The Chicago Teachers Union could legally go on strike after a 30-day "cooling off" period that ends May 16. This file photo is from a CTU rally in downtown Chicago after a one-day strike on April 1, 2016. Credit: Photo by Stacey Rupulo

The Chicago Teachers Union rejected a third-party fact-finder’s contract recommendations this afternoon, starting the clock for a potential strike as early as May 16.

It’s unclear, however, whether the union will hold a strike this school year — and risk losing the support of families eager for their students to graduate from high school— or wait until the start of next school year.

“We have to talk to our people,” CTU President Karen Lewis said in a statement. “We don’t know if we are going to force the school year to a close now or strike when the next school year begins. Either way, we won’t be held hostage by the Board’s zombie budgets. They need to go after the banks, [tax-increment financing] funds, and other forms of short- and long-term revenue that is sitting right in front of us.”

The union must give the district a 10-day notice before going on strike.

Unsurprisingly, Chicago Public Schools officials said they accepted fact-finder Steven Bierig’s recommendations on wages and benefits, which mirrored the district’s January offer that was already shot down once by the union’s big bargaining team.

At the time, the cash-strapped district proposed phasing out the pension pickup over the first two years of a four-year contract and increasing health care costs — which officials said would be cancelled out with modest pay increases ranging from 1 to 3 percent over the next four years. In addition, the district would pay the steps-and-lanes salary increases during the last three years of the contract, but not in the current year. (CPS hasn’t paid for those routine salary increases for union members’ years of experience and education level all year.)

CTU leaders considered the offer serious enough to take to the big bargaining team, which unanimously rejected it, citing distrust in the district and stressing the need for sustainable revenue sources. In fact, last month the district said it could no longer afford the January offer, although during a Saturday afternoon press conference, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said he’d figure out a way to make it happen.

Claypool urged the union to reconsider the proposal, saying his “hope is that they will give their members an opportunity to read the fact finder’s report, and come to their own conclusions about the best path forward. “My hope is that we can quickly reach an agreement so that we can stand united in demanding our fair share of funding from Springfield,” he said, according to a written statement.

That sentiment was echoed in  Bierig’s report, which calls the January offer “the most reasonable approach to an extremely difficult situation…. I find that by incorporating [that offer] into their contract, the parties will have a fighting chance to experience a significant period of labor peace during which they can combine forces to resolve the larger problems facing them.”

Meanwhile the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board agreed earlier this week to issue a complaint in favor of the district’s charge that the CTU’s one-day strike on April 1 was illegal.  The labor board meets next Thursday to determine whether to grant CPS emergency injunctive relief in the matter.

District officials say the strike was illegal; the union says federal case law allows for strikes when employers engage in unfair labor practices.

Click here to see our interactive timeline of the key progress — and setbacks — in contract negotiations between the CTU and district. Educators have been working without a contract since July.

Attachments: fact-finder’s reportofficial dissent from CTU; CPS concurrent opinion

Melissa Sanchez

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at msanchez@chicagoreporter.com and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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