Chicago teachers cancel strike and accept contract

nov-2016-teachersBy MARK UGOLINI

— CHICAGO, Nov. 3 — On Nov. 1 the nearly 25,000-member Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) announced the results of a ratification vote on a new contract with Chicago’s Board of Education and Democratic Party mayor Rahm Emanuel. With all but 60 schools reporting, 72 percent of voting members accepted the new contract, while 28 percent voted to reject the deal and send its leadership back to the negotiating table.

A majority vote of teachers was needed for approval. The Chicago Board of Education plans a vote on the contract on Dec. 7, the same day it will vote on major city budget provisions that rely on new contract terms. Prior to the membership ratification vote the union held meetings throughout the city to discuss the pros and cons of the new contract terms.

On Oct. 18, the CTU House of Delegates, in a non-binding advisory vote, tentatively approved the contract agreement. In the advisory vote 68 percent of delegates voted in favor, while 32 percent were opposed—dissent larger than usual for the usually strongly united CTU. At a press conference following the House of Delegates meeting, the union reported a spirited discussion, with many teachers distrustful of school board promises and intentions. The union disclosed that teachers were still lined up to speak at the meeting when the vote was called to begin.

The total budget outlay for the city over the four-year term is reported at $8.9 billion, about 100 million more than the proposal offered and rejected by a wide majority of the union negotiating team in January of this year.

“The majority of the concerns are always about ‘How do we trust the (school) board?’” said union President Karen Lewis. “We have been told one thing in the past and it didn’t come through, so a lot of people have so much distrust for the board that they wanted to say ‘no’”

After approval by the “big bargaining team” composed of 40 teachers, the deal was struck minutes before midnight prior to the planned Oct.11 strike date, and teachers reported to work the next day as a result. The CTU had been negotiating with the mayor and the school board for nearly two years. The old contract expired in June of 2015.

The deal places further limits on the school board’s obligation to pay the bulk of union member’s pension payments, a benefit won under previous contracts. Under the new contract terms, existing members will keep a 7 percent pension benefit paid by the district, but all new employees hired after Jan. 1, 2017, will be denied this benefit and instead receive a taxable 7 percent pay increase and a net loss in pay.

All CTU members hired before Jan. 1, 2017, will pay 2% into the pension fund, with the school board paying 7%. All union members hired after Jan. 1, 2017, will pay the entire 9% into the pension fund themselves, and the school board will pay nothing.

The Oct. 19 Chicago Tribune reported: “One CTU member approved of a provision that would maintain the district’s practice of picking up the bulk of pension contributions for all current teachers, but said the rest of the proposal is ‘crap.’ Another member worried that maintaining the pension pickup for existing members, but dropping it for new hires in exchange for offsetting pay raises, would drive a wedge in the union.”

In the first two years of the contract the teachers will get no raises, but will receive a 2 percent increase in the third year, and 2.5 percent in the fourth year. Teachers will retain “step-and-lane” pay hikes for experienced teachers based on seniority, special skills, and training, but will start paying higher health insurance costs in 2019 and beyond. The union negotiators agreed to initial member payment of nearly 1 percent of annual total pay.

The contract eliminates a no-layoff provision from the earlier contract, and thereby acknowledges school board plans to lay off members in coming years. It would give teachers with years of service a cash bonus if they resign or retire and leave the school system by next summer.

Under the pact, some tenured teachers impacted by layoffs can be given the option to fill temporary vacant positions for up to 10 months while earning full pay and benefits.

Also, teachers of kindergarten through second grade with a class size of 32 or more students can receive an assistant to help with classroom instruction. However, such assistance will not be provided to special education teachers and clinicians who were especially dissatisfied with the agreement.

Clinicians face extreme challenges, and with community activists had been demanding relief. Currently, there are only 300 social workers to handle a CPS student population of over 350,000. Union leaders are telling their members and the community that this issue is not “strikable,” and public pressure and lobbying will be necessary to build awareness of these issues in the future.

During negotiations the mayor finally agreed to tap the $175 million Tax Increment Financing Account surplus. To support the deal roughly half of this fund surplus is scheduled to be allocated to the Chicago Public schools. The CTU had been demanding use of these funds that have traditionally gone to new business development projects.

The contract and local budget assumes that the state legislature in Springfield will come up with $215 million in pension relief money due in January 2017. If the state fails to meet this obligation, additional teacher layoffs may be implemented to pay for the resulting budget deficit.