Chicago strike looms: Is there a better way out this time?

In 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Teachers Union fought to a week-long walkout. This summer, tax hikes might be needed to head off a similar result. L.A. offers a model.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times Media/AP
Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis (c.) speaks at a news conference on Thursday in Chicago. Lewis says negotiations have broken down days ahead of the teachers' contract expiring.

With its public school system in financial turmoil and contract negotiations with its teacher union stalled, Chicago may have to look to taxpayers for a fix for its educational system.

The head of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) announced Thursday that talks have broken down between the union and the city with the nation’s third-largest school system, less than a week before the union’s contract expires next Tuesday.

“We have not reached an agreement with the Board of Education. Chicago Public Schools refuses to budge on our contract proposals that will have no cost impact on the district,” CTU President Karen Lewis said at a press conference. “Initially, we thought we might be close to a deal, but today we have found out that their bargaining rhetoric is as empty as their bank accounts.”

Chicago's public school system faces a $1.1 billion deficit. Talks broke down over the terms of a one-year contract that will function as a kind of stop-gap, while the city works toward a long-term fix. 

While the few months of summer vacation allow both sides some breathing room to resolve these issues before school resumes, the implicit threat of a strike hangs over the talks.

"Nothing is off the table," CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said to Reuters, when asked about a possible strike. "We had hoped to be able to make a deal."

The situation may seem like déjà vu for some in the Chicago education community, who saw similar issues plague contract negotiations in 2012, leading to a week-long walkout that kept more than 300,000 students out of school.

The key players are much the same. On one side is Rahm Emanuel, the acerbic mayor of the Windy City, who is now in his second term. On the other is Ms. Lewis, who led the strike three years ago, and is an established member of the city’s labor community.

Back then, both sides made concessions to end the strike. Teachers agreed to a more rigorous system to evaluate teachers, including the ability of principals to hire or fire teachers based on performance. In return, Emmanuel gave the union raises of 2 to 3 percent over the four years of the contract. He also extended the school day and school year for students.

But with the current financial situation, both sides are prepared for the likelihood of layoffs, reported the Chicago Tribune.

For a way out of this impasse, Chicago could well look the Los Angeles Unified School District, the No. 2 largest school district in the nation, which resolved its own fiscal crisis by engaging lawmakers, teachers, and ultimately taxpayers in a bold move to fund education for the long term. 

During the 2009-10 school year, the LAUSD faced a more than $800 million budget deficit. In response, it laid off some 8,000 employees over the next three years, but still faced the prospect of even more pink slips and cuts.

In a bid to fund public schools and universities in the state, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) proposed a referendum called Proposition 30 on the 2012 ballot. The measure aimed to make up a $6 billion shortfall in the state budget caused by the Great Recession by raising the state sales tax for four years and the income tax on people making more than $250,000 for seven years.

Due to a combined effort by the governor, as well as school districts and teachers unions across the state, the ballot measure passed with 55 percent of the vote.  

Recently, the LAUSD and its teachers’ union agreed on a tentative contract that guaranteed raises of 10.4 percent for educators over the next two years – the first pay increase for teachers in eight years. While limited layoffs are still a possibility in the district, even with Prop. 30 funding, the new contract also establishes a fund to start hiring more counselors and teachers.

“The Collective Bargaining Agreement is good for educators and students – with class-size caps, lower counselor-to-student ratios, improved learning and working conditions, and fair compensation,” United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl said in a statement. “We are proud of our organizing efforts that led us here, but our work continues for the schools L.A. students deserve.”

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