CHICAGO - With Chicago teachers facing a hostile mayor and Chicago Board of Education in negotiations for a new contract, 90% of teachers union members have voted to authorize a strike.
"This is not a win," said Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. "This is an indictment of the state of relations between Chicago Public Schools (CPS) management and the union."
Lewis linked CPS policies with billionaire investors who are seeking to privatize city schools. "It's also an indictment of outside groups who are seeking to destroy the real work of Chicago teachers, paraprofessionals and clinicians," she said.
Ninety-one percent of 25,000 teachers voted and of those, 98% voted to authorize a strike. The vote doesn't mean a strike will occur, but is seen as a way for the union to strengthen its bargaining position.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and school privatization forces had sought to handcuff the CTU by gaining passage of a new state law requiring 75% of union members to vote for strike authorization for it to be effective. Every non-vote is now considered a "No" vote.
CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard criticized the union for acting before an arbitrator issued a report in mid-July. But Lewis said the arbitrator would only make recommendations on a narrow range of salary and benefit issues.
Lewis said there are many other issues teachers want included in negotiations impacting work conditions and the educational learning environment for children. They include smaller class sizes, setting up libraries in 160 schools presently without them, and restoring music and art classes systemwide.
"We're also tired of being disrespected and treated like we don't know what we're doing," said Lewis.
The relationship between teachers and the administration of Mayor Emanuel has grown increasingly bitter, with Emanuel demonizing teachers and imposing new education policies without consultation with educators.
The Board of Education, stocked with some of Chicago's wealthiest and biggest investors, revoked a scheduled 4% pay hike for teachers, extended the school day 20% while increasing teacher pay only 2%.
In February the BOE, despite widespread community opposition, approved a plan to close seven schools, and "turn around" 10 others by firing the entire staffs or turning them over to private operators. This continues a longstanding policy of Emanuel's predecessor as mayor, Richard M. Daley.
Emanuel recently went to the state capital, Springfield, to lobby for cutting public worker pensions.
Lewis said, "While our members work in schools that are under-resourced, understaffed and underappreciated, they have toiled silently long enough, while the mayor of this city shut down schools and handed over operations to well connected friends."
She blasted Wall Street investors and deceptively named anti-union groups like Democrats for Education Reform, Education Reform Now, Stand for Children, the Broad Foundation and other groups who she said were "standing on the backs of our children, while they profess to be concerned about them yet ignore the harsh realities of their lives."
These and other groups have been pouring millions of dollars into electing pro-privatization legislators and lobbying to expand charter schools and weaken teacher unions.
Lewis said the CTU would continue to reach out to parents who share their concern over education quality. She warned that differences over contractual issues and education policies would only be solved through cooperation and not through outside consultants and billionaire investors.
Photo: CTU Facebook page