He said that the Caucus of Rank and File Educators began as a collaboration between teachers and community groups. As the caucus has come to power, those alliances have strengthened leaders and the union as a whole.

If there is a strike, Ashby says, Chicago will become a magnet of national union activity.

“As people flooded into Madison, and saw that it was not just a local struggle, people are going to flood into Chicago,” he said.

Teacher strikes are always hard on parents, he said. “The question is, who are they going to blame? Are they going to blame the mayor, or are they going to blame the teachers of their kids, who are fighting for smaller class sizes?”

Nancy Waymack, managing director of district studies at the National Council on Teacher Quality, says Chicago is not alone in its contentious negotiations.

“Districts are working within limited tax bases and many are making an effort to implement major reforms requiring changes to the way teachers work,” Waymack wrote in an email. “For example, the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations announced Monday they would intervene in the stalled negotiations between Boston Public Schools and the Boston Teachers Union as teachers there enter their third year without a contract.  A strike vote was taken in San Francisco this spring before they eventually settled their contract with the District this summer.”

Local criticism

Democrats for Education Reform has accused CTU of “not bargaining in good faith” and “putting politics ahead of the best interests of Chicago students.”

“Just weeks ago the CTU and CPS reached an agreement on the longer day which the CTU proudly claimed as a victory for their members,” said Rebeca Nieves Huffman, Illinois State Director of Democrats for Education Reform, in a statment. “So why now are they taking the most drastic action possible and calling for a strike?

Stagg Elementary parent Kimberly Smith, whose 2nd-grade son attends the school, says she feels a strike would be bad for many students because they would miss out on learning.

But, she says, her loyalty is with the teachers – particularly after seeing the hardships that many went through after losing their jobs in this fall’s turnaround of Stagg Elementary. The school’s turnaround, which she opposed, has shaped her view of a potential strike.

“I understand where they’re coming from, and I think their view should be heard,” Smith says. “We appreciate them for teaching our children and I would like the mayor and everyone else to appreciate them for giving their services to us. This is their way of fighting, if nobody else will fight for them they can fight for themselves this way, and get their opinions heard. I think more of the teachers’ needs should be met.”

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