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Editorial: Time for teachers union to bargain

Chicago Teachers UniPresident Karen Lewis talks news conference Monday about strike-authorizativote whteachers are seeking contract.  |   Al

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis talks at a news conference Monday about the strike-authorization vote and what teachers are seeking in a contract. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 13, 2012 6:15AM

Chicago Teachers Union leaders have insisted that they want to avoid a strike. Now is their chance to prove it.

The CTU announced Monday that its members have voted overwhelmingly — 90 percent — to authorize a strike. The union’s House of Delegates can set a strike date if a contract deal can’t be reached.

The CTU says it needed this vote to gain leverage at the bargaining table — and they’re onto something. They have been backed into a corner by a new state law that diminishes their power. They have been demonized by outside groups. They face a mayor and schools chief intent on major change. It’s hard to fault the CTU for calling the vote now, though we wish they had waited for the release of an arbitrator’s recommended contract terms on July 16.

But now that it has the power, the CTU owes it to teachers, parents and students to use it responsibly, with the sincere goal of avoiding a strike.

It’s our understanding that the union has attended contract talks but has not truly bargained. That has to change. Yes, CPS has put far-reaching proposals on the table, but the union hasn’t countered those proposals enough to know where CPS might budge most or even taken some easy wins. In its rhetoric, the CTU has mischaracterized elements of CPS’ initial offer and failed to mention that CPS has put a final offer on the table, presumably including a better compensation package.

CTU President Karen Lewis has every right to fight for a good raise, but she knows the school system is struggling financially. She would be smart to prepare members for a modest raise and a lean schools budget. The heart of the problem isn’t with CPS, but with the economy and the profoundly unfair way public schools are financed.

Lewis has every right, as well, to fight for teacher input into how schools are run; smaller classes, and more art and music classes in a longer day. The strike-authorization vote is as much a statement about those larger issues as it is about wages.

But Lewis muddies the waters when she suggests those are core subjects of collective bargaining. By law, CPS can bargain on those topics but isn’t required to do so.

CPS leaders would be wise to listen to the teachers, especially on school closures and teacher evaluations. And CPS should be as flexible as they can on contract language dictating class size. But teachers’ contracts are mostly about salaries, benefits and core working conditions. The union should make sure its members fully appreciate that before taking one more step toward a strike.

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