Education

Chicago’s Teachers Are On The Brink Of A Strike

Reuters/John Gress

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Blake Neff Reporter

Chicago’s public school teachers union is threatening to have its 21,600 teachers go on strike within the next month, in an effort to extract concessions from the city.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) are grappling with about $480 million, which will soar to around $800 million next year, largely due to the surging cost of financing pensions for the city’s retired teachers. In an effort to deal with the fiscal calamity, CPS has been using every cost-cutting tool in its arsenal — from layoffs to school shutdowns to furloughs for employees. CPS’s financial situation is so precarious that CEO Forrest Claypool has warned the district could run out of money before its fiscal year ends in June.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has loudly protested all these efforts, and now its girding to fight back forcefully. CTU President Karen Lewis stepped up the group’s rhetoric Friday, promising April 1 would bring a “showdown” with CPS and the city government. Lewis hasn’t explicitly said what form the “showdown” will take, but said some kind of mass protest action that would close schools for the day (in effect, a one-day strike) is on the table.

The April 1 “day of action” was originally announced by CTU as a response to the city’s plan to effectively slash teacher pay later in March by forcing teachers to pay more into their own pensions rather than having the government make the contribution as an employee benefit. Once the strike was threatened, CPS said it was backing off from that plan for the time being.

But CTU is still planning to go ahead with the showdown, citing other provocations. In particular, the union is angry about a plan announced March 3 that would force CPS employees to take three unpaid furlough days, which will save the school district about $30 million while costing employees about 1 percent of their annual salaries.

As a result, Lewis announced that the April 1 showdown is still on, despite the fact that it’s original motivation has been lost.

“The CTU finds itself inside a scenario similar to the movie ‘Groundhog Day’ where we keep waking up to the same mess, every single day. We have to do something different,” Lewis said in a statement released Friday.

“April 1st is a showdown for a fair contract. April 1st is a showdown for progressive revenue for our schools,” she continued, emphasizing the intense importance of the coming date. “April 1st is a showdown for our students and parents. April 1st is a showdown for communities. April 1st is a showdown for equitable funding and good governance. April 1st is a showdown for education justice.”

If CTU’s threat results in a full-blown strike, it would be the first strike in the city since 2012, when students spent a week out of class as teachers fought for higher pay and a variety of other concessions.

CTU members already voted overwhelmingly in December to authorize a strike if its leadership believes it necessary.

CPS, for its part, argues that any strike action on April 1 would be illegal, as certain negotiating thresholds have not yet been met. The earliest a strike would be legal, the district argues, is in mid-May.

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