Chicago teachers avoid strike after reaching new deal

Posted at 6:50 AM, Oct 11, 2016

As thousands of parents picked up their kids from Chicago’s public schools Monday afternoon, they didn’t know whether they could bring them the following morning due to a looming teachers’ strike.

They got their answer late last night: Classes are on for Tuesday.

Teachers avoided a strike after union leaders and school board officials reached a tentative agreement on a contract that could extend through 2019.

Though it still needs final approval, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the agreement would ensure that nearly 400,000 students enrolled in the city’s 652 schools could attend class for the foreseeable future.

“Kids will be in classes for tomorrow, the rest of the week, the rest of the year, and for the next two years,” Emanuel said.

Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teachers Union, said the deal, 22 months in the making, would give new teachers raises instead of longstanding pension contributions — a key reform pushed by the city. Approximately 21,000 teachers currently employed by CPS would continue to receive pension contributions from the school district.

How we got here

Four years ago, Chicago teachers picketed outside schools over salaries, benefits, and evaluations for nine days. The strike, the first one held by CPS teachers in a quarter century, followed shortly after Emanuel was first elected mayor.

Emanuel, who inherited a more than $1 billion budget deficit from his longtime predecessor Richard Daley, took a hard line against the teacher’s union. Lewis, who was also in her first term, refused to back down as she routinely lobbed insults at Emanuel during rallies and press conferences.

Students missed seven school days during the talks. But both sides eventually shook hands on a new three-year deal.

What both sides wanted

Since the contact expired last year, Emanuel and Lewis had remained at an impasse over the contract negotiations.

The city had initially pledged to give teachers a raise of 8.75 percent. In exchange, officials wanted to shift more of the burden of pension payments on to teachers. Of the 9 percent Chicago’s public school teachers must put toward their pensions, they only had to contribute 2 percent, while the school system covered the rest.

At one point this year, Lewis referred to those pension cuts as “an act of war.”

But pension costs have spiraled out of control, officials argued. This past July the city barely managed to chip in $676 million to its teacher pension fund after major debt ratings agencies downgraded the fund to junk status in 2015

In addition, CTU had urged the city to increase spending by $200 million to bring aboard new social workers and employees to reduce class sizes. The number of students in CPS classrooms has ballooned in recent years on the heels of school closures.

Down to the wire

Two hours before the midnight deadline Tuesday, Lewis told reporters the union had received a last-minute proposal, leaving parents wondering if their children would be in or out of school.

“They’re going to have to be up a little later,” Lewis said. “Prepare for the worst and pray for the best.”

At that point, Lewis said, the last-minute deal appeared “significantly better” than what they had previously seen–suggesting that a deal was imminent.

After Lewis made remarks, CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson read a joint statement from Emanuel and CPS CEO Forrest Claypool that said they remained “hopeful” for an agreement by the deadline.

“Tonight, we are committed to remaining at the negotiation table as long as it takes to reach an agreement with our teachers to give teachers the raises they deserve, to secure their pensions, to invest in our schools, and most importantly to ensure our children are in school where they belong,” Emanuel and Claypool said in the statement.

‘An agreement we can all with’

Shortly after midnight, Emanuel, Claypool and members of the Chicago Board of Education announced the contract agreement at a news conference. Emanuel declined to take questions. Nor did he discuss the deal’s details.

But he said the school district’s finances “would be stronger and on firmer ground” with the deal in hand — one that would be a source of relief for parents and taxpayers.

“[It’s] an agreement we can all live with,” said Chicago Board of Education President Frank Clark.

By avoiding the strike, Emanuel skirted further political backlash during his second term in office. Last winter he came under intense scrutiny after the city was accused of attempting a cover-up in the fatal police shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald. Critics have called for the mayor’s resignation.

‘Relief for the entire city’

Flanked by public school teachers clad in red shirts, Lewis struck an enthusiastic tone as she called the agreement “relief for the entire city.”

Though she didn’t delve into specifics, Lewis said the union had commitments from the school board regarding K-2 class sizes, a layoff and recall provision, and “a host of other things that’ll make classrooms work a lot better.”

“It wasn’t easy,” Lewis said at a separate news conference. “But what we ended up for is good for kids, is good for clinicians, is good for para-professionals, for teachers, for the community.”

According to the deal’s terms, current teachers would continue to receive pension contributions from the school district. Starting in 2017, new hires would no longer receive that benefit but would get a total of 7 percent pay bump phased in over the course of that year.

In 2018 and 2019, teachers would be set to receive an additional salary increase of 2.5 percent to account for an increased cost of living.

However, she stressed the final terms were still being hashed out and required final approval from the teachers union.

“It’s not a perfect agreement,” Lewis said. “But it was good.”