More progress reported in Chicago strike talks

Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) — More than 350,000 public school students spent a fifth day out of class Friday as bargaining to end the city's teachers strike dragged on ahead of a meeting of union delegates whose approval is required to seal any deal.

Rank-and-file teachers returned to the streets for morning rallies to press the union's demands, which include a plan for laid-off instructors to get first dibs on job openings and for a teacher-evaluation system that does not rely heavily on student test scores.

Contract talks pushed on for more than 15 hours Thursday with little word of progress until negotiators called it quits early Friday. School Board President David Vitale said the two sides had worked past the evaluations issue and had begun crunching numbers on financial matters. He did not elaborate.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said negotiators had many "productive" conversations, but she declined to describe the talks in detail. She and Vitale said they hope students can be back in class Monday.

"It was a long day," Lewis said. "There were some creative ideas passed around, but we still do not have an agreement."

As negotiators went back to the bargaining table Friday, the school district's chief education officer, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, agreed that the sides were close. She thought they could come to an agreement before the end of the day.

The union called a meeting for Friday afternoon of some 700 delegates who would be required to approve any contract settlement with a majority vote. The meeting could be used to present an agreement or merely to update union members on negotiations.

The strike by more than 25,000 teachers in the nation's third-largest school district has idled many children and teenagers, leaving some unsupervised in gang-dominated neighborhoods. It also has been a potent display of union power at a time when organized labor has lost ground around the nation.

School district officials said the main sticking points the evaluation system and the union's demands that laid-off teachers get top consideration for rehiring. The district worries that could result in principals being forced to hire unsuitable teachers.

The union says using student test scores to evaluate teacher performance is unfair, arguing that poor test results can be the result of poverty, hunger and other conditions beyond their control. Under an older proposal by the district, the union estimated that 6,000 teachers could lose their jobs within two years.

An offer made late Wednesday included provisions that would have protected tenured teachers from dismissal in the first year of the evaluations. It also altered categories that teachers can be rated on and added an appeals process.

The other outstanding issue was whether laid-off teachers should have first shot at open jobs. School officials plan to close 100 schools "as soon as the ink is dry" on a new contract, unfairly displacing teachers, many African-American, who work in struggling schools that often don't have adequate resources, Lewis has said.

The union is trying to win assurances that laid-off but qualified teachers get dibs on jobs anywhere in the district. But Illinois law gives individual principals in Chicago the right to hire the teachers they want, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel argues it's unfair to hold principals accountable for their schools' performance if they can't pick their own teams.

The district has offered a compromise. If schools close, teachers would have the first right to jobs matching their qualifications at schools that absorb the children from the closed school. The proposal also includes provisions for teachers who aren't hired, including severance.

It wasn't clear if the union had accepted the proposal, but Lewis said it "did not intend to sign an agreement until these matters are addressed."

Readers of the Sun-Times opened the paper Friday to a full-page letter to Emanuel written by the Boston Teachers Union.

In the letter, the union reminded readers that some of the things Chicago teachers are fighting have long been available to Boston teachers, including the right to let teachers with seniority move into jobs in other schools if their schools close down.

Perhaps more significantly, the union took Emanuel to task for the contentiousness of the negotiations, putting the blame on the mayor's shoulders.

"Perhaps you can learn from us — and begin to treat your own teaching force with the same respect," the union wrote.

Meanwhile, Chicago teachers said they were planning a "Wisconsin-style" rally for Saturday, regardless of whether there is a deal on the contract.

The union has won widespread support from other teachers unions around the country, and a couple of hundred Wisconsin teachers planned to come to Chicago to join the event.

"It's really sort of a spontaneous kind of organizing," said Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, which unsuccessfully sought the recall of Gov. Scott Walker.

The walkout is the first Chicago teachers strike in 25 years. A 1987 walkout lasted 19 days.

Emanuel has called the strike unnecessary and repeatedly urged the union to continue negotiations once students are back in class.