Saturday, September 15, 2012

Chicago teachers union leaders to meet as strike drags on

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago teachers union and school officials resumed talks on Friday to end a five-day strike over education reforms sought by Mayor Rahm Emanuel with both sides saying a deal is close but the union tempering optimism about an imminent agreement.

More than 350,000 Chicago students marked a week off classes as negotiations over final contentious issues including teacher layoffs and rehiring adjourned past midnight on Thursday.

"There were some creative ideas passed around, but we still do not have an agreement," Karen Lewis, the fiery former high school chemistry teacher who leads the union, told reporters. "We're going to go back to our respective shops and do some numbers crunching."

Lewis has called a meeting of the union's House of Delegates, a larger consultative body than the negotiating team, for Friday afternoon to discuss the talks. That group has the authority to end the strike but a lawyer for the union, Robert Bloch, said that was unlikely unless there was a finalized contract.

"I think that we made some pretty good progress," Chicago School Board President David Vitale said on Thursday night. "We're closing a lot of gaps."

Vitale said the deadlock over teacher evaluations appeared to be solved and the financial costs and process for school closings, layoffs and recalling teachers for jobs at new consolidated schools were key remaining issues. About 100 Chicago schools have closed in recent years, with officials citing low enrollment or poor performance.

"I think we've got a general understanding of what we would like to do ... on the recall layoff program," Vitale said.

Lewis led 29,000 public school teachers and support staff out on Monday in the first Chicago Teachers Union strike since 1987. The confrontation, the largest strike in the United States in a year, has galvanized the U.S. labor movement and exposed a rift within the Democratic Party over reform of urban schools.

Parents of kindergarten, elementary and high school students were forced to find alternative child care, kept their children at home or took them to nearly 150 centers around Chicago set up by the city to provide breakfast, lunch and supervision.

"It's better than it had been looking," said one parent, Dana Howse. "It was pretty grim before."

But it was not clear if school would resume on Monday. Vitale said he was optimistic classes would resume but Lewis was more guarded, saying she was not sure.

Striking teachers resumed picketing on Friday around schools being manned by principals and volunteers. More than 80 percent of Chicago public school students qualify for free school lunches because they come from low-income families. Crime and gang violence plague many neighborhoods on the city's poorer south and west sides.

Kenwood Academy high school senior Sandy Danard, 17, who marched on Thursday to support teachers, said she risked missing the application deadlines for some colleges because she could not get a paper transcript from her school.

"The counselors aren't in school," she said. "It's really stressful on the seniors, and in the end when the strike finally ends, we have to rush."

Extracurricular activities such as high school sports and the arts also have been suspended.


The teachers' strike is unusual in the United States where unions have been severely weakened by state and local laws constraining their power, and union membership has fallen in a service economy. There were only 19 strikes of 1,000 workers or more in all of 2011, according to government figures.

Teachers revolted when Emanuel, with support from a national school reform movement largely financed by wealthy philanthropists, tried to pin much of teacher evaluations to students' performance on standardized tests in areas such as reading and math.

Using student test scores to rate teachers is in vogue nationally, championed by President Barack Obama's Education Department to raise standards and improve U.S. schools. Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, once led Chicago schools.

But the union argues the policy forces them to teach to the test and narrows the curriculum. Chicago teachers also said they should not be evaluated on factors outside their control such as poverty and crime their students endure in some neighborhoods.

Lewis shrewdly built support among parents and teachers in Chicago's inner-city communities for two years before calling the strike. The community organizing resulted in strong backing for the strike as well as enthusiastic rallies and picketing.

Emanuel has retreated on his teacher evaluation demands, agreeing to phase in the new standards and lowering the percentage weighting of standardized tests.

The union has taken advantage of the pressure on Emanuel to press for more job security from expected layoffs as more schools close. About 50,000 students at new publicly funded but non-union charter schools attended classes as usual this week.

Emanuel faces financial as well as political pressures.

The school district has offered average wage increases of 16 percent over four years plus some benefit improvements. It is not clear how Emanuel will pay for those since the district faces a $665 million budget deficit this year, has drained financial reserves and levied property taxes to the legal limit.

The high-profile labor clash in Obama's home city has been awkward for the president. Emanuel is Obama's former top White House aide and a key fundraiser for the president's re-election campaign. Unions are a key constituency of the Democratic Party and will be important in getting out the vote on November 6.

(Additional reporting by Renita Young and James Kelleher; Writing by Peter Bohan; Editing by Eric Beech)

(This story was refiled to fix typo in the headline)



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