Striking Chicago teachers rally as negotiators work out details

Sunday, September 16, 2012
Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, addresses the crowd during a rally Saturday in Chicago. Lewis reminded that although there is a "framework" for a deal, they still are on strike. (Charles Rex Arbogast ~ Associated Press)

CHICAGO -- Thousands of striking Chicago public school teachers packed a city park Saturday in a show of force as union leaders and the district tried to work out the details of a tentative agreement that would end a weeklong walkout.

Months of contract negotiations came down to two main issues: job security and union opposition to a new teacher evaluation process it felt was too heavily weighted on student test scores. The wrangling in one of the nation's largest school districts was being closely watched around the country because of its implications for other labor disputes at a time when unions have been losing ground.

Union leaders who announced a framework for a deal Friday said they would not end the strike -- the first in Chicago in 25 years -- until they see an agreement in writing. Saturday's talks were aimed at settling on that exact language, and both sides were hopeful that children could be back in class Monday.

Addressing demonstrators Saturday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said "the struggle is not over" and there was still a long road to ensuring all residents of the city have equal access to quality schools, especially in neighborhoods beset by gang violence and poverty.

"Our mission is very clear: we fight for equal, high-quality public education for all," Jackson said. "When school opens again there will be 160 schools without a public library. ... When school opens again, there will be schools yet without books. So we fight today for schools on the South and West Side to look like schools on the North Side."

Saturday's talks were taking place at the offices of union attorney Robert Bloch, who told the Chicago Sun-Times there was still a lot of work to be done, although the sides had agreed on the most contentious issues.

The union hopes to present the wording of a deal to its House of Delegates for review today. If they approve it, students could be back in class Monday.

On his way into the talks, Chicago Teachers Union vice president Jesse Sharkey was optimistic that timetable was still possible.

"We're hopeful that we can do it, but frankly, like I said, the devil is in the details of this contract and we want it in writing," he told the Sun-Times. "We're going to go in today and hammer [out] the details."

Until teachers see the exact wording, they'll continue to strike.

"They are suspicious, you have to understand," union president Karen Lewis told reporters Friday after a meeting with nearly 800 members of the union's House of Delegates. "We have been a little burnt by the [school] board in the past."

Union members from Wisconsin, Minnesota and elsewhere joined Saturday's rally in solidarity, and speaker after speaker said the labor fight in Chicago was important for unions everywhere. Reflecting the optimism of the past few days, the gathering also had a festive atmosphere, with people pounding drums and grilling hot dogs, and children playing.

"People are going to go down and celebrate that the teachers union in Chicago stood up to the corporate reform agenda," said Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association. "I think they've come out with some real victories for the kids of Chicago."

For Wisconsin teachers, the rally also served as a moment to celebrate a judge's Friday ruling striking down nearly all of a contentious state law championed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker that had effectively ended collective bargaining rights for most public workers. Walker's administration immediately vowed to appeal, while unions, which have vigorously fought the law, declared victory.

Teachers union leaders from three of Minnesota's largest school districts also organized a bus to Chicago for their members to show their support for their colleagues there.

The plan was for the bus to leave the Twin Cities about 4 a.m. Saturday, drive about seven hours, attend the rally and return home the same day, said Julie Blaha, president of the suburban Anoka-Hennepin School District's local of Education Minnesota, the state's largest teachers union. Blaha already had traveled to Chicago to assist her striking colleagues, "doing whatever they need us to do."

Members of the Boston Teachers Union were expected to make the trip on their own, said President Richard Stutman. The group already voted to send Chicago a token donation of money and took out an ad in the Chicago Sun-Times to express their support of striking teachers there.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has blasted the union for engaging in a "strike of choice," sounded optimistic Friday, saying "the tentative framework is an honest and principled compromise that is about who we all work for: the students."

The walkout in the nation's third-largest school district canceled five days of class for more than 350,000 public school students who had just returned from summer vacation.

Until this week, Chicago teachers had not walked out since 1987, when they were on strike for 19 days.

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