Chicago teachers are on the picket line this morning and plan to shut down rush hour traffic this evening.
It’s the latest move in the year-long negotiations between the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools. But it’s also a day-long demonstration uniting the teachers with dozens of other activists who are upset with Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and some lawmakers, and with the state budget impasse. They are also upset with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his handling of city finances.
Why CTU is protesting the state
At one point, CPS and CTU seemed to be united by a common enemy, Springfield, but that quickly unraveled after the union’s 40-member big bargaining team rejected a “serious offer” from the district.
Negotiations this year have been closely linked to the state, in part, because the district banked on Illinois lawmakers sending CPS financial help to the tune of nearly half a billion dollars. That did not happen.
On Wednesday, Emanuel again said he wants to join hands with the union in trying to get Springfield to change the way it funds education.
“I understand and appreciate the teachers have a challenge with Springfield. Get in line, there’s a lot of people who have a challenge with what’s happening in Springfield, but do not take it out on our students,” Emanuel said.
Emanuel’s hand-picked schools CEO Forrest Claypool also cancelled school last week, in a move to shore up the district’s bottom line. It was one of five furlough days Claypool announced after he backed off a plan to unilaterally eliminate the district practice of picking up part of the teachers’ pension contribution.
That threat of essentially cutting take home pay by 7 percent was initially what prompted the union to talk about a strike on April 1.
Immediately, CPS officials said an April 1st strike would be illegal because it did not follow a state-mandated timeline passed into law in 2010. The law says Chicago teachers must follow a 90-day process before walking off the job and must get approval from 75 percent of members.
The legal question
Claypool said Thursday the district would need more time to take legal action anyway.
“We needed more time to exercise the legal process to truly get an injunction and the leader of the CTU announced on television this week that her members would not honor a court-ordered injunction anyway from a judge, which again just, I think, sort of magnifies the lawlessness of this action,” he said.
University of Illinois Labor Relations Professor Robert Bruno said that the law is not quite as clear as Claypool makes it seem. The state law Claypool references sets out the process for striking when the dispute is over a contract.
The teachers union says it is striking over an unfair labor practice. Here’s what they contend: For decades, the school district had paid teachers raises based on experience and educational attainment. These raises are called steps and lanes.
In recent years, steps and lanes have drawn the ire of some. They would rather give teachers raises based on merit.
This year, when the teacher’s contract expired on June 31, 2015, it was decided that the old contract would remain in place until a new contract could be worked out.
But the Chicago Public Schools stopped paying steps and lanes. That move constituted an unfair labor practice, according to the Chicago Teachers Union.
Bruno said that unfair labor practice strikes are common in the private sector, but not in the public sector. He said the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board has never heard such a case.
“We don’t have cases like this,” he said. “To my knowledge there aren’t a lot of these kinds of cases in other states. What do we have to go on? We don’t have much.”
If the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board finds that the strike is illegal, then teachers could face discipline. Bruno said that the discipline could come in the form of a mild letter to the taking away pay for a day.
Consequences for crossing the picket line
Even taking away pay for a day, isn’t much of a threat. Teachers on strike aren’t expecting to be paid.
CTU Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle said that the union will be on the lookout for teachers who cross the picket line. Teachers who see their peers go into schools will be asked to fill out a report.
A board at the teachers union will investigate the case and, if a teacher is found guilty, the teacher will be out of the union. They can get back into the union by paying the wages they earned on April 1 to the union.
Kayle said that there were 19 reports in the 2012 strike and about a handful were found to be valid. She said those strike breakers, as well as strike breakers from other decades, are still not apart of the union.
Teachers voted to authorize a strike last December. Roughly 88 percent were in favor.
Not a typical strike
This April 1 strike is not quite the same as a typical strike, which lasts until a contract deal is reached. In 2012, when CTU went on strike for the first time in 25 years, it lasted seven school days.
The public action is happening in the middle of a formal mediation process called fact-finding, where a third-party reviews both sides’ proposals and issues recommendations. A report from the fact-finder is expected in mid-April.
A strike over the contract can’t happen until a month after the factfinder report comes out. In 2012, both sides rejected the findings in the fact finder report.
Becky Vevea and Sarah Karp are education reporters for WBEZ. They both tweet @wbezeducation.