CHICAGO (AP) — Thousands of Chicago teachers walked off the job for one day on Friday, shutting down schools in the nation’s third-largest district in what could be an early glimpse of a more prolonged strike still to come.
Some 27,000 Chicago Teachers Union members have been working without a contract since June. They have overwhelmingly authorized an open-ended strike like the one that closed schools for more than a week in 2012, though that would still be weeks away.
The union and its allies say Friday’s action is an attempt to draw attention to their fight for a new contract and better funding for a school district “on the verge of financial collapse.”
Here are answers to some questions about Friday’s action, and what could happen next.
WHY IS THE UNION CHOOSING A ONE-DAY STRIKE NOW?
Officially, the union says it’s protesting an unfair labor practice after CPS announced in August that it would no longer pay salary increases based on length of service or educational attainment. Union President Karen Lewis says members also called for an action to protest CPS’ attempts to force teachers to pay more toward their pensions.
The walkout also comes shortly after schools CEO Forrest Claypool announced teachers and staff must take three furlough days to help CPS, which faces a $1.1 billion budget deficit, to manage cash flow.
But the overall theme of Friday’s action is much broader. Union members say they’ll never get a fair contract unless the district has additional revenue, and they blame Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and other officials for a multibillion-dollar budget crisis that’s led to steep cuts.
They’re trying to pressure Rauner and other lawmakers, who nearly 10 months into the fiscal year have yet to agree on a state budget, to increase education funding. The union also wants Emanuel to consider new options for generating funds, such as a tax on financial transactions that occur in the city.
COULD A LONGER STRIKE OCCUR THIS SCHOOL YEAR?
It’s possible. The two sides have been bargaining for more than a year without agreeing on a deal, and they’re currently in the midst of a “fact-finding” process that’s considered the last stage of contract negotiations.
In February, a union bargaining team rejected an offer that CPS said provided pay raises and guaranteed job security and met other union demands. But union members balked at several pieces of the proposal, including a requirement that teachers contribute more toward pension costs and health coverage.
Teachers’ pension funds are severely underfunded, and the district’s financial mess is due largely to steep increases in the annual payments.
The earliest a strike over the contract could begin by law is May 30, and classes end on June 21. The union also would have the option of striking next September, if the two sides can’t reach an agreement over the summer.
IS FRIDAY’S WALKOUT LEGAL?
CPS and Rauner call the one-day walkout an “illegal strike,” noting state law says the union and the district must exhaust a series of steps before teachers may strike over a contract, and that hasn’t happened yet.
The district took legal action Friday to try to block the union from another similar action. Claypool also said the district wants the union to reimburse CPS and other agencies for the still-undetermined cost of providing “contingency sites” for students at churches, libraries and school buildings.
CPS says rank-and-file teachers won’t be disciplined, but that anyone who walks out will not be paid for the day.
The union says federal law allows the walkout because members are acting on an unfair labor practice and not over the contract terms.
WHAT’S HAPPENING FRIDAY?
Teachers picketed outside Chicago schools in the morning, and some parents and other supporters joined them. Dozens of community groups and other unions also participated in events throughout the day, including marching through downtown streets Friday evening, disrupting traffic. Police spokesman Kevin Quaid said three people were arrested and one person was ticketed during the rally, but he did not have details on what led to the arrests.
The walkout closed schools for nearly 400,000 students. CPS says 7,000 to 8,000 students utilized the contingency sites, where they received meals and participated in activities such as online learning and crafts.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Emanuel and Claypool say they’re also pressing Rauner and other state lawmakers to help CPS with its budget mess. Emanuel for years has argued that the state should cover pension payments for CPS teachers, as it does for educators outside the city. He also is part of a chorus of people who say Illinois must change the way it funds its schools, particularly to help poorer districts.
But the odds don’t look good. Tensions are higher than ever among state lawmakers who would have to agree on any changes. And Rauner has said he won’t “bail out” CPS. Instead, he says the district should declare bankruptcy and the state should take it over.