Chicago teachers set vote on strike, leader "an optimist"
Chicago Teachers Union delegates will meet on Tuesday to decide whether to end a strike that has closed the nation's third-largest school district for more than a week and prompted Mayor Rahm Emanuel to seek a court order to stop it.
Some 800 union delegates representing the 29,000 teachers and support staff in Chicago Public Schools met on Sunday but continued the strike for two days so they could review details of a proposed new contract negotiated with Emanuel.
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The meeting at 3 p.m. (2000 GMT) on Tuesday will be the second attempt by the union membership to try to get approval from delegates for the compromise deal, which must be approved by a simple majority to suspend the strike.
"There will definitely will be a vote today. I'm always an optimist," teachers union President Karen Lewis said on Tuesday, adding that Sunday's vote "was not split down the middle."
Lewis, who backed the tentative agreement, said teachers "very well could" vote down the agreement and keep striking.
"Teachers like to see what it is they are going to be voting on because we've been burnt by CPS in the past," she said.
The outcome of the meeting may depend not only on how union delegates feel about the tentative agreement, but also how they react to Emanuel's decision to go to court to stop the strike. A judge scheduled a hearing on the request for Wednesday morning.
In a scathing statement released on Monday, the union called Emanuel a bully and said the legal move was "vindictive."
"I know there's a history of distrust," said Melissa Sears, a young teacher on a picket line. "Some of my other colleagues have definitely voiced that, and their concerns are valid."
The union walked out on September 10 for the first time in 25 years to protest Emanuel's demand for sweeping education reforms aimed at improving Chicago's struggling inner-city schools. Some 350,000 public school students were out of school for a seventh day on Tuesday in the largest U.S. labor dispute in a year.
STAKES ARE HIGH
The strike has focused attention on a lively national debate over how to improve failing schools. Emanuel, backed by a powerful reform movement, believes poorly performing schools should be closed and reopened with new staff and principals, or converted to "charter" schools that often are non-union and run by private groups or philanthropists.
Teachers want more resources put into neighborhood public schools to help them succeed. Chicago teachers say many of their students live in poor and crime-ridden areas and this affects their learning.
President Barack Obama has been silent about the nasty dispute in his home city pitting his former top White House aide, Emanuel, against a major national labor union that also supports him.
As the strike has dragged on there has been concern that the rift would damage union support for Obama and Democrats in the run-up to the November 6 presidential and congressional elections. Teacher rallies have drawn strong support from other unions in the city and from unions in neighboring states like Wisconsin and Indiana.
The teachers union on Tuesday said members would join with striking local workers at a Walmart warehouse location who are protesting working conditions, saying a foundation supported by the company's founding Walton family has given millions of dollars to "pro-voucher, pro-privatization groups" attacking unionized schools.
Parents have scrambled to find care for children during the strike. But in the first week most parents and Chicago voters supported the union, according to local opinion polls.
Chicago public schools parent Melissa Lindberg said Emanuel is a Democrat in name only and compared him to Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker, who championed a law stripping public sector unions there of much of their power.
"I think he set out to demonize the teachers, imply they were overpaid and under-performing," she wrote in a column on Catalyst Chicago, a local education information service.
The contract that union delegates will consider includes a compromise on Emanuel's key demand that teacher evaluations be based on the results of their students on standardized tests of reading, math and science. Test results will be taken into consideration but not as much as Emanuel originally wanted.
Many Chicago public school students perform poorly on the tests and the union fears that Emanuel will close scores of schools with poor academic records once the strike is called off, leading to mass teacher layoffs.
The deal calls for an average 17.6 percent raise for teachers over four years and some benefit improvements. Chicago teachers make an average of about $76,000 annually, according to the school district.
A decision by the teachers to reject the deal and continue the strike would throw the compromise deal into doubt. Emanuel's chief negotiator, School Board President David Vitale, said on Monday the district was done negotiating. The district already faces a $665 million budget deficit in the current fiscal year.
If the strike continues, attention will turn to the court hearing on Wednesday when Cook County Circuit Judge Peter Flynn will consider whether the strike is legal.