Chicago Teachers Union officials announced Monday that 90 percent of the union’s entire membership – well over the 75 percent required by law –voted in favor of authorizing a potential strike during three days at the polls.

“The results are not a win. They are an indictment on the state of the relationship between the ‘management’ of CPS and its largest labor force,” CTU President Karen Lewis said in a statement that also took aim at what the union calls “outside groups” that have become involved in Chicago education reform.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called the vote “inspiring” and “instructive.”

“Many doubted the 75 percent threshold could be met; few believed it would be exceeded,” she said in a prepared statment… “This level of participation and engagement by Chicago’s educators is both inspiring and instructive. It represents not just anger and frustration, but also a real commitment to Chicago’s students and a desire to be active participants in building strong public schools that help all Chicago children thrive.”

Lewis said union outreach to parents, which has been going on much of the school year, would continue. 

Teachers would not go on strike until the fall, after a fact-finding panel has issued recommendations on some of the issues at play. The final decision to strike would be made by the union’s 800-member House of Delegates, which includes representatives from each school.

Typically, the union’s entire membership would not be asked to vote again until the union and CPS reach a tentative contract agreement. However, the union has the ability to put the district’s offers or the fact- finder’s report to a vote if it chooses to.

CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said the union set up the strike authorization vote as either teachers had to vote yes or nothing. “My frustration is that they were asked to vote with inaccurate information,” he said.

Brizard said he doesn’t think the district should challenge the strike authorization vote, though he added that it is the decision of the board of education. A legal challenge would just be another “distraction.”

Brizard has been saying in public appearances in recent weeks that he thinks the district should give teachers a raise. But he has declined to be specific as to how much of a raise. According to CPS and the union, CPS is offering 2 percent for one year and then in subsequent years wants salary increases to be based on a variety of factors, including student growth. CTU has asked for almost 30 percent.

On Monday, Brizard would not be any more specific about what he thinks the district should wind up giving teachers.  He said the question will be answered by the independent fact-finder, who he called “balanced” and “reasonable.” Yet he didn’t say that he will agree to do what the fact-finder recommends.

The fact-finding panel’s recommendations could become teachers’ contract, unless either side rejects them. But the union has criticized this idea, saying that the fact-finder can only rule on “a very small number of issues.”

“We have an entire contract to negotiate,” Lewis said. She also asserted that the impetus for the vote had come from the union rank-and-file. “We are being led by what our members have told us,” she said.

Altogether, the union said in a news release, about 92 percent of teachers cast a vote. Of those, 98 percent were in favor of authorizing a strike, with just 2 percent against. Factoring in those who did not vote, 90 percent of the union’s membership cast “yes” ballots.

Faith leaders get involved

Clergy from the pro-union Arise Chicago Worker Center held a press conference shortly after the CTU’s announcement in an effort to vouch for the union’s figures.  Allaying concerns about the vote “allows the important work of negotiations to go forward” so that a contract can be in place before school begins, said John Thomas, a visiting professor at Chicago Theological Seminary.

Twelve volunteers from the group were present during the vote counting, Thomas said. They spot-checked the union’s vote counts, made sure that tally sheet totals matched, sat in on union rules committee meetings, and signed over the seals on 47 boxes of counted ballots before they were put into a storage closet.

“We had full access to the entire process,” Thomas said, which lasted until after midnight on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and from 11 a.m. to 8:15 p.m. on Saturday.

“They tended to err on the side of removing a ballot if there were questions” such as blank ballots or those with two boxes checked, Thomas said.

Later Monday afternoon, a group of 100 pastors came together to ask Lewis and Brizard to attend a meeting with faith leaders. Robert Belfort, a pastor at New Beginnings-Pilsen, said the pastors are asking that union and district leadership keep them informed and resolve their differences.

If a strike should occur, the community would suffer, Belfort said. “There is a huge domino effect,” Belfort said. Not only could children be victims of violence while out of school, but parents also might have to pay for child care, he said.

But Belfort said the pastors do not support the district over the union or vice versa. He said his church, like others, gets safe haven money from the city to run programs after school and during vacations. However, his wife is a teacher and he sees her point of view.

“Most parents understand where teachers are coming from,” he said. “If you are asked to work longer, you would like to be paid more and not just told, ‘If you don’t like it, there’s the door.’ ”

It’s obvious to Belfort that there will wind up being a compromise between what CPS is offering and what CTU wants. He said the district needs to present their real offer, sooner rather than later.

“They say they don’t have money, but they will find it,” he said.

Members authorized a strike, but did not walk out, in 1991. Concessions from the district left teachers with a 3 percent pay raise that year followed by a 7 percent raise in 1992. In fall 2003, the union’s House of Delegates set a Dec. 4 strike date, but concessions from CPS led the union’s membership to accept a tentative contract agreement and vote no to a strike by mid-November.

Photo by Mark Chong Man Yuk.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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