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Frustrated Chicago Teachers Union Grapples With Restrictive Strike Rights

Akito Yoshikane

Chicago Teachers Union members and officials reportedly met Tuesday night to discuss their next course of action after negotiations with school officials broke down this week over reneged pay raises and extended school days.

At the meeting, the union’s House of Delegates decided not to take action on a vote to re-open the existing contract for now, which would have paved the way for a strike and opened negotiations beyond salary issues. Officials told the Chicago Tribune that the possibility of a walkout was still very high.” But the ability to do so will be much more difficult under new Illinois legislation, which requires 75-percent of union members to authorize a strike.

Talks were stalled over the terms of a 4-percent cost of living increase that was rescinded in June by the Chicago Board of Education due to budget concerns. Officials said it would save $100 million from the $712 million deficit at the time. The board, selected by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, approved six-figure salaries for five Chicago Public Schools executives a week later, which drew protests from union members.

The union pulled out of negotiations this week after school officials rejected an offer of a 2-percent increase in addition to other proposals.

Following the stalemate, Chicago Public School system officials on Tuesday went ahead and announced unilateral plans for a longer school day for the 2012-13 year, including a possible raise if teachers agreed to begin the longer hours this year. CPS officials’ ability to act unilaterally — i.e. without union agreement — stems from an education reform law signed in May by Democratic Governor Pat Quinn. The plan would extend the school day for an extra 90 minutes and an additional two weeks. Emanuel advocated extended school hours and days on the campaign trail, criticizing the country’s third largest education system for having one of the shortest school days compared to other metropolitan areas.

CTU has general quality of education concerns and says that teachers would also be working longer hours without extra pay. The combination of having their cost of living increases denied and extending school days without including the teachers in the discussion had triggered mutterings of a strike vote. But the same education overhaul law signed by Quinn also hinders the union’s ability to strike. Now, unions must go through mediation and fact-finding and more than 75 percent of union members must vote in favor of a strike, reports say.

The union has pointed to other areas besides teacher pay that could be contributing to the city’s budget issues, such as property tax revenues diverted to Tax Increment Financing” (TIF) districts. CTU says TIFs are used to fund businesses not in dire need of financial support.

The Chicago Sun-Times explains how TIF funds are allocated:

In a TIF district, the property taxes sent to the city and other taxing bodies are frozen for 20 years. Any revenue collected above that first-year level is put into a special fund to be used to encourage economic development in that district. That can include road repairs, street lights and other infrastructure improvements.

The largest single taxing district in Chicago is the public schools, which would be in line for 50 percent of the $500 million in property tax dollars diverted into TIFs every year.

The CTU says that $250 million of would-be funds for municipal use is diverted away from schools. Union president Karen Lewis wrote Monday on the union’s website:

While the City gives away hundreds of millions of dollars in tax subsidies to big developers and even more in profits for the big banks that wrecked our economy, the Board seeks to strip us of our agreed upon raises and calls for longer work hours with no clear plan for compensation.

Mayor Emanuel recently dismissed the idea as a palliative one-time” fix.

As reported previously by In These Times, the teachers union has also been calling on the city to renegotiate costly interest rate swaps” with four investment banks that could help save $120 million. The union says that many of these banks, assisted with taxpayer money during the financial crisis, are bleeding the city of $36 million annually.

In the latest proposal that was rejected by school officials, the union also called on the CPS to cease business with the five largest banks responsible for Chicago-area foreclosures. Some of those affected include union members and families of students and the union said banks should provide relief by modifying mortgage principals and interest rates for homeowners.

The Chicago Board of Education is meeting today (Wednesday), and it doesn’t appear that school board officials will heed the union’s concerns. The CTU finds itself in a city with a mayor that has become increasingly tough on unionized teachers. While officials have asked public employees for cuts to plug a budget, school executives have seen their pay increase. Meanwhile, the board is considering property tax increases the union says would cost the average homeowner $84, even as TIF funds continue to be distributed to noneducation related areas.

Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
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