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Chicago teachers go on strike, shutting down nation’s third-largest school system

Chicago public school teachers went on a one-day strike to protest the lack of a contract and failure to stabilize the finances in their public school system. (Video: Reuters)
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CHICAGO — Thousands of Chicago teachers walked off the job Friday amid stalled contract negotiations, a one-day strike that school system officials decried as illegal and that union leaders described as a means to draw attention to the dire financial outlook of the city’s public schools and colleges.

On a day when students would normally be in class, teachers marched, chanted and waved signs at each of the city’s hundreds of public schools, accompanied in some cases by parents and children who wanted to show support.

Karen Lewis, president of the 27,000-member Chicago Teachers Union, said she hopes the disruption puts pressure on Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R), whose standoff with the Democratic legislature has left the state without a budget for nine months, squeezing public schools and universities and low-income students who depend on state-funded scholarships.

The union — recognizing that a financially crippled school system is limited in its ability to hire more teachers or boost compensation — also is calling for lawmakers to reform the state’s education funding formula.

“The fact is that we need to do something major,” Lewis said in an interview Thursday. “When people are inconvenienced, they have to have some place to focus, and they need to focus on him.”

Daisy Mata brought her children, ages 4 and 11, to walk the picket line at Joseph E. Gary Elementary, in a predominantly Latino and black neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side. “It’s because of teachers that my kids can grow and learn,” she said in Spanish. “They need to pay them for their work.”

The move by the Chicago Teachers Union means that the city’s nearly 340,000 students will miss class, throwing their families’ daily routines into disarray. The strike also is likely to snarl traffic for Chicago commuters thanks to a downtown rally that was expected to draw thousands of teachers and their allies, including fast-food workers, university students and professors and community groups.

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Chicago Public Schools and city officials — including Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) — agree that Chicago schools face a fiscal crisis that can be resolved only with the help of lawmakers in Springfield, the state capital. And, like the union, they blame the Republican governor for not coming to the aid of the troubled system.

But they called the union’s walkout unproductive and illegal, a breach of labor rules that they say prohibit teachers from striking any earlier than mid-May.

Schools CEO Forrest Claypool said Friday that the city school board had filed a complaint with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board seeking a permanent preemptive injunction to prevent similar strikes in the future.

The school board’s complaint calls the strike “an act of conspicuous lawlessness” and asks the labor board to impose sanctions on the union and order the union to pay the school system’s legal fees as well as the costs the system incurred to provide emergency care for children on Friday.

“It’s important to clearly establish that whether children are in school, being educated, is not subject to the whims of the Chicago Teachers Union leadership,” Claypool told reporters. “There has to be accountability for blatantly breaking the law.”

The union says its strike is legal because the district engaged in an unfair labor practice when it decided not to award salary increases based on education and experience. (The union complained to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, which has declined to force the school system to change course, but the case is ongoing.)

Chicago’s school district, the nation’s third largest, is undeniably broke. It faces a fast-growing structural deficit, largely due to ballooning pension payments, including a $700 million payment due in June.

This year it has a $480 million budget gap that Chicago officials hoped to plug with help from state lawmakers; absent that assistance, they have sought to save money with employee layoffs, borrowing and furlough days.

The system’s financial troubles have created an opening for Rauner, who has threatened to take over the city’s schools. In a statement Friday, Rauner called the strike “shameful” and a “raw display of political power.”

“Walking out on kids in the classroom, leaving parents in the lurch and thumbing their nose at taxpayers — it’s the height of arrogance from those we’ve entrusted with our children’s futures,” Rauner said. “By breaking the law in Chicago and forcing passage of a bad law in Springfield, powerful bosses are proving they have an unfair advantage over Illinois families. When we lose the balance between taxpayers and special interests, property taxes go up and the quality of education goes down.”

Illinois has the nation’s most unfair school funding formula, according to an analysis by the national advocacy group Education Trust, which found that the highest-poverty schools get roughly 20 percent fewer state and local dollars per pupil than schools in more affluent communities.

