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Chicago teachers vote to end strike

Delegates for Chicago teachers vote overwhelmingly to return to classes Wednesday, ending a walkout that spanned seven school days. The union must still approve the contract offer.

September 19, 2012|By Noreen Ahmed-Ullah
  • Chicago Teachers Union delegates embrace after voting to end their strike.
Chicago Teachers Union delegates embrace after voting to end their strike. (Scott Olson, Getty Images )

CHICAGO — Ending a seven-day walkout that left 350,000 students out of class, delegates for Chicago teachers voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to go back to work.

School will resume Wednesday in the nation's third-largest district, ending its first teachers strike in 25 years.

"This settlement is an honest compromise," Mayor Rahm Emanuel said. "It means returning our schools to their primary purpose: the education of our children."

PHOTOS: Chicago teachers go on strike

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis exuded optimism. "We feel very positive about moving forward," she said. "We feel grateful that we have a united union, and that when a union moves together, amazing things happen."

The vote ends a strike that garnered national attention not only on its merits, but also on the mayor's role and his connection to President Obama — who calls Chicago home. The standoff had threatened to infuriate a key Democratic constituency in the midst of Obama's reelection campaign.

Emanuel, the president's former chief of staff, appoints the school board and has been heavily involved in education issues. Acrimony between the mayor and Lewis broke into the open during negotiations, with Lewis calling him a bully.

Delegates' voice vote to suspend the strike paves the way for the full membership to approve a contract in coming weeks that will secure a 7% increase in base salary over the next three years while maintaining other raises based on experience. Teachers' current starting salary is about $49,000, and the average is $76,000.

Teacher compensation, job security and performance evaluations were the most hotly contested provisions. Teachers accused school officials of trying to privatize education by expanding charter schools. About 50,000 students were already in charters and unaffected by the strike.

Although the union did not achieve the 30% base raise it had initially sought, nor get back a 4% raise Emanuel had canceled because of a budget deficit, Lewis claimed several victories. The union successfully rejected Emanuel's attempts to institute merit pay, fought off more stringent requirements in a new teacher evaluation system and secured a policy to rehire top-performing teachers who are laid off because of school closings, she said.

Emanuel succeeded in lengthening what had been one of the nation's shortest school days by finalizing how much teachers would be paid for the extra class time.

The deal gives teachers smaller raises than they had received under their previous five-year contract, institutes for the first time a teacher evaluation system that factors in student test scores and maintains a principal's right to determine which teachers will be hired in his or her school.

"In this contract, we gave our children a seat at the table," Emanuel said. "In past negotiations, taxpayers paid more, but our kids got less. This time, our taxpayers are paying less, and our kids are getting more."

Assuming the union's more than 26,000 members approve the contract, teachers will receive a 3% raise this year, 2% raises in each of the next two years and, if the union opts for a fourth year, another 3%. Those raises are in addition to salary bumps for experience and pursuing a graduate degree.

The tentative contract had been worked out Friday and union delegates had been expected to suspend the strike Sunday. That would have allowed classes to resume Monday.

When delegates refused, Emanuel directed attorneys to seek an injunction to force teachers back to work. A Cook County judge had set a hearing for Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Lewis said about 98% of the union's 800 delegates voted to reopen the schools, which have been idle since the strike began Sept 10.

"We said that we couldn't solve all the problems of the world with one contract and it was time to end the strike," she said.

Afterward, a crowd of teachers rushed out of the meeting hall shouting, "We're back!" and, "The strike is over!"

Delegate Haley Underwood, a physical education teacher, was thrilled.

"I am jumping up and down," she said. "I'm so excited, excited to see my kids. I feel we won. ... We'll continue to fight for the soul of public education."

After more than a week struggling to occupy their children during the school day, parents applauded too.

"Thank goodness, thank goodness," said Debi Lilly, mother of third- and fifth-graders. "Now I believe they're putting the children first."

nahmed@tribune.com

drado@tribune.com

bruthhart@tribune.com

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