16 Sep

Teachers Union in Chicago to Extend Strike Into 2nd Week

The New York Times

September 16, 2012


CHICAGO — The Chicago Teachers Union extended its strike into a second week on Sunday, after significant divisions emerged among the union delegates over a deal that only a day before had been described by the union’s leader as “a good contract.”

The announcement came after nearly 800 union representatives, the House of Delegates, convened for several hours to decide whether to end a strike that has drawn national attention in the debate over teacher evaluations and job security.

The decision forced 350,000 students in the nation’s third-largest school system to begin a second week without classes.

Union leaders and city officials had reached a tentative deal on Friday. Some union delegates wanted to accept the deal and return to school immediately, while others wanted more time to digest its details, which they had not known until Sunday’s meeting. Still others objected to the new terms of the contract entirely, suggesting that a resolution of this entire chapter may yet be far from reach.

“I think everybody wants to be back in the classroom, but I think everyone is nervous about a bad contract,” Kevin Hugh, one of the delegates, said as he left the meeting on this city’s South Side, where delegates had decided in a “standing vote” to continue their strike. A clear majority, those present said, wanted to wait. “In the end I think it’s wise for members to have a day to review the contract,” Mr. Hugh said.

The decision infuriated school system officials and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has suggested since the teachers began striking a week ago that they ought to return to the classrooms even as negotiators finish the contract. Mr. Emanuel said he was instructing city lawyers to seek a legal injunction to end the strike.

“I will not stand by while the children of Chicago are played as pawns in an internal dispute within a union,” Mr. Emanuel said in a statement. “This was a strike of choice and is now a delay of choice that is wrong for our children. Every day our kids are kept out of school is one more day we fail in our mission: to ensure that every child in every community has an education that matches their potential.”

For some parents, the continuing strike — and the news late Sunday that it would go on — created a crushing problem: How to juggle a second week with alternative child care. “We’re spending half of our life trying to figure out what to do with the kids this week,” Roger Wilen, a lawyer and parent of three, said on Sunday evening. “This is just very frustrating.”

After teachers went on strike last Monday, Mr. Wilen and his wife had tested nearly every option for their three children — a baby sitter, working from home, an alternative schools program, even bringing the children to work — and were, by the weekend, feeling tested themselves. “We need them in school,” he said.

Sunday’s developments came as a setback to the union’s bargaining team, too, which felt it had secured an agreement its leaders might accept, even if it did not quell every concern voiced at protests across the city over the last week.

“I do what they tell me to do,” Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said on Sunday, after a majority of the House of Delegates opted to meet again on Tuesday rather than immediately end the strike. “There’s all kinds of stuff that they’re concerned about,” Ms. Lewis said of the delegates’ reluctance to accept the negotiated deal. “This is the deal we got.”

As they had a week ago when the strike began, schools officials said Sunday that they would open 147 schools with nonunion workers as a contingency plan for children with nowhere else to go. Attendance at those alternative programs had been low in recent days, as parents said they felt uncertain about sending their children to schools they did not know, and supervisors they had not met.

“Every day that students are out of the classroom is a day that they lose,” said David J. Vitale, the president of the Chicago Board of Education, who said that union members could review the details of the deal drafted by both sides even as children went to school.

Union leaders, though, said the earliest that schools can open now will be Wednesday.

It is unclear whether the tentative agreement merely needs study by union delegates and members, or whether its terms are in more serious jeopardy. All along, the contract fight here has focused on an array of issues, including teacher evaluations, job security, pay, benefits and more.

Another meeting of the delegates was set for Tuesday, Ms. Lewis said. Eventually, some 26,000 union members will need to vote on whether to ratify the new contract, but the delegates had been expected to lift the strike well before a vote could be completed.

Through all of last week, as teachers picketed outside schools across the city, Ms. Lewis and a team of negotiators had met in marathon sessions with representatives from the Chicago Public Schools in an effort to make a deal. By Friday, negotiators on both sides said they had reached the outlines of a compromise on a new contract. And, before Sunday’s meeting, both sides were claiming victory about its contents.

Leaders from the school system said the most important provisions for changes to the schools — shifts pressed most notably by Mayor Emanuel — lived on in the latest proposal: students here would attend school for more hours and more days a year than before; principals would decide which teachers were hired; and teachers would be evaluated, in part, based on student test scores.

But union negotiators said their strongest wishes, too, were intact in the proposal they brought to union delegates on Sunday. Among them: Teacher raises were maintained for those who seek additional education and for those who reach certain years of experience; the schools agreed to hire additional teachers to handle longer school days; and most experienced teachers could not be fired for the first year of the new evaluation system, which would be something of a test-run.

“We believe this is a good contract; however, no contract will solve all of the inequities in our district,” Ms. Lewis said, in a release issued on Saturday night.

The proposed contract — a three-year arrangement with an option for a fourth — would have given an average teacher a more than 17 percent raise if it ran all four years, more than had been offered a week ago. It was uncertain how the schools were going to pay for raises, which were predicted to cost in the “high $300 million” range at a time when the system has a significant budget deficit, estimated at $1 billion next year. Chicago Public Schools officials say an average teacher here makes $76,000 a year, though union officials have said the figure is lower.

On Sunday, as David Stieber, a delegate, left the meeting, he said he wanted more time to examine the contract — in all its detail. He said he also wanted other teachers at his school on the city’s South Side to have a chance to look, and see what they thought.

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