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Chicago teachers strike: Why Rahm Emanuel's court gambit may backfire (+video)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Public Schools on Monday asked a court for a temporary injunction that would end the teachers strike immediately. They are taking a calculated risk that the move won't actually slow resolution of the conflict.

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Which direction the court will take regarding the school district's complaint will depend on its interpretation of what the strike is about. Emanuel says the strike is illegal because the Illinois Labor Relations Act says unions can strike over policy matters affecting wages and benefits, but that this strike is essentially about teacher evaluations, layoff and recall policies, and the length of the school day and year. Union representatives acknowledge that wages are not the primary issue in the strike but say economic issues are connected to their frustrations over hiring policies and evaluations.

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The contract agreement reached Friday provides teachers with a base salary raise of 3 percent in the first year and 2 percent in each of the next two years. If the contract is extended a fourth year, teachers would receive a 3 percent raise. Teachers are eligible for raises for their years of experience and master’s degrees. The Chicago Public Schools says raises would be 17.6 percent on average over four years.

The maximum salary for a Chicago Public Schools teacher under the current contract is $92,227. That is 19 percent higher than the average maximum salary – $77,531 – for a teacher in the 50 largest school districts in the US, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington.

For the court to grant an injunction barring the strike, the school district must prove that “the issues of economics are resolvable … so even though there are economic issues out there, they are not significant and the union is using the strike to get noneconomic gains,” says John Hancock, a Detroit-based lawyer who specializes in employment law.

Mr. Hancock, who has represented several Michigan school districts over 30 years, says he expects Judge Flynn to force both sides back to the table to negotiate around the clock for a resolution. As it stands, the Chicago school district may have a difficult time proving that every economic issue is resolved, he says.

“That’s going to be a tough burden if they have not resolved all the wages. The fact is, [both sides are] close, but the union has the right to strike over a nickel,” says Hancock.

The union decision to prolong the strike keeps families in limbo concerning when their children will return to school. Many parents support the teachers but are frustrated that they know little about the remaining sticking points.

Some parents are also not happy about being caught off guard by the strike's timing. The original strike announcement came at 10 p.m. on a Sunday, which meant parents were scrambling early Monday morning to make alternative care arrangements for their children. This weekend’s announcement came earlier Sunday, but after two days in which both sides had signaled that an end of the strike was imminent.

“I’m finding myself divided. We have really great teachers at my sons’ school, and I want them to have a fair contact,” says Garvey Madden, a father of two boys in the third and first grades at O.A. Thorp Scholastic Academy.

Mr. Madden was “very disappointed the kids weren’t back in school” Monday but says it’s worth it if it means there won’t be a rebound strike later in the school year. “I want them to get it right the first time because I don’t want them to go back to school and then have a strike later in the month if the union does not accept the contract,” he says.

He says his sons are getting bored not being in school, which had started the week before the union declared a strike.

“If they clear it up in the next two days, that’s fine. If [the strike] goes longer than that, it’s pushing it,” he says. 

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