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Bargainers, Delegates need to get on the same page

Updated: October 19, 2012 6:22AM

The Chicago Teachers Union backed Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a corner with its first strike in 25 years, but as its House of Delegates prepares to vote Tuesday on whether to end that walkout, you’d have to say the union has boxed itself into the same corner.

Simply put, what alternative do the 600-some delegates have except to vote to go back to work?

I can think of only one: Send their negotiating team back to the bargaining table with instructions to do better.

That would be a very tall order under any circumstances but especially so under the current ones.

“If it doesn’t get settled [Tuesday], it’s going to be a very difficult situation,” one CTU official confided Monday when confronted with that scenario.

As I pointed out in yesterday’s column, a vote to prolong the strike would leave CTU President Karen Lewis in an almost impossible position after she’s already publicly stated her team negotiated the best deal it could get.

How does Emanuel’s bargaining team negotiate with her if they can’t even be certain she speaks for her members? Nobody can negotiate that way.

This is no prediction on what the House of Delegates will do.

In fact, I am taking nothing for granted after they showed quite conclusively on Sunday they are marching to their own beat by rejecting the recommendation of their bargaining team and delaying a vote, ostensibly so they can review the final contract language.

Maybe that’s the only reason for the delay — making sure CPS officials don’t pull any fast ones in drafting the final contract language.

I argued Monday there was no need to wait for the final draft if the union members trusted their own team. Many teachers told me it’s only prudent with any legal agreement to see the final product.

That sounds nice, but do the teachers really believe they are going to be allowed to go through the contract line by line as a group and “tweak” the language they find objectionable — as I heard one delegate explain her reasoning on Sunday?

That could be a disaster.

Those within the union who want to prolong the strike would say they will lose their leverage if they go back to work before that final document is ready.

That’s true enough, although they also still have the backstop of a ratification vote by the union’s 26,000-plus members, which would be scheduled for after the conclusion of the strike. At some point, CPS needs the contract ratified, too.

Some teachers also argue that if the strike continues, the pressure remains just as intense on the mayor to come up with a way to settle it. I’ll grant you that.

Problem is, I’m not sure what carrots he’s got left to get that accomplished, and he seems to be headed in the other direction. By going to court Monday to seek an injunction to stop the strike, Emanuel has shown he’s ready to turn to the stick to get his way.

Cook County Judge Peter Flynn wisely decided to wait until Wednesday to see if the teachers resolve the matter for themselves before getting the court embroiled in the strike.

Still, I don’t think anybody can predict with guaranteed certainty what would happen if the strike does end up being decided in the courts.

One can only hope that in the last 36 hours or so, the teachers manning the picket lines have had a chance to huddle with their representatives to the House of Delegates and let them know they’re ready to end their strike and get back to work.

“I think people are ready to come back,” another union leader told me late Monday.

Chicago teachers accomplished quite a bit for themselves by going on strike — not the least of which was to make the public think about what’s truly wrong with the schools.

They shot themselves in the foot Sunday by prolonging the strike, but by ending it today, they can still preserve those gains.

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