Just in time for the 2016 Labor Notes Conference, the Chicago Teachers Union is planning a one-day strike and citywide day of action April 1. The union's governing body, the House of Delegates, gave its stamp of approval to the action last week.
The teachers' contract fight intensified after the district announced cuts and layoffs it claims are necessary to pay off a $480 million budget shortfall.
The union doesn't dispute there's a deficit. But the teachers argue that the district has brought the problem on itself by refusing to look for additional tax revenue to fund schools. Or as union leaders put it, the Chicago Public Schools are "broke on purpose."
April 1 was chosen because it's the day teachers were slated to see a cut in their paychecks, as the district slashed the 7 percent "pension pickup" it's been paying since the 1980s.
Chicago teachers don't get Social Security; instead, those contributions are diverted into the district's pension system. "The only thing we have to retire is our pension," said bargaining team member Tammy Vinson, a special ed teacher, last year.
Hoping teachers would call off the strike, the district has since backed off its immediate plan to impose the cut -- but it wouldn't take the demand off the table entirely.
"There are teacher's aides that only make $29,000 a year," said teacher Sarah Chambers. "Imagine a 7 percent pay cut."
"We are hoping this April 1 action is a show of force," said union Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle. "It's not just about this contract fight. It's about education and fair funding and the rich not paying their taxes."
The union has been highlighting the city's refusal to get tough with banks. It points to Bank of America and other financial institutions where high borrowing rates or "toxic swaps" have cost the city over a billion dollars.
"The whole system is screwed up," Mayle said.
All Feeling the Pinch
Teachers -- the largest union in the city -- are asking other unions to mobilize too, and to gather for a mass rally for better funding for schools and public services.
"We are going to be joined by health care workers, fast food workers, and others facing the pinch," Mayle said.
She pointed to clear allies: SEIU Healthcare Illinois, the Fight for $15 campaign, and students and faculty at Chicago State University, a South Side school that's in crisis after harsh budget cuts.
Community groups representing a cross-section of the district's parents and students have endorsed the day of action: Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Black Youth Project 100, Grassroots Collaborative, and the worker center ARISE.
"These social services all affect our students and their families," Chambers said. "We are demanding progressive revenue that will fund the contract, that will fund social services, that will fund Chicago State University."
Public sector workers in Transit (ATU), AFSCME, and SEIU could be potential allies, too, since they're also facing city and state budget cuts and layoffs.
Members have authorized an open-ended strike, but they have legal requirements to meet before they can give official strike notice, as they did in 2012. They're in the legally mandated fact-finding phase of negotiations.
Still, the union's officers and executive board recommended the April 1 work stoppage. Five hundred members discussed it at a March 12 summit, and the union's governing body, the House of Delegates, voted last night to authorize it.
"A Just Chicago"
The teachers have been without a contract since last June. The union kicked off its campaign last spring, issuing a series of proposals under the umbrella of "A Just Chicago."
Members want smaller classes, more teachers and support staff, more resources for students, and workload relief.
The union has pointed to ways the district could bring in new revenue for schools -- including renegotiating the "toxic swaps" and repurposing tax increment financing (TIF) money that's currently being used to subsidize real estate development.
Over the summer, the two sides worked on a one-year contract extension that would have generally maintained the status quo -- but in August, new Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool tanked it. Instead he demanded that teachers take a pay cut by giving up the district's pension contribution.
In December, 88 percent of Chicago teachers voted to authorize a strike.
Not Good Enough
In January, the appointed board made a settlement offer, which had some promising elements on the surface. The district was offering a moratorium on new charter schools and layoffs -- if enough members (both teachers and paraprofessionals) took an early retirement buyout. The 7 percent pension pickup would be phased out.
But the union's big bargaining team rejected the offer -- and not only because of the pay cut.
"The things that they gave us were not enforceable," Mayle said, pointing out that the state also has the power to authorize charters. And there was no guarantee that the district would fill the jobs of the 2,000 veteran teachers it would be pushing into retirement -- so the plan risked worsening already barebones staffing levels.
The district wouldn't take no for an answer. Claypool announced the plan to impose the pension pickup, along with layoffs that mostly affect the district's central office and school employees represented by other unions. The district later announced three furlough days for teachers and school employees.
Union workers now have just over a week to prepare their co-workers for the action and bring in more allies across the city.
"I think this is really going to scare them," Chambers said. "This has never happened before."
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