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CHICAGO IL, OCTOBER 14th 2019: The Chicago Teacher's Union and The Service Employees International Union Local 173 held a rally at the Chicago Temple culminating in a march going through Downtown Chicago and ending at the Daley Plaza. (Photo by Parthenia Luke)

Nearly 300,000 CPS students affected after talks collapse in last-minute contract negotiations

By Erick Johnson

Chicago Public Schools was thrown into chaos Wednesday, October 16 when deteriorating contract negotiations ended as the Chicago Teachers Union rejected a final offer, sparking a massive teacher’s strike that forced the district to cancel classes for students, and bringing to a halt the nation’s third largest school system.

Wednesday evening, the union’s House of Delegates made the final decision, capping weeks of intense contract talks that went into a downward spiral as Lightfoot and CPS Chief Janice Jackson reportedly stayed out of negotiations in the final hours.

In the end, CTU bargained at the offices of Lightfoot’s lead negotiator, James Franczek, at 300 S. Wacker Drive in the West Loop.

But Lightfoot’s absence from those meetings stirred concerns that talks broke down after negotiations showed some glimpses of hope over the weekend.

With time running out and Lightfoot and union leaders still far apart on key issues, a strike became more imminent Wednesday morning as the district cancelled classes on Thursday at more than 600 of its public schools. Some 360,000 students are enrolled in the district, but nearly 300,000 will be impacted by the strike. Hispanic and Black students make up the majority of the district’s enrollment. Many schools moved up their football games and other sports before the potential strike date.

Some 25,000 CPS teachers are union members.

CPS officials promised to keep most buildings open Thursday to help working parents who had no backup plan or day care for their children. In a press conference, Jackson said the schools will serve breakfast and lunch to students during the strike.

Questions remain how CPS will be able to keep students occupied during the strike. CPS said no bus service will be provided for students to get to schools. Only 18 parks were listed among contingency sites for parents on the CPS website Wednesday.

The concern now turns to continuing the negotiations and ending an indefinite strike that could severely damage a school district that cannot afford a prolonged stoppage. The last teachers strike in 2012 under Mayor Rahm Emanuel lasted nine days. In 2016, Emanuel averted another strike after teachers called for more state funding for CPS.

For Lightfoot, the strike remains her biggest challenge yet in her freshman year as the city’s first Black mayor. Her lack of political experience drew concern that she was unfit to handle Chicago’s big problems. In the past several months she has made three failed contract offers to CTU. Tensions and finger-pointing escalated each time Lightfoot’s offer was rejected.

Lightfoot offered teachers a 16 percent raise over several years, but CTU leaders said the dispute is about more than just money. They want a limit on class sizes, and increased counselors and social workers in schools.

In the final hours of negotiations, Lightfoot and CPS leaders accused union leaders of being unwilling to compromise and said they had “stopped bargaining in good faith.”

“There will not be school tomorrow,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at a news conference Wednesday. “The union has been crystal clear they are going to strike.”

CTU President Jesse Sharkey in a statement said, “Mayor Lightfoot has the power to ensure that the equity and justice she promised our students as a candidate becomes the norm and not the exception in our schools—yet she’s failed to bring those values to the bargaining table. That’s a colossal failure of leadership she must reverse.

“We want what the mayor promised as a candidate—a school nurse, a social worker and a librarian in every school. We want smaller class sizes for our students, who don’t deserve to compete with 40 other children for their teacher’s support. We want the dignity and respect the mayor keeps claiming she has for our teachers, clinicians and support staff. And we reject locking our members into a five-year deal that simply perpetuates a status quo that hurts students and undermines educators.”

During the weekend, both sides had expressed hope of moving forward after Lightfoot provided a “path” for further talks.

Lightfoot on Friday, October 12, released a statement saying, “we were pleased to see more progress at the negotiating table than at any time up to this point. We remain committed to getting a deal done that reflects our fundamental respect for teachers – which is paramount in the counter proposal we put forward yesterday. We remain committed to doubling down on our shared efforts, coming back to the table, and getting to an agreement. That is what our teachers, students, and families deserve.”

By Tuesday, the negotiations began to sour as time was running out for Sharkey and his 40-member bargaining team to get a written contract in place for the organization’s House of Delegates to review and make a final decision.

By Wednesday morning, Sharkey said that he was “overwhelmingly certain” of a teachers strike.

Meanwhile a Sun-Times poll showed that more Chicago residents supported the teachers than the city during the intense negotiation talks.

Late Tuesday, October 15,  the mayor reached a tentative contract agreement with SEUI Local 73, the union representing the Chicago Park District workers. The move averted a strike of 2,400 employees.

Terms of the agreement with the SEIU include wage increases that range from 10 percent to 28 percent over the four-and-a-half-year deal.

For the first time ever, the District will provide paid vacation to hourly employees based on the number of hours worked. In addition, SEIU Local 73 members have agreed to pay an additional 1.5 percent over the next three years toward their healthcare costs.

Beginning in 2023, through these increases, employees will be collectively responsible for 15 percent of the Chicago Park District’s total health care costs, which will be formulated as a percentage of salary.

The Chicago Park District’s other 24 unions have also agreed to the healthcare contribution increases.

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