Unwelcome recess: Thousands strong teachers strike engulfs Chicago

Teachers on strike in Chicago. The image is from Chicago Teachers Union Facebook page.
A massive teacher strike in Chicago, with up to 29,000 people taking to the streets, is likely to go into its second day as the city's school board and its teachers union remain locked in negotiations.

Thousands of Chicago teachers marched through the city and staged protests in front of schools on Monday, in their first major strike action in 25 years.

With some 350,000 students being affected, parents have raised concern that their children are being left without professional supervision.

After more than 100 meetings and over 400 hours in negotiations, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) declared a strike after 11th-hour talks failed late Sunday night.The sides remained locked in negotiations as of Monday evening. 

Although both sides earlier claimed to have made strides towards reaching an agreement, CTU President Karen Lewis said there were still issues upon which the two sides could not reach a consensus.

"We have failed to reach an agreement that will prevent a labor strike," she said Sunday night at a press conference. "In the morning, no CTU members will be inside our schools."

"This is a difficult decision and one we hoped we could have avoided," she said. "We must do things differently in this city if we are to provide our students with the education they so rightfully deserve."

The sticking points in negotiations were a new method of teacher evaluation based on student performance which they feared would lead to layoffs, and rising costs of pensions already promised to retired teachers. Also at stake was a rezoning of school districts that teachers felt would damage the system, and an extension of the Chicago school day, reportedly one of the shortest in the nation.

The Chicago School Board and Mayor Rahm Emanuel had already agreed to a 16 per cent wage increase over four years, countering the CTU’s original demand of 30 per cent. The School Board also offered multiple benefit proposals and a rehiring system for teachers from schools that might be closed due to rezoning.

Chicago School Board President David Vitale said the city had made its "best offer" to the Union.

"This is about as much as we can do," Vitale said. "There is only so much money in the system."

"This is not a small commitment we're handing out at a time when our fiscal situation is really challenged," he added.

The Chicago Public School system is facing a projected budget deficit of $3 billion over the next three years, a number complicated even further by teacher retirement pensions.

Mayor Emmanuel called the strike an unnecessary and painful move, especially since the two sides had come close to an agreement.

“This is totally unnecessary, it is avoidable and our kids do not deserve this," Emmanuel said at a press conference Sunday night.

The city’s contingency plans include $25 million of funding for 144 out of 675 schools to open for a half day of supervision, including breakfast and lunch. The schools are not allowed to hold classes without certified teachers under state law. The plan also asks for community centers and churches to aid in sheltering children.

Union officials are concerned over the plan, calling it a “train-wreck”, according to a Reuters report, worried that many of the people supervising children are without proper training, CTU said.  Parents are also uneasy about putting students from different schools together in neighborhoods which have suffered from gang-related shootings this summer.

"This is not a strike I wanted," Emanuel said. "It was a strike of choice … it's unnecessary, it's avoidable and it's wrong."

The Chicago debate echoes national education concerns as public school systems in many states are introducing new teacher evaluation models that include using student test scores to determine performance in 2012. The list includes Arizona, Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Florida. Teachers unions have traditionally been opposed to such measures.

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Thousands of Chicago public school teachers and their supporters march through the Loop and in front of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) headquarters.(AFP Photo / Scott Olson)
Thousands of Chicago public school teachers and their supporters march through the Loop and in front of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) headquarters.(AFP Photo / Scott Olson)

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Lisa Bates, a sixth grade teacher, marches with thousands of other Chicago public school teachers in front of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) headquarters.(AFP Photo / Scott Olson)
Lisa Bates, a sixth grade teacher, marches with thousands of other Chicago public school teachers in front of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) headquarters.(AFP Photo / Scott Olson)

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Chicago teachers stand behind police barricades before taking over the streets outside the headquarters of Chicago Public Schools in Chicago.(Reuters / Jeff Haynes)
Chicago teachers stand behind police barricades before taking over the streets outside the headquarters of Chicago Public Schools in Chicago.(Reuters / Jeff Haynes)

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Chicago teachers walk the picket line outside the headquarters of Chicago Public Schools in Chicago.(Reuters / Jeff Haynes)
Chicago teachers walk the picket line outside the headquarters of Chicago Public Schools in Chicago.(Reuters / Jeff Haynes)