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Raises, contract length were key to turning strike around

Jesse Sharkey is vice president Chicago Teachers Union. He taught social studies Senn High School where he organized oppositiestablishment military

Jesse Sharkey is vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union. He taught social studies at Senn High School, where he organized opposition to the establishment of a military academy at the school. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 21, 2012 2:46PM

The money sealed the deal.

And the length of the contract helped, too. Chicago’s teachers had been out of work already for five days; the strike negotiating teams stayed up late every night, hashing out teacher evaluations, layoff procedures and raises.

Then early Friday afternoon, just in time for a key union delegate meeting, the offer from Chicago Public Schools sweetened: Years one and four come with 3 percent raises, a whole percent more for those two years than originally offered. Plus, year four was optional, a boon to the Chicago Teachers Union seeking a two-year contract.

With that, the deal was struck, negotiators said Wednesday — although it took several days more to nail down language and two more meetings of union delegates to call the strike off and return kids to class.

District officials, who spoke to reporters only on the condition they not be named, laid out their version of the deal.

They didn’t think much changed in the contract during the strike, saying most of the heavy lifting had happened the week before teachers walked off the job.

But their union counterparts said they didn’t make enough gains until they struck.

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said the final piece fell into place at 12:30 p.m. Friday, just in time for him to go to a 1 p.m. House of Delegates meeting.

“It was literally, my stuff was packed, ‘OK, are we going to get this resolved or not?’ ”

CPS’ response was a three-year contract, and extra raises the first and optional fourth years.

On Wednesday morning, Mayor Rahm Emanuel focused on the deal’s benefits, not its costs.

The contract cost an additional $74 million — compared with $129 million for the last contract — because of changes in sick days, vacation days and a new wellness plan, the mayor said at Chopin Elementary School, 2450 W. Rice. It still includes teacher raises the cash-strapped district will have to find money for, perhaps by closing schools.

“I never denied that we didn’t have tough things to do,” he said, “but I can’t sit here and say in the first five minutes of this contract ... that I can tell you exactly what’s going to happen four or five months from now.”

The CTU and board of education had been tussling over the 2012 contract since November. They waited, then rejected recommendations of an independent fact-finder. Negotiations ramped up close to the first day of school.

The strike date was set for Sept. 10. But nobody budged.

Once teachers walked picket lines and parents scrambled to entertain 350,000 CPS students, the sides moved closer.

Union members agreed to the wellness program only if they wouldn’t be penalized for smoking. The language changed for the teacher ratings category from “needs improvement” to a softer “developing.” “Developing” split into two halves, so that teachers whose scores fall into the bottom half could be laid off before teachers in the top half.

Last Friday, “step” raises were finalized to keep mid-career teachers in CPS.

The union won the right to appeal evaluations, to write their own lesson plans and to form a committee to ease workloads for clinicians, Sharkey said.

“None of these things are earth-shattering,” he said. “But they’re real wins.”

Yet district officials believe their most productive talks took place the week ending Sept. 9. A quality screening process set up for job applicants, including laid-off teachers, already was in place, district officials said. CPS had offered a provision so good teachers laid off when their schools merged could follow their students to new schools with a first crack at job openings.

Not all these offers were in writing, Sharkey said. They kept changing, presented as “What ifs.” The 3 percent raise offer in place the night before the strike began disappeared once teachers went out.

“The district really did itself no favors in the way it put out offers and then withdrew them,” Sharkey said.

The contract is expected to be finalized when all 29,000 members of the CTU vote on ratification. Still unresolved is when children will make up the seven days lost to the strike. CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said the district and union are still figuring that out.

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