CHICAGO (AP) - Thousands of Chicago teachers plan to walk 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’ve 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 make teachers 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.
CPS says rank-and-file teachers won’t be disciplined, but that anyone who walks out will not be paid for the day. Claypool also said Thursday that CPS expects to take legal action against the union, possibly as early as Friday.
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?
The union says teachers will picket outside Chicago schools in the morning, and they’ve invited parents and others to join them. Dozens of community groups and other unions also will participate in events throughout the day.
The events will culminate around rush hour Friday, when people will march through downtown, disrupting traffic.
The walkout will close schools for nearly 400,000 students. CPS is opening more than 250 “contingency sites” at schools, parks and libraries, where they say students will be “safe, fed and engaged” for the day.
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.
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