Room for compromise as teachers strike vote nears

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis speaks to press during a one-day strike on April 1, 2016.

Photo by Michelle Kanaar

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis speaks to press during a one-day strike on April 1, 2016.

Days before classes start, the Chicago Teachers Union has announced it will hold a new strike authorization vote.  The union’s 40-member negotiating team has recommended an October walkout.

If union members vote yes – as they did in December by an 88 percent margin – the House of Delegates would have to set a date, and the union would have to file a 10-day strike notice with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.

It would be the second teachers strike for Chicago Public Schools since Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor five years ago.

Much has changed since the seven-day walkout in 2012, in which the union was considered to have come out on top – not making huge gains (though annual pay hikes were included) but minimizing losses, and certainly winning a new measure of respect.

One big change is Emanuel’s lower profile this year.  In his first mayoral campaign and early in his first term, Emanuel harshly attacked teachers, and anger among teachers over the mayor’s perceived disrespect was a huge motivator for the strikers.  But since then, the mayor’s popularity has taken a series of hits and he has toned down his rhetoric.

Another change is in district leadership. Four years ago, future CPS CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett—then a consultant for the district—took a more public profile during contract talks; now she’s awaiting sentencing on bribery charges. Her replacement, Forrest Claypool, has headed the Chicago Park District and Chicago Transit Authority; he’s also served on the Cook County Board, run unsuccessfully for county board president and assessor, and is thought to harbor higher political ambitions.  He’s a throwback to the era of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, when non-educators headed CPS.

Meanwhile, the school system’s finances are deep in the tank, largely the result of deferred pension payments coming due, though that’s just the most proximate cause.  The school board recently approved an annual $5.4 billion budget that assumes $200 million from the state that may or may not materialize, in addition to $31 million in give-backs from the CTU.  The board also approved a huge increase in borrowing by CPS to cover cash flow.

So economic issues are central to the negotiations.  Claypool’s top goal is eliminating the 7 percent pension pickup, which he portrays as an outmoded perk that’s out of step with other school districts. The union regards the provision as part of their compensation package (and history seems to support this view), and argues that most of the state’s school district’s have similar provisions.

By including so-called “step and lane” increases for experience and training, CPS maintains that it’s offering the union a 6 percent net increase over a four-year contract; CTU rejects that analysis and says that with elimination of the pension pickup, CPS’ salary proposal would reduce compensation by 3 percent, a cut of about $200 million.  The union is proposing a three-year contract with 2 percent increases in the second and third year.

Finding middle ground will take money, which seems to be in short supply.  The union argues that there is money out there, especially hundreds of millions of dollars of potential surpluses from tax increment financing funds.

“That would be a one-time source, but CPS should consider it,” said Bobby Otter, budget director at the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.  “It’s a lot better than more borrowing.”

CTU has also raised a number of non-salary demands, and some of these could help provide a basis for a settlement – and shore up schools that have suffered deep cuts in recent years.  These include making class size limits contractually enforceable, as other districts do; eliminating student-based budgeting, which makes it harder for principals to afford to hire veteran teachers; and ensuring adequate staffing for special education.

The CTU’s demands also include adequate staffing to provide counselors, social workers and psychologists at every school – particularly relevant with the upsurge of violence in the city – as well as a librarian at every school. (The number of librarians in the system has dropped by nearly two- thirds since Emanuel was elected).

Most of these items will cost money, too. Ultimately, Otter argues, the fiscal crisis at CPS and other school districts in Illinois goes back to the state’s failure to meet its constitutional obligation to be the primary funder of education.  He urges the mayor to team up with CPS and CTU to pressure Springfield to increase revenue for schools, beyond just readjusting the formula for dispersing it.

“There are a number of possible sources,” he said.  “You could raise the income tax, expand the sales tax – or, we estimate the state could raise $400 million by closing corporate tax loopholes.”

But there are major union demands that have no price tag, including a moratorium on school closings and fixing the teacher evaluation system.  Four years ago, student test scores became part of teacher evaluations (as required by state law), though not to the extent desired by hard-liners like Gov. Bruce Rauner. The result is a highly complex evaluation process that discriminates against teachers in the toughest schools – and against minority teachers, who get lower ratings though their “value added” is comparable to others – according to the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.  Improving the process is a “huge issue” for the union, one leader told me.

So compared to four years ago, there’s less emotion, but certainly more financial pressure.  There’s probably more desire for a settlement on both sides this time, there’s some wiggle room with non-economic demands – and of course, there’s the TIF surplus, which the mayor controls.

The elements of a settlement are there.  Whether it takes a walkout to achieve it remains to be seen.

  • Sandra Sandy

    I say close the corporate tax loopholes. Strangle the businesses that are left and let us get to the end. I am really tired of living this way and constantly hearing about the insolvency here in Illinois. The quicker we run the rest of the corporations out of Illinois, the quicker we can deal with bankruptcy.