Rahm blinks first in battle with teachers

Lee Sustar and Nicole Colson look at how the Chicago Teachers Union pressured Mayor Rahm Emanuel to hire more teachers to support a longer school day.

CTU President Karen Lewis (left) and Vice President Jesse Sharkey (center)CTU President Karen Lewis (left) and Vice President Jesse Sharkey (center)

RAHM EMANUEL has agreed to come up with money to hire nearly 500 more teachers to support the longer school day, but Chicago's mayor still wants concessions that may provoke a strike.

The agreement was sought by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) months ago as a way to maintain teachers' workday at current levels after Chicago Public Schools (CPS) used a new state law to increase the school day at elementary schools from five hours and 45 minutes to seven hours.

The agreement means that Chicago's early-start schools--attended by about one-third of CPS's 440,000 students--will open August 13 with enough faculty to support the additional instruction without making teachers work harder for less.

"CPS has finally backed off the unworkable, seven-hour, 40-minute teacher work day," CTU President Karen Lewis said at a press conference. "CPS thus reverses its publicly announced policy that the CTU has consistently criticized as bad for both students and teachers...and it has finally agreed to recall rights for teachers. This is movement in the right direction."

That sentiment was voiced by many of the 500 teachers and supporters who turned up to picket the July 25 Board of Education meeting, held the day after the announcement of the agreement.

"We were never totally against a longer day," said Ken Murfay, a physical education teacher at Wacker and Owen elementary schools, as he walked the picket line outside the meeting with chanting union members. "We just wanted a funded longer day with more teachers, not just all the pressure on the people that are there now."

A high school music teacher agreed: "It shows that what we've been doing--organizing out in the streets has made a difference."

That organizing was backed up by a vote in May in which nearly 90 percent of all CTU members authorized union leaders to call a strike. Under state law, any teacher who didn't vote was counted as a "no"--so in reality, among union members who voted, the vote to authorize a strike was 98 percent. That result--which followed a huge May 23 downtown rally and march by thousands of CTU members and supporters--finally forced CPS and Emanuel to begin bargaining seriously.

Emanuel had calculated that he'd neutered the CTU by pressuring state legislators to pass a law requiring 75 percent of all union members to vote to authorize a strike. Instead, his aggressive demands and insulting tone only angered teachers who two years ago elected a group of reformers determined to rebuild a fighting union.

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THAT'S WHY the agreement marks a stinging defeat for Emanuel, who has been gunning for the CTU since he announced his candidacy for last year's mayoral election.

Emanuel's handpicked school board cancelled teachers' contractual 4 percent pay raise last year. When contract negotiations began this year, Emanuel's operatives at CPS demanded that teachers accept a 20 percent increase in their workload in exchange for a 2 percent pay raise, plus a new merit pay system that would replace individual raises based on experience, known as steps, and educational attainment, called lanes.

The new agreement resolves one of those issues. By hiring 477 new teachers, many of them for art, music and physical education, CPS will be able to support the longer school day without requiring elementary school teachers to work additional instructional time. The deal will, however, require high school teachers to work 14 minutes longer per day.

In another big win for the union, the new teachers will be hired from a pool of laid-off CTU members. That's a key precedent for the ongoing negotiations: Over the past decade, the CTU has seen thousands of experienced union members lose their jobs in school closures, only to be replaced by lower-paid new hires who themselves lack job security until they achieve tenure after three years in their posts.

While Emanuel claimed the deal as a vindication of his push for a longer school day, it's obvious that the agreement marks a defeat for a politician notorious for his take-no-prisoners style. Yet the mayor is still using CPS's claimed $665 million budget deficit as a pretext to demand that the CTU swallow a 2 percent pay hike, the abolition of step and lane raises and a merit pay system.

For CTU members, those are strike issues. Many Chicago teacher activists point to the disastrous merit pay system in Baltimore, which led to 60 percent of teachers being denied a raise and placed on probationary status.

Emanuel and his strategists at City Hall and CPS will now mount a counterattack on the CTU. With the issue of the longer school day resolved, they will argue that the union no longer has the basis for demanding a big pay raise of about 30 percent, an amount intended to compensate for last year's cancelled raise and the longer school day.

In fact, the CTU had already gained leverage in talks with CPS following the release of an arbitrator's report that sides almost entirely with the union, including a recommendation for a 35 percent raise over four years.

The CTU, by state law, can't demand that the school board negotiate over anything but pay and benefits. But in making a bold demand over pay, the union aims to force the city into bargaining on critical non-economic issues like class sizes, the length of the school day and other questions.

Emanuel had arrogantly demanded that the CTU "wait for the report" from an independent arbitrator, known as a fact-finder, before discussing the union's demands further--on the assumption that the report's recommendations would be in the city's favor.

Instead, as Chicago Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman wrote, the fact-finding process "has now blown up in the mayor's face."

Arbitrator Edwin Benn's report came down largely--though not entirely--in the union's favor. Among other things, Benn recommended 15 to 20 percent salary increases for teachers working the longer school day that Emanuel and CPS imposed at elementary schools next year--and a 35.74 percent overall raise over four years, with a first-year pay hike of 18.2 percent.

Benn also concluded that CPS should not have extended the school day if it couldn't pay teachers comparable raises for working the extra time. "The board cannot realistically expect that it should not have to compensate employees for the problem it caused by an almost 20 percent increase for the employees' work time," the report noted.

As Spielman wrote, the report "pins the blame for the stalemate squarely on Emanuel and demands that the mayor choose between fiscal reality and his signature push for a longer school day and school year."

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WITH THE longer school day issue settled, however, Emanuel and CPS will again try to portray any CTU demand for a decent pay raise as an example of greedy teachers attempting to serve their interests against needy kids.

There's also the possibility that Emanuel and CPS will try to chisel away at the staffing deal for the longer school day by laying off other teachers and increasing class sizes, as CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey told reporters. Sharkey had a suggestion for where to find the money:

I don't know where the board is going to get the money for hiring. I have some suggestions. I would suggest that the big increase in funding--which the charter schools were not able to get through the state legislature, but which they turned around and got from CPS voluntarily--is something they might want to look at.

But Emanuel is adamant that CPS won't pay for the longer school day by pulling back its growing budget for charter schools.

So the CTU's battle for a fair contract will continue--a battle that the union sees as part of a long-term struggle to defend public education. The CTU is supporting a grassroots effort to get an elected school board as well as a range of community organizations that have resisted CPS's policy of underfunding and then closing "low-performing" schools in predominately African American and Latino neighborhoods.

Many parent, community and labor activists from those struggles are also active in the new Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign, which is working to support the union in the fight for education justice.

That solidarity is needed more than ever. Rahm Emanuel may have lost this round, but the CTU's fight isn't over.