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Teachers in Chicago Vote to Strike

Jesse-Sharkey-blog.jpgChicago Teachers' Union members have voted to authorize a strike, bringing the city's teachers one step closer to walking out later this fall.  

By late Thursday night, 94 percent of the ballots that had been counted were "yes" votes, exceeding the union's 75 percent threshold to authorize a strike.  

The vote comes after months of stalled contract negotiations between the teachers' union and the school board. Teachers have asked for higher annual raises and better benefits, but also for a reduction in class sizes and for more support staff, like nurses and social workers, in schools. 

"Hopefully we will see the board of education bargain in good faith, and bargain earnestly. That's what we need now in order to avoid a strike," said Chicago Teachers' Union President Jesse Sharkey in a press conference on Thursday night. "Obviously we take this very seriously. It's our livelihood at stake, it's the future of our schools."

"Pay and benefits alone are not enough," Sharkey continued. "We care deeply about the learning and working conditions in our schools."

In a joint statement issued Sept. 27, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson reiterated the deal they've offered to teachers. 

"We've committed to increasing critical support staff to record levels and presented an offer that would boost teacher pay by 16 percent over the next five years, making Chicago's teachers among the highest compensated in the nation," they said.

"We are committed to doing everything we can to finalize a deal that is sustainable for all Chicagoans and for our city's future, that respects our teachers, and continues our students' record-breaking success for years to come."

With this vote, Chicago's teachers will likely join the many across the country who have walked out of their classrooms over the past 18 months, fighting for higher salaries and better working conditions in schools. The string of teacher protests spread from statewide walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona in spring 2018 to strikes in big cities like Denver and Los Angeles this past school year.

Though the vote wrapped today, it's yet to be determined when teachers will strike. The next step in the process is the union's House of Delegates meeting on Oct. 2, where delegates will decide whether to strike and if so, on what date. The earliest teachers could walk out is Oct. 7.  

A strike would affect about 600 schools in the city—and earlier this week, Lightfoot raised concerns about the potential consequences for students.  A strike "would be catastrophic for the learning environment for our kids," she said on Wednesday. 

"Putting 360,000 kids on the street, when a deal is right here at our fingertips, that doesn't make sense," she said.  

Chicago teachers held a one-day walkout in 2016, but the union's last strike was in 2012. 

During that strike, students missed classes for a week. The school board kept 147 schools open for parents who were unable to find alternatives during the day, which cost $25 million. Churches, community organizations, and recreational facilities also mobilized to offer daily programming.  

What the Union Wants

Since January, the union has asked for a 5 percent annual raise, no increases in health care costs, smaller class sizes, more prep time, and more nurses, social workers, and counselors distributed across the districts' schools. 

The school board's latest offer, put forth in August, came closer to the teachers' salary demands. The offer would give teachers 3 percent raises for three years and then 3.5 percent raises for two years, for a total of a 16 percent raise over a five-year contract term.  

Lightfoot has said that this salary bump would result in the average teacher making almost $100,000 annually by the end of the contract term. 

"That's real dough," she said, while answering questions about the strike at an unrelated press conference on Wednesday. 

Still, the union has held firm in its call for a 15 percent raise over a three-year contract term. The board's current offer also doesn't guarantee staffing increases in social workers or counselors, or lower class sizes.  

The district has budgeted to add 200 social workers and 250 nurses over the next five years, which it says meets the teachers' demands for these critical school staff. But the union wants these promises guaranteed in their contract as well. On social media, teachers have rallied around the hashtag #PutItInWriting.

"We've really said consistently—yeah, we care about money, [but] we care a lot about teaching and learning conditions in schools, and we don't feel like those have been addressed at the table," said Sharkey, in a press conference on Wednesday.  

Politicians, Principals Back Teachers

While the union and district officials have been locked in negotiations, Democratic presidential candidates have thrown their support behind the Chicago union, as they court teachers in the run-up to the midterms. 

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke at a rally at the teachers' union headquarters on Tuesday evening, saying that teachers were "standing up and fighting for justice."

"At a time when we in the wealthiest country in the history of the world have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country on earth, you are demanding and I am demanding a change in national priorities," he said. 

The city's union of principals and administrators has also spoken out in favor of the teachers' position. In a report issued Wednesday, the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association said that 68 percent of their members were opposed to the district's proposal to reduce teachers' prep periods and increase principal-directed planning time. 

Earlier in September, Jackson told the Chicago Sun Times that the district had invited principals to join its bargaining team, saying that principal voice gave "gravitas to some of the push-back" to the teachers' union's proposal.

CPAA's report claims that this statement mischaracterizes principals' views, as by their analysis most principals support the teachers' demands around scheduling prep time. 

Photo: Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey speaks in front of former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office on Jan. 15, 2019. —Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS

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