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Working In These Times

Wednesday, May 6, 2015, 6:09 pm

Chicago Teachers Union Rejects District’s Call for 7% Pay Cut, Files Unfair Labor Practice

BY Yana Kunichoff

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Could another CTU strike be on the horizon? (People's World / Flickr)  

The Chicago Teachers Union announced Wednesday evening it would be filing an unfair labor practice charge against the Chicago Board of Education, the latest development in tense negotiations to form a new contract before the current one expires on June 30th.

The suit alleges that the board has bargained in bad faith by refusing coming to agreement on anything but minor technical issues in the six months of both formal and informal meetings, and has put forward proposals the CTU considers extreme.

One particular board demand that angered the union was a proposal that union members pay the pension contributions currently paid by CPS, which the union says would amount to a 7 percent pay cut.

“We are insulted by the refusal to extend the contract with a 3 percent raise. We are beyond insulted by the board’s proposal to decrease our pay by 7 percent. And the board has rejected our education-based programs,” said CTU President Karen Lewis during a press conference. “We are organizing and we will show our displeasure. We feel that this is reactionary and retaliatory. CPS is broke on purpose.”

In addition, the complaint alleges, the board has refused to start mediation. According to Robert Bloch, the legal counsel for the CTU, mediation should have started in February or April, but the board didn’t agree to begin at that time. The refusals, said Bloch, have brought the negotiations to a standstill.

Both Karen Lewis and CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said during the press conference Wednesday that they weren’t opposed to a strike.

“We’re telling our rank and file to be ready for a fight. We’re going to fight for justice in our schools and come what may. We’re not scared to fight,” said Sharkey in response to questions about the possibility of a strike and whether the union was instructing their members to save.

At issue, according to the Chicago Board of Education, is a “growing and unfair” pension burden, coupled with declining state funding, that has pushed the district into a $1 billion deficit and in doing so crowded out funding on instruction and support for students.

But Karen Lewis said CPS’s fiscal crisis is self-created, pointing to expensive and risky bond deals that sucked tens of millions from Chicago Public Schools and contracts like the $20.5 million contract for training principals that led to a federal probe and the early departure of CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

“Once again, the Board has created a fiscal crisis in order to justify its continued attack on our classrooms and communities,” said Lewis in a statement. “By citing its so-called $1.5 billion deficit, the mayor is proposing a reduction in teaching staff which will result in larger class sizes and the loss of teaching positions.”

The agreement on pension contributions between CPS and the union has been in the contract since 1981, when CPS agreed to pay 7 percent of each CTU member’s 9 percent contribution in lieu of offering teachers a raise that year.

Practically, the union calculated, a teacher earning $70,000 a year in base pay would see $5,000 go into their pension obligations, while a teacher starting at $50,000 a year would pay $3,5000.

The ask came after CPS rejected nearly every contract proposal put forward by the union, said the CTU, which included limits on class sizes, more teacher prep time and an increase in school counselors and nurses.

The negotiations have been rumbling in the background of Chicago’s political landscape since they began March 26, in the midst of Chicago’s mayoral election, but only began heating up last week when the board declined to extend the contract negotiated in 2012 for a fourth year.

CPS said the contract, which gave teachers salary raises of 3 percent in the first year and 2 percent for the next two years and expires in June, was too expensive to extend. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, interim CEO Jesse Ruiz said in a letter to Karen Lewis that “while the Board of Education recognizes that CPS teachers and staff have worked extremely hard during the last three years,” the board wouldn’t be extending the contract.

Instead, wrote Ruiz, “in the coming weeks, we hope to work with you on the most pressing fiscal issues facing CPS—the continued inequity in pension funding.”

That meant, most Chicago media coverage agreed, that CPS wanted the union to help them lobby Springfield and its new governor for an answer to the pension crisis. Rauner has already been vocal on CPS budget issues, saying he feared that the district could go into bankruptcy while offering that the outcome could be positive because it would let CPS “restructure its debts and contracts.”

Neither the CTU nor the mayor’s office much liked the suggestion. CTU said it was merely a way to avoid the coming contract negotiations, according to Catalyst Chicago, while a spokesperson for the mayor pushed for more state spending on education in Chicago.

For its part, the Chicago Teachers Union has continued to attempt to steer the conversation back to its array of contract demands.

“How do you reject having librarians do their job as opposed to serving as subs most of the day? How do you reject proposals to strengthen special education instruction or strengthen the implementation of restorative justice programs to reduce conflict in our schools?,” said Lewis of CPS proposal. “This makes no sense—they are penny wise and pound foolish.”

Yana Kunichoff is a Chicago-based investigative journalist and documentary producer. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Pacific Standard and the Chicago Reader, among others. She can be reached at yanakunichoff at gmail.com.

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