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Looming teachers strike: ‘You could see this train coming’

Chicago Teachers UniPresident Karen Lewis  Mayor Rahm Emanuel | Sun-Times files

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and Mayor Rahm Emanuel | Sun-Times files

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Updated: October 3, 2012 6:15AM

The die for Chicago’s first teachers strike in 25 years — or at least the threat of it — was cast almost from the moment that Rahm Emanuel entered the race for mayor.

Despite a $712 million shortfall in the Chicago Public Schools budget, Emanuel campaigned on a promise to lengthen the school day and the school year. And he touched a nerve with parents by complaining that their kids were being shortchanged by the nation’s shortest school day — a point that union leaders dispute.

Emanuel’s path to instituting the longer school day and year that begins systemwide Tuesday, Sept. 4., has led to teacher resentment, distrust, anger — and a vote to start a strike against the nation’s third-largest school district on Sept. 10, what would normally be the beginning of the second week of school. Talks are scheduled all through Labor Day weekend.

In the trenches and from public microphones, the word teachers and their leaders frequently use to describe Emanuel is “bully.” They say they feel “disrespected” by the mayor.

When bargaining issues advance beyond mere numbers into the “affective domain,’’ warned Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations for the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, negotiations are in deep trouble.

“He [the mayor] turned himself into the cause upon which teachers could internally mobilize against,’’ said Bruno, whose research indicates Chicago public school teachers actually average a 58 hour work week, far beyond their contracted instructional time.

“All the barriers that the mayor put in front of teachers they have obliterated and they have become what the mayor least wanted. They became unified.’’

The gauntlet

Early on, Emanuel laid down the gauntlet to the Chicago Teachers Union: If the CTU refused to agree to longer hours and a longer school calendar at the bargaining table, he would go around the union and convince the Illinois General Assembly to mandate the changes.

It wasn’t an idle threat. Two weeks after taking office, Emanuel used the political good will that comes with being a newly elected mayor who’s just won a landslide victory to deliver his No. 1 legislative priority: an education reform bill that paved the way for a longer school day and school year and made it easier to get rid of tenured teachers and tougher for their union to go on strike.

Then, an advocate for education reform with ties to the new mayor rubbed salt in the union’s political wounds. Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Jonah Edelman, chair of the Oregon-based organization Stand for Children, bragged that he’d snookered unions and legislators who worked on the education reform bill into accepting drastic cuts in teachers union’s rights. Edelman also boasted that the new 75 percent strike authorization threshold was so high that there was no chance the Chicago Teachers Union would ever meet it.

Less than a year later, Chicago teachers would roar past that mark, winning a record 90 percent strike authorization vote.

They were fueled by their anger against a mayor who’d stripped them of a previously negotiated 4 percent pay raise and tried to muscle through a longer school day immediately by offering bonuses to teachers and stipends to individual schools — without consulting union leaders about how the additional time should be used.

On the day that Emanuel publicly defended his decision to cancel the 4 percent raises, he said teachers got the gold mine and students got “the shaft.”

“Teachers got two types of pay raises” since 2003, Emanuel said. “People in public life got labor peace. Can anybody explain to me what the children got? I know what everybody else got.

“Fifty percent of our kids graduate. Scores haven’t moved. Yet not one additional minute of instructional time for the children where they can be safe and learning…I will not accept our children continuing to get the shaft.”

The mayor’s “got the shaft” remark would stick in the craw of teachers and be cited repeatedly by teachers and union leaders.

Teachers were further infuriated by the fact that the $80 million in savings generated by cancelling teacher raises was subsequently used to pay police retroactively, going back to 2009, some $70 million more than CPS had originally agreed to pay for them for their services in schools.

Setting the stage

Labor leaders and longtime political observers now blame all of those developments — along with the enmity between Emanuel and CTU President Karen Lewis — for setting the stage for a strike. Lewis once accused the famously foul-mouthed Emanuel of using the F-word during an early meeting in the mayor’s office.

“CPS set the stage for a lot of this,” said Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez. “I can’t imagine they would think negotiations would start on solid footing with some of the things they did with the wage increase and the longer day.

“They sent signals of wanting to be tough, and that’s how teachers received it. They weren’t thinking about a strategy of collective bargaining. They should have started with collaboration, working with teachers, pulling them in and saying, ‘This is what we need to accomplish.’ They didn’t signal that to anybody.”

Ramirez added, “You have a new mayor and a new head of the CTU. Relationships are hard to build under such great pressure. But there should have been a greater emphasis on collaboration and solving problems. Teachers are passionate about what they do. This is a calling for them. They have good ideas. You should try and tap into that, too.”

Last month, the two sides appeared to have taken a giant step toward averting a teachers strike that could be a major setback for Emanuel’s efforts to provide an array of high school alternatives to help keep middle-class families from moving to the suburbs in search of better schools.

That was when they agreed on plans that called for hiring 477 teachers to staff the longer school day — at a cost of up to $50 million — so elementary school teachers wouldn’t have to work a longer day and rearranging the high school day so teachers would have to work only 4 extra minutes.

Since then, though, progress appears to have slowed. The union has complained that the teacher hiring deal isn’t being honored and that the longer school day in schools that started earlier this month has been mismanaged.

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), former longtime chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee who now serves as Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, acknowledged that there is bad blood between the mayor and Lewis.

But he’s still holding out hope that an 11th-hour agreement can be reached.

“Rahm was coming off a huge victory,” O’Connor said. “He had a lot of commitments he made on education. The union felt they were not consulted. A relationship that would have built over time took a hit early. How long are we gonna talk about the fact that they argued in his office a year ago? For God’s sake, get over it. It can’t be the framework for all future discussions.”

The alderman added, “If the economy were in better shape, this wouldn’t be as big an issue. But you’ve got a bunch of folks looking for a good contract and sister agencies and city government essentially broke. Property values are plummeting. Assessments are up. At some point, we cannot continue to pretend people have the money to pay for this.”

One political observer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “His style is challenging and her personality — the way she won — is to be very aggressive. You could see this train coming down the track.”

When talks go sour and start building up an “emotional element,’’ the U of I’s Bruno said, sometimes the parties need a strike or the threat of one to make them stop and realize what’s at stake.

“Setting a strike date with the firm belief that a strike could occur is an action that can, in fact, be mind-clearing,’’ Bruno said.

“Teachers could lose a paycheck. That’s true.

“And Rahm has to have a successful public school system. If he’s going to build a prosperous middle class and be the mayor of a prominent city, particularly in an election year, he doesn’t want a strike. This can’t be good for him.”

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