News Column

Chicago Teachers Anxious as Union Meets on Contract Offer

Sept. 18, 2012

Ellen Jean Hirst, Jennifer Delgado, Noreen Ahmed-Ullah and Joel Hood

Chicago teachers were anxious this morning as they walked the picket line for the seventh day, worried whether union officials will decide today to call off the strike that has kept 350,000 students out of the classroom.

"I'm hoping the delegates come to their senses and know that our kids need us," Mary Silva, a CPS social worker, said outside school headquarters.

The Chicago Teachers Union's House of Delegates is to meet at 3 p.m. to go over a tentative contract reached during marathon negotiations last week. It could decide to end the strike while a ratification vote is taken among teachers in the next few weeks.

If the strike is not called off, a Cook County judge will consider a request from CPS and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to order teachers back to work. That hearing is Wednesday.

"The mayor beating us to the punch is going to look very negative for us," said Silva, who added that she spoke to a few House of Delegates members who said they may decide against halting the walk-out, as they did during a meeting on Sunday.

"I feel that we need to vote today to get back into the classroom and let tomorrow be getting back to the classroom, getting back to work and not having the mayor do what he wants to do -- the injunction," Silva said.

Other teachers on the picket line outside CPS headquarters were mostly optimistic that they will be back in school Wednesday morning.

"In our meetings yesterday, it's apparent we're optimistic that we will return," said Mary Mark, a CPS speech language pathologist, who fears that if the union is on strike much longer, support for the teachers will shift.

"We realize that by going out, we're diminishing our power, but on the other hand, we don't want to strike so long that we turn the tide of support. We all need to get back to work and the kids need to get back in school," Mark said.

At Antonio Perez Elementary School, parents worried about the strike's growing effect on their children but still voiced support for teachers.

"ĦRahm, escucha! ĦEstamos en la lucha!" several shouted in Spanish, meaning "Rahm, listen! We are in the fight!"

They also chanted, "ĦSi, se puede!" or "Yes, we can!"

Javier Mayorga's 5-year-old daughter Julieta attends Salazar Elementary Bilingual Center. She had just entered kindergarten when the strike began last week.

"I hope the strike ends soon," the full-time working father said. "It's been pretty hard. It takes a toll on the children."

Although Julieta has enjoyed her time at the contingency program at Perez, her father is concerned that she isn't learning. "These are her developmental years," Mayorga said.

Jose Carlos has taken turns dropping off his son Adrian, 5, at Perez during the strike. His son normally attends Galileo Scholastic Academy of Math and Science, which has an earlier start time, Carlos said. He can drop his son off on his way to work.

"I'm supposed to be working right now," Carlos said. "It's been really rough."

A large group of parents and students led by Parents 4 Teachers, a pro-CTU group, were stopped today from hand-delivering roughly 1,000 postcards to CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, inciting loud chanting from the crowd.

More than 50 people walked into CPS headquarters, 125 S. Clark St., just before 11 a.m. with the postcards, which asked for measures like smaller classrooms, a moratorium on potential school closings and a fair teacher's contract.

Personal messages like "Without my teachers, I wouldn't know cursive" and "We know what the problem is -- unfair distribution of resources," graced the cards.

"They said that you can hand (the postcards) to us and we'll deliver it to Mr. Brizard," a security guard in the lobby told the group, which carried banners and signs in support of the teachers.

"Why can't we take" the postcards?, asked one parent.

"They gave no reason," the security guard replied.

When asked if the group could send two people to Brizard's office with the postcards, the guard said it wasn't possible. Shortly after, the crowd started chanting and cheering "Parents, teachers, united for better schools!"

Behind the crowd of parents and students, a steady picket line carried on outside the building's doors. The group then walked back outside, some saying they weren't surprised by the refusal.

"I was disappointed but not surprised," said parent Cris Pope. CPS leaders "haven't been showing the parents any respect in this process."

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and the union's other top brass have spent months fueling their membership's anger through street marches, meeting sit-ins and hostile rhetoric as negotiations for a new contract have dragged on.

But curbing that vitriol enough to seal a deal when the union's delegates gather this afternoon could be Lewis' biggest challenge.

While presenting a framework of a tentative contract with the Chicago Public Schools board Sunday, Lewis was confronted with questions, disappointment and some frustration from delegation members, who demanded more time to review the proposal before ending the CTU's first walkout in 25 years.

The union also faces internal challenges, including growing activism and elevated expectations, that have made it difficult to reach consensus.

Some some delegates say there is distrust among some members, who feel that union leadership has conceded on major issues such as job evaluations. They also worry that the union is backing off demands that laid-off teachers get priority in filling positions districtwide and is not pushing for restrictions on the number of schools to be shut in coming years and on a move toward charter schools.

The union entered contract talks last fall demanding a nearly 30 percent salary increase over two years, largely for working a significantly longer school day this year. An arbitrator later bolstered their argument, suggesting that teachers deserved a 19 percent salary bump this year. The same report acknowledged that a steep wage increase is unrealistic with the district's anticipated $1 billion deficit next year.

But teachers, now offered a 3 percent base salary raise for next year and 2 percent raises after that, are wondering what happened.

"I think some of the delegates would be against Karen no matter what she said," said union delegate Juan Cardenas. "Many teachers have had their hopes built so high, it's hard to bring them back down to reality."

Source: (c)2012 the Chicago Tribune. Distributed by MCT Information Services