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CPS officials and union now have to start difficult negotiations

Updated: August 18, 2012 6:34AM

An independent arbitrator has decided Chicago Public School teachers deserve a pay raise that their employers — the Board of Education and city taxpayers — absolutely, positively cannot afford right now.

Lucky for everybody involved, including the teachers, it’s a nonbinding recommendation. Both sides need to tell the arbitrator thanks but no thanks and get back to the bargaining table.

Whether the proposed raise is characterized as 14.85 percent in the first year of a new contract or a total of 22.1 percent over the four-year deal — neither of which includes 3.4 percent in annual seniority bumps most teachers also would continue to receive — it’s not really in the realm of possibility.

To pay for its estimated $350 million-plus first-year price tag, CPS would have to lay off teachers by the thousands — or as arbitrator Edwin Benn suggests, backtrack on plans to impose a longer school day.

Whether the raises are deserved or not (the arbitrator is adamant they are in light of the teachers’ increased workload), even the Chicago Teachers Union will have to recognize the pay proposal is not feasible, especially if it hopes to protect its members’ jobs and hold down class sizes.

Meanwhile, CPS insists that “eliminating the full school day is not an option,” which is probably true from a political standpoint, given the importance Mayor Rahm Emanuel has placed on the issue.

So where does that leave us?

Pretty much back at square one, I’m afraid, with a slight advantage to the teachers union going forward in negotiations. An unbiased third party has found its members deserving of a raise they will never receive. That certainly should give them leverage to negotiate a better deal on noneconomic “education justice” matters that the union has insisted all along are just as important.

That’s an advantage nobody was predicting two months ago when the union rushed to take a strike authorization vote before the school year ended.

You remember what CPS brass and their allies in the education reform world were saying then — that the teachers should wait on the arbitrator’s report, which we were told would be crucial in determining their compensation.

In a letter back then to teachers arguing against the strike vote, schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard told them they deserved a “fair” raise and added: “How much that raise should be is in the hands of an independent fact-finder.”

While CPS remained officially mum Monday while waiting for the entire report to be released to the public later this week, you can be assured Brizard no longer wants that decision in the hands of Benn, who was quite clear in stating “the board caused this problem.”

Previously, the teachers were worried the “fact-finding process” as set forth in school reform legislation approved last year was tilted against them. Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has made it clear for months the union was placing little importance on the arbitrator’s findings, emphasizing that the contract would have to be negotiated regardless.

On Monday, though, Lewis couldn’t keep from gloating a little as she offered a “thank you” to the school reform law for throwing its second major curve at Emanuel and Brizard.

You’ll recall some “reformers” thought they had outmaneuvered teachers with a provision in the new law that required 75 percent of the union’s entire membership to authorize a strike — thought to be an insurmountable threshold that in effect eliminated their ability to strike. In the end, the requirement only served to irritate teachers so much that they voted 90 percent in favor of a strike.

I defended the teachers’ right to take that vote on their own timetable, not that I think they should be going on strike.

Both sides have a responsibility to work out a deal to make sure school opens on time, and despite what the arbitrator describes as their “toxic” relationship — made worse by the unilateral imposition of the longer day — there’s no reason they can’t reach an agreement. You might as well make up your mind right now: This is probably going down to the wire before we’re finished with a strike deadline and all the attendant anguish.

Like it or not, that’s the nature of collective bargaining, and nobody can fact-find their way out of the tough decisions.

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