“Tax the rich to fund our schools,” read union signs Friday.

The school system set up more than 250 sites — including schools, libraries and parks facilities — where parents could drop off students for care on Friday. The sites, staffed by principals and central office employees, offered free breakfast and lunch as well as arts and crafts, physical education and online learning.

By 8 a.m., only about 15 students had showed up at the contingency site at Gary Elementary, and a handful of staff members had showed up to supervise them.

Lafaye Morehead, a bus aide and union member, said she supports the strike but decided to work. She also reported to work during the union’s seven-day strike in 2012.

“I hope the teachers get what they want. I just wanted to help out with the kids, because I love what I do,” she said. “I didn’t want the kids to be here without anyone.”

Jose Garcia, who was dropping off a student for the day, said he could see reasons for the strike. “Teachers have good benefits,” he said in Spanish. “But they have 30 kids in a classroom. It’s hard for the students with so many.”

Some teachers have criticized the union’s decision to strike, saying that the action comes at too great an expense to children. The union’s governing body was hardly unanimous on the wisdom of striking; it voted 486-124 last week in favor.

Chicago Teachers Union votes to hold one-day strike on April 1

“If the union wants to get a point across, why not plan this walkout on a day when students are not in attendance?” teacher Michael DeRoss wrote this week in a letter to the Chicago Tribune. “The union officials can’t talk about how they want the schools that our children deserve and then deprive our students a day of education without losing credibility.”

Gary Elementary reading teacher Minerva Valencia said teachers have come together to fight. She marched Friday morning with her two sons, who plastered their faces with union stickers. “The media wanted to make it look like the teachers are divided,” she said. “But our teachers are all here.”

Lewis, the CTU president, dismissed the dissent as par for the course for any major action. She also dismissed the notion that the strike has anything to do with the union’s ongoing and often bitter contract negotiations.

Teachers have been working without a contract since their previous contract expired on June 30, 2015. The two sides reached a tentative agreement in January, and Lewis publicly praised it as a good deal. But when she took it to her 40-person leadership team, they rejected it unanimously.

The two sides have continued to negotiate regularly even as the union laid the groundwork for Friday’s strike.

Teachers started to picket at their schools at 6:30 a.m. Friday. They also rallied against budget cuts at Northeastern Illinois University and at Chicago State University, a historically black college so squeezed by the budget standoff that every faculty member has received a layoff notice.

Lewis, who earned her teaching credential at Chicago State, drew roaring cheers from a crowd of hundreds of teachers, students, union members and activists. She described the school as a crucial place of  opportunity. “This is about empowerment for people who have been disempowered for so long,” she said.

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Teachers also rallied alongside members of other unions outside a south-side Nabisco factory that makes the filling for Oreos and plans to cut up to half its workforce to outsource jobs to Mexico. In a cold rain and against a nonstop blaring of horns on the busy thoroughfare, Nabisco workers and teachers described their struggles as part of the same fight, for good jobs and education for black and Latino residents.

They blamed Rauner for attacking unions and for promoting what they see as an economy built for corporations instead of people.

“He’s a businessman, he wants this notch on his belt that he took down the Chicago Teachers Union,” said Sharon Davis, a gym teacher at nearby R.H. Lee Elementary who has worked for the school system for more than 30 years.

Randi Weingarten, president of the Chicago union’s parent, the American Federation of Teachers, is planning to rally Friday at Northeastern Illinois and elsewhere. She said she was inspired by the city’s teachers and called their one-day strike “an act of civil disobedience” to resist the governor’s “reckless indifference.”

“This governor is bankrupting public schools so they won’t effectively function for kids,” Weingarten said. “If you can’t solve things through the normal processes, if you have exhausted every advocacy avenue in a democracy, you then step it up — and that’s what they’re doing.”

Brown reported from Washington.