News Column

Union Officials Agree to End Chicago Teachers Strike

Sept. 18, 2012

The Chicago Teachers Union's House of Delegates decided Tuesday afternoon to end the city's first teacher strike in 25 years and return more than 350,000 students to the classroom Wednesday.

The voice vote was taken after some 800 delegates convened at a union meeting hall near Chinatown to discuss and debate a tentative contract. Union leaders had already signed off on the agreement with Chicago Public Schools.

"We said we couldn't solve all the problems ... and it was time to suspend the strike," CTU President Karen Lewis said at a news conference after the vote.

Debi Lilly, a Lakeview resident, said she was thrilled her third- and fifth-grader would be heading back to Hawthorne School Wednesday after missing seven days of classes.

"Thank goodness, thank goodness," Lilly said enthusiastically. "Now I believe they're putting the children first."

While there still might be issues to work out between CTU and CPS, Lilly said she's happy the teachers agreed to do it while the children are in school.

Lilly said she told her children the news right away and the family will be treating Tuesday night like it should be -- a school night.

"We'll be up early making lunches, packing backpacks and walking to school tomorrow," Lilly said.

Earlier in the day, teachers on the picket line outside CPS headquarters were mostly optimistic that they would 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 Manuel Perez Jr. Elementary School, parents worried about the strike's growing effect on their children but still voiced support for teachers and appealed to Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

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

They also chanted, "Si, 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 Tuesday 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 just before 11 a.m. CDT 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 had 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 was a big challenge for Lewis.

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 walkout.

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 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by MCT Information Services