CHICAGO — Teachers in the country’s third-largest city have cranked up the heat in contract talks, threatening to go on strike in less than two weeks.
The Chicago Teachers Union and school district officials are clashing over cost-of-living raises, pension contributions and health care costs in negotiations that have stretched into a second year.
Union officials say they’re prepared to strike on Oct. 11, a move that could disrupt the lives of 400,000 students. The district’s last major strike in 2012 lasted seven school days.
The union says teachers face increasingly difficult conditions, while Chicago Public Schools says both sides have come close to agreement before. Still, the district has proposed a contingency plan, authorizing $15 million to shelter and feed students.
Both sides will negotiate until the date of the proposed strike. As the clock counts down, here’s a look at the situation:
The cash-strapped school district wants to phase out the decades-old practice of paying most of teachers’ pension contributions. Instead, the district has offered a total base wage increase in a four-year contract. The union wants the district to keep up the pension payments and seeks raises in the final years of a three-year contract.
Also, the district, which has offered other “quality of life” changes like less paperwork, wants teachers to pay more for rising health care costs.
CTU President Karen Lewis said those proposals amount to an overall pay cut at a time when teachers are struggling, both to make ends meet and in doing their jobs. Schools have lost some special education resources and librarians due to budget cuts; last year the district ended automatic pay raises for experience and education.
The bargaining unit of the union — representing roughly nearly 30,000 members — rejected the district’s last offer in February.
The threat of a strike is set against perilous financial problems for Chicago schools and Illinois.
The district announced this week that 400 schools would lose roughly $45 million due to declining enrollment.
Credit rating agencies have placed the district at “junk” status, while CPS’ $5.4 billion budget relies on increased property taxes, borrowing and $215 million in state funding contingent on a wider pension overhaul. However, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democrats running the Legislature are stuck in an unprecedented battle over a budget, eclipsing other issues. A temporary spending plan, which allowed schools to open on time, evaporates in January.
Schools CEO Forrest Claypool has said if the state doesn’t come through, the district will be forced to cut money from classrooms.
Both sides have closely guarded the status of negotiations, which could soon extend into the evenings. They’ll be factoring in the public’s response and long-term finances.
During the last major strike in 2012, teachers picketed over evaluations, classroom conditions and job security. It was Chicago’s first teacher walkout in 25 years, and parents and community leaders were largely supportive.
Whether the sentiment will stick this year is unknown.
The threat of a strike comes as Chicagoans have seen major increases in property taxes and other fees, and an uptick in street violence. One test could be a union-hosted Oct. 6 “walk in,” where families are invited to rally at schools.
Meanwhile, a larger fight looms in Springfield. The union and district have lobbied for more state help with little reception. Rauner, who’s made curbing union power a cornerstone of his leadership, has suggested the district file for bankruptcy and unsuccessfully attempted a state takeover of district finances.
The situation constricts how both sides negotiate.
“There’s less flexibility. It will be a difficult strike,” said University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor and former alderman Dick Simpson. “I’m not sure that anyone wants to play it all the way out.”
One thing is clear: a different tone in the negotiations this time around.
In 2012, the outspoken Lewis and Mayor Rahm Emanuel were often at odds. Emanuel had canceled a pay raise and sought a longer school day. Lewis dubbed him “the murder mayor” because of city violence. She even briefly considered challenging Emanuel in the 2015 mayor’s race.
This week she was almost complimentary, saying Emanuel’s job is “impossible” and their relationship now “respectful.”
“We’ve passed the rudeness,” she said.
Follow Sophia Tareen at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen .