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Teachers Union to start strike-authorization voting Wednesday

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Updated: July 6, 2012 10:36AM

Saying “enough is enough,” Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis announced Friday that members will be asked to authorize a strike in balloting to begin Wednesday.

“We are tired of being bullied, belittled and betrayed by this district and the city of Chicago,” Lewis said late Friday afternoon.

“Next week, we intend to take this vote. This is an important step in ensuring the voices of over 25,000 public school educators are heard at the bargaining table.’

In an unusual twist, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said the vote might take several days. Because a new law requires that 75 percent of all union members authorize a strike, he said, balloting will be held daily “until we have a clear result.’’

Union officials cautioned that a vote doesn’t mean teachers will immediately or even eventually walk off the job — something that hasn’t happened since 1987. However, if union members authorize a strike, it would be left to the CTU’s House of Delegates to decide when teachers would walk out if a deal isn’t reached on a new contract.

Sharkey predicted the union will reach the 75 percent threshold.

“We’re going to get this vote,” he said, “but it would be a lot less sure if the proposals weren’t so outrageous.”

Top points of contention, he said, were the board’s offer of only a guaranteed 2 percent raise over a five-year contract just as it is unilaterally demanding that teachers work a 15 to 20 percent longer school day. Pay would be frozen in the second year of the contract, and a joint committee that would not meet until January would establish a “differentiated pay” schedule for years three through five of the deal.

And, Sharkey said, while the CTU wants to lower class size by about five students per classroom, CPS wants to remove all language about class size from the contract except for a phase that says the board will follow “board policy on class size.’’ Board members can change board policy “at the drop of a hat’’ so the union wants class size provisions written into the contract, even if they are only advisory, Sharkey said.

However, CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll insisted the current class size policy “would remain as is once the new contract is in effect.’’ Though facing a still-unresolved $700 million deficit, CPS officials have said they are not raising class sizes this fall, Carroll said.

Chicago Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard late Friday said the union should wait for the independent fact-finder to issue his recommendation, now due July 16, before asking members to vote on something that could still be evolving. Before that date, Brizard said in a written statement, “any move toward a strike would only hurt our kids and school communities.”

Added Brizard, “teachers deserve a raise for the great work they are doing, and they also deserve an opportunity to see the proposal being put on the table before asking them to authorize a strike.’’

The union’s decision to hold a strike vote sooner rather than later is not a surprise, given the tensions that have been building between the CTU and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was the subject of repeated boos at last week’s CTU rally.

But still, it’s a blow to the mayor, who wanted the union to wait for the fact-finder’s recommendation.

“We are not going to take a vote in the middle of the summer when our members are not here,’’ the CTU’s Lewis insisted Friday.

“No one has the authority to tell the Chicago Teachers Union when it should conduct this vote, how it should conduct this vote, who should oversee this vote, or how long the vote will be. State law does not prohibit us from taking a strike authorization vote now, and does not require us to wait until after ‘fact-finding’ to do so.’’

CTU officials said votes would be counted daily, but not announced until it was clear the union had met its 75 percent threshold — or could not meet it. To ensure the integrity of the vote, Lewis said, as many as five ministers would be asked to oversee the ballot counting.

Waiting until teachers return to their schools the week before the Sept. 4 start of school to conduct a vote would be mechanically difficult, Sharkey said. Meanwhile, he said, doing one next week should encourage CPS to “start negotiating seriously’’ so the contract can be resolved before school starts.

Added Sharkey: “It’s less disruptive that way.’’

However, Robin Steans of Advance Illinois, which helped negotiate the new law, questioned how the CTU could ask members “to take the only vote they will have on this before they have the full information.’

“I find it disappointing,’’ Steans said. “It’s not within the spirit or the intent of the legislative package they helped negotiate.’’

Contributing: Fran Spielman

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