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Chicago Teachers' Union Threatens to Walk Off The Job April 1

UPDATED

The Chicago school district's announcement on Thursday that it was furloughing employees for three days in fiscal year 2016 was quickly followed by a response from the teachers' union that the district's action "all but assures" a strike on April 1.

The latest volley came just days after the district took steps to lay off 62 employees, including 17 teachers, in a bid to cut another $85 million from the budget.

The district's current year budget had a gap that exceeded $400 million, which it had been counting on the state to help plug. But with financial assistance from Springfield looking less and less likely this fiscal year, school officials have been making a series of cuts.

In the midst of all of this financial uncertainty—and under the cloud of a possible state takeover of the nation's third-largest school system—the local union and the school district still have not reached an agreement to replace the labor contract that expired last June.

The furlough days will save about $30 million, the district said. The first of three furlough days will be in just a few weeks, March 25, which is Good Friday. Teachers are also expected to be furloughed on June 22, and June 23. Other district employees could be furloughed on April 21 and April 22. 

Chicago's CEO Forrest Claypool blamed Gov. Bruce Rauner's inaction for the district's latest cost-cutting decision.

"After hearing from many principals that they were concerned about staff capacity on Good Friday, which normally falls during Spring Break, we determined the best course of action was a furlough day, combined with non-instructional year-end days." Claypool said in the district-issued press release.  "It's never easy to furlough employees, but our priority was to preserve instructional time for our students while preserving year-end cash and continuing to chip away at our budget gap."

The teachers' union did not take kindly to the furloughs, which it said amounted to a pay cut. The board's action, according to the union's press release, "all but assures" that teachers "will walk" on April 1. The last teachers' union strike in 2012—the first in 25 years—shuttered the school system for about seven days.

The board's action "only strengthens our resolve to shut down the school district on April 1st," Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis said. 

In January, the district made an offer to the union that it thought "serious" enough to consider. But the union rejected the district's proposal. That prompted the district to announce that it was ending the long-standing practice of picking up the union members' pension contributions.

The union says changing that practice was the equivalent of slashing pay, and it is arguing that with the end of the pension pickup and the new furloughs, teachers have been subjected to an 8.6 percent pay cut.

"The mayor is already seeking a 7 percent pay cut and today's directive adds another reduction in salary and benefits," Lewis said. "They should have never extended the school year in the first place if they couldn't afford to do so."

In a union vote last December, eighty-five percent of eligible union members voted in favor of authorizing a strike.

[UPDATE (4:50 p.m.): At a press conference on Friday afternoon, Lewis said that April 1 will be a "day of action" for the union.

She described it as "a showdown" for a fair contract, progressive revenues for the schools, for students and parents, and for equitable school funding.

Lewis said the union had not yet decided what the "day of action" would entail, but that actions could range from a rally in downtown Chicago to a strike.

Shortly before the union's press conference on Friday, Chicago CEO Claypool said that the district will not yet end the practice of picking up the bulk of union members' pension payments until fact-finding over the labor dispute is completed. 

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