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Editorial: CTU risks setting teachers’ hopes too high

Chicago Teachers Unipresident Karen Lewis.

Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis.

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Updated: July 7, 2012 8:41AM

The Chicago Teachers Union president has walked her members to the edge of the cliff.

They are revved up, hoppin’ mad and ready, beginning Wednesday, to take a strike authorization vote. If 75 percent of members vote yes, the CTU House of Delegates has the right to set a strike date in the coming months if they so choose. Before then, members also will vote on any final contract offer.

This is what strong leaders do during tough contract negotiations, and we’re not questioning Karen Lewis’ right to play that game — and to try to win some much-needed leverage for teachers who are feeling voiceless and disrespected.

But as teachers cast their ballots this week, we hope they stop for a reality check. We fear that Lewis may have set expectations so high that members have nowhere to go but off the cliff.

We are in tough economic times, as everyone is well aware. But nowhere in the CTU’s rhetoric is there a clear acknowledgment of the school board’s fiscal constraints. Instead, CTU leaves the impression that CPS’ only goal is to stick it to teachers. In many cases, CPS is proposing to reduce or roll back benefits because they have few other choices. The school system is bleeding money.

Lewis won’t be able to deliver the moon for her members, and she owes it to them to prepare them for that eventuality.

The CTU leadership also owes it to its members to be more honest about CPS’ initial contract offer. CTU continues to misrepresent key elements in a blatant attempt to cast the school system in the worst possible light. That may be helpful for getting over the hump in the strike authorization vote, but it is profoundly unhelpful in every other way. Also a mistake was the union’s decision to forgo hiring an independent third party to certify this week’s voting. We can only hope it doesn’t come back to haunt them.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS’ leadership have their own work to do. As we’ve said before, Lewis isn’t manufacturing teacher outrage, only tapping in to it. Making some meaningful concessions now, publicly making clear that they’re listening to teachers, could go a long way toward preventing a strike this fall.

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