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Strike talk: the key players in the negotiations between CPS, teachers union

Karen Lewis president Chicago Teachers Unilooks dejected 6pm news conference CTU headquarters Friday September 7 2012 saying she was dissapointed

Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union looks dejected at a 6pm news conference at CTU headquarters Friday, September 7, 2012 saying she was dissapointed in the days negotiations, but would start up again on Saturday at Noon. | Dom Najolia~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 10, 2012 6:19AM

Those sitting on the inside of contract talks that hold the key to averting the first Chicago teachers strike in 25 years are probably unfamiliar figures to most Chicago Public School parents.

And what the between five and 50 people huddled in negotiating rooms have been doing for the last nine months — and how they do it — has been shrouded mostly in secrecy.

But whether that process is successful should finally be known by 12:01 a.m. Monday, when the Chicago Teachers Union has vowed a walkout from the nation’s third-largest school system.

The long-festering talks seemed to take a turn for the better late last week, with the sudden injection of School Board President David Vitale into negotiations.

But previously, fate had thrown together a cross section of strike veterans and strike newbies, Chicagoans and suburbanites, educators and attorneys, who have been trying to forge the first CTU contract under Mayor Rahm Emanuel — the political elephant who is not in the room, but also is not very far away.

Sure, many Chicagoans have seen the CTU’s negotiation leader — CTU President Karen Lewis — on TV, pushing for what she calls a “better school day” and railing against a mayor she recently labeled “a liar” and “a bully.” Lewis has never walked a CTU picket line as a teacher, but as a teen she has said she found it “exciting” to join her striking CPS teacher-parents there.

“Karen is kind of the conductor for our team,” said fellow negotiator and CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey, a former Senn High social studies teacher. “There’s a protocol about when you speak. If someone wants to make a point, they will get Karen’s attention or pass a card saying, ‘Let me make a point here.’”

A one-time stand-up comic who found her calling as a chemistry teacher, Lewis knows when to crack a joke — with or without a microphone, colleagues say.

The Chicago Public Schools’ contract talk quarterback is far more camera shy. A powerhouse none-the-less, CPS outside counsel James Franczek Jr. has sat across the negotiating table from every CTU president since iron-willed Jacqueline Vaughn — the union leader Lewis most admires. Franczek was on the CPS negotiating team during the last CTU strike, a bitter 19-day walkout in 1987, led by Vaughn.

Even one union negotiator calls Franczek “formidable.” When CTU tempers flared at the table over a School Board vote to close schools earlier this year, Franczek was the guy who yelled right back, saying it was “irresponsible” to talk like that, negotiators said.

But Franczek is not the only labor lawyer in the room who has talked parties through a strike.

The CTU’s outside counsel, Robert Bloch, has represented laborers and Teamsters during walkouts. And Bloch has not only represented unions — he’s in effect run one. In the late 1990s, Bloch was appointed trustee of the Chicago Laborers District Council as part of an effort to clean it up, rid it of mob influence and transition it back to self-government.

“I have been through many strikes,” Bloch said. “For any labor lawyer, it’s part of their practice, but sometimes it’s something unions have to do.”

Vitale — Emanuel’s pick to serve as his first school board president — added a new seriousness to the talks last week because he brought “the authority to make a deal,” the CTU’s Sharkey said. A CPS parent and a former CPS insider, Vitale seems to carry the perfect skill set to serve as Emanuel’s “closer.”

For his part, Vitale, former CEO of the Chicago Board of Trade and a former top CPS executive under then-Schools CEO Arne Duncan, says he’s resolved a lot of “sticky negotiations” in his life, so “I have some experience in working with people in difficult situations to bring them to conclusions.’’

A key skill he brings to the table: “I listen to people well. It helps me understand where they’re coming from, and how to be responsive to what they need.”

For the last nine months, talks have alternated between sites at the Chicago Board of Education and the CTU offices in the Merchandise Mart. Lewis, taking notes with different colored pens, sits in the middle of one side of the table, across from Franczek, who pens notes in a bound journal. Each is flanked by negotiating team members, several of them clicking away on laptops or iPads.

For CPS, other key players at the table are attorney Joseph Moriarty, head of CPS Labor Relations; relative newcomer Barbara Byrd-Bennett, interim Chief Education Officer; Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley, and Alicia Winckler, a former Sears executive who serves as head of CPS human resources and its Chief Talent Officer.

Also frequently making an appearance is Arnie Rivera, deputy chief of staff to Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard. For at least the last week, Beth Swanson, the mayor’s education liaison, also has showed up.

Bennett represents the system’s educational “gravitas,” one CPS source said, having served as not only CEO of the Cleveland Public Schools but also as an academic leader of the Detroit and New York City Public School systems. As an addition, in the last six weeks or so, she’s been the CPS go-to person on all things educational, including one key point of contention — a new teacher evaluation system.

Moriarty is “the guy that sorta keeps the train moving, who knows what’s going on at ground level, and what concerns administrators have on a day-to-day basis,” a CPS negotiator said.

He was the district’s sole representative on a fact-finding panel that was unable to bring home a teachers contract earlier this year. At the end of that unsuccessful process, Moriarty wrote a sometimes scathing opinion, charging the CTU with “parochial interests” that “often in the past have acted as an impediment to creation of the schools our children deserve.”

From the union’s point of view, Moriarty can be “a real hard ass,” but he also can deliver a pointed, persuasive argument, said one CTU negotiator. His approach is far different than colleague Cawley, who is given to speeches, the negotiator said.

Cawley, who lives in Winnetka on a special residency wavier, is “the money guy” who keeps on top of costs, one colleague explained. An Emanuel appointee, Cawley previously served as managing director of finance for the Academy of Urban School Leadership, a not-for-profit that Emanuel has praised for its work in “turning around” flagging schools and the union has derided as politically-connected.

From that core group springs a “sophisticated communications system” that keeps City Hall, Chicago School Board members and Brizard “in the loop,” one CPS source said.

Joining Lewis, Sharkey and Bloch on the CTU side of the table are CTU Recording Secretary Michael Brunson; CTU financial secretary Kristine Mayle; grievance-arbitration attorney Robin Potter, and consultant Pam Massarsky, a former CTU officer who adds historical perspective, especially about the innards of the 217-page CTU contract.

Massarsky has negotiated numerous CTU contracts and “knows the implications of removing a piece of language” that may seem “harmless” but is actually important, the CTU’s Sharkey said.

A new CTU strategy this year is the addition of between 35 and 50 teachers, clerks and clinicians and members of the union’s executive board, who meet regularly for updates and input on contract talks.

When CTU negotiators finally forge a tentative agreement, the so-called “big bargaining team” will function as sort of an immediate focus group, ready for react. Said Sharkey: “If it passes with that team, it’s likely to pass muster with our members as a whole.”

A constant presence since February has been mediator David Born of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Independent fact-finder Edwin Benn later joined the process, only to release an opinion in July that both parties rejected. Along the way, Benn called the relationship between the two sides “toxic.”

“It’s never really been the case that the atmosphere at the table has been toxic,” said Sharkey. “Tense, sometimes. Combative, sometimes. But not toxic.

“No one on either side, certainly not the Board [of Education], is phoning this thing in. We’re fighting for every inch of ground on both sides.’’

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