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Editorial: Don’t be fooled by teachers strike drama

Chicago Teachers Unipresident Karen Lewis (left) David J. Vitale CPS president during  greeting before start Board Educatimeeting Wednesday August

Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis (left) and David J. Vitale, CPS president, during greeting before start of Board of Education meeting Wednesday, August 22, 2012. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 24, 2012 7:44AM

If you paid attention only to the theatrics on the streets this week, the easy prediction is of a Chicago teachers strike on Sept. 4, what should be opening day.

On Wednesday, surrounded by protesters outside the board of education, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis charged that contract negotiations were “not moving the way they should. We’ve made very limited progress.”

At the same time, CPS officials, playing the mature adults, insist they are focused solely on advancing negotiations. Behind the scenes, though, they say talks have slowed considerably in recent days. They blame the stalemate on the union as strongly as the union blames the school system.

This comes as teachers are picketing schools and the union is sending out rabble-rousing press releases (“No 10-day strike notice issued, yet”). On Wednesday evening, union delegates gave their leadership the power to issue that strike notice. They’ll likely issue it by week’s end, setting everyone on edge. The notice, though, commits the union to nothing. They could strike in 10 days, 30 days or never.

Sounds pretty dire, doesn’t it?

Don’t be fooled.

The gulf between the union and the Chicago Board of Education is not nearly as wide or impassable as this week’s CTU drama suggests.

It’s all part of the negotiations dance, even a healthy part, believe it or not. The union has to show its members it will fight to the death, in part so it can convince them ultimately to accept a deal. “We gave it our all,” they can say, “and this is the absolute best we could get.”

The union also must ring the alarm bell to counter a misconception that last month’s agreement on a longer school day neutralized the strike threat. That agreement, while hugely important, is just one part of a larger contract deal. A handful of difficult issues, including compensation, recall rights and teacher pay based in part on student performance, remain unresolved.

But resolved they can be. A fair contract is doable without a strike.

Lewis said as much herself Wednesday after the street protests ended. To board members, she offered a more sanguine forecast: “We do want to get this settled. Hopefully we’ll get some movement in the next few days and when I come back (to the board in September) it’ll be all smiles.”

It comes down to compromise, something that’s been in short supply on both sides.

The union clearly hopes that a notice to strike will give them added leverage. That likely explains the slowdown in the last week at the bargaining table. And, though painful for thousands of parents sitting on pins and needles, they may be right.

CPS is pushing for big change but now is the time to dial back in areas that won’t hurt its reform agenda. CTU wants recall rights for teachers laid off from closed schools. We don’t support blanket recall — principals need to build their own staffs — but qualified laid off teachers should get first crack at job openings. There also has to be room to compromise on merit pay, something the union adamantly opposes.

For the union, the big compromise will be around pay. Lewis acknowledges CPS’ fiscal crisis but still insists that a 2 percent raise is too small. CPS on Wednesday passed a budget that drains every last penny of unrestricted reserves. We simply see nowhere else to turn for cash. Though painful, this is where CTU must give.

Chicagoans are in for a bumpy ride in the weeks to come. But when the car stops moving, don’t be surprised if everyone walks straight into school, shaken but ready to go.

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