Down to the wire: Chicago teachers strike narrowly avoided with tentative agreement

By Emily Olsen and Meredith Francis

Minutes before the midnight deadline, the Chicago Teachers Union and school board reached a tentative agreement to avoid a strike that would have sent some 20,000 teachers to picket lines.

“It wasn’t easy,” CTU President Karen Lewis told reporters at 11:55 p.m. Monday. “Clearly, there are some issues, and there are some things we’re going to still be working on. But what we ended up with is something that’s good for kids, it’s good for clinicians, for paraprofessionals, for teachers, for the community, and we’re very pleased that we were able to come to this tentative agreement.”

If ratified by the union, the four-year agreement would already be in year two because teachers have been working without a contract since summer 2015. But the last-minute agreement avoided what would have the second strike during Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s tenure, not including the one-day teacher walkout April 1.

“The teachers’ hard work will be respected in this contract, and appropriately rewarded,” Emanuel said. “Chicago Public Schools’ finances will be stronger and on firmer ground because of this agreement. Parents and taxpayers will be relieved, and more importantly, reassured that we all came together and worked together with a common purpose.”

The contract maintains “step-and-lane” salary increases, which provides teachers with raises based on experience and education level. It also protects “pension pick-ups” for current teachers, a major source of contention between the union and Board of Education. Teachers are required to put 9 percent of their salaries into their pension fund, but the city has contributed 7 percent under the pick-up system established in the 1980s. The city wanted to end this benefit as a cost-saving measure, but teachers considered it a pay cut. Under the tentative contract agreement, pension pick-ups would continue,  except for teachers hired after January 2017.

The agreement also puts provisions in place to limit class sizes in kindergarten through second-grade classrooms. Beginning this school year, a teaching assistant would be assigned to classrooms that have more than 32 students.

Lewis emphasized the tentative agreement is not yet a contract: It  must make it through the House of Delegates, then members will vote on the agreement. But CTU struck an optimistic tone at Monday night’s press conference.

“It’s not a perfect agreement, as anyone will tell you, but it was good,” Lewis said. “It’s 22 months of uncertainty that I think is a relief for the entire city.”

Parents also have reason to celebrate the tentative agreement, too, said Erica Clark of Parents 4 Teachers. She argues it’s ultimately up to the teachers to decide if this is a workable contract, but there are some positive signs for parents, like the restrictions in classroom size.

“Everyone’s glad that a strike was avoided; I don’t think teachers wanted it, I don’t think parents wanted it,” said Clark, who insists big problems still face the district, like the lack of an elected school board.

Right now, Chicago is the only city in the state where the mayor appoints the members of the school board, and it’s a rarity nationwide, too. Clark hopes the Illinois Senate will pass a bill that would force an elected school board in Chicago. It passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives in March.

“I think everyone acknowledges there’s still big fights ahead, a collective bargaining agreement can’t solve everything that’s wrong with the school district,” she said.

Steven Ashby, a member of the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign and a labor historian, said there are some gains for teachers in the tentative agreement. But because contract negotiations are limited to issues of compensation and employment conditions, many issues aren’t even up for discussion like, for example, having a librarian, nurse and social worker in every school.

“Labor law in this country is very, very backward,” Ashby said. “I think this whole conflict is not over. The schools continue to deteriorate. They continue to be under-resourced.”

Photo at top: The Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Board of Education narrowly avoided a strike Monday night, closing a tentative deal just minutes before the midnight deadline. (Meredith Francis/MEDILL)