CHICAGO (AP) — Seeking more pay and smaller class sizes, members of the Chicago Teachers Union began voting Wednesday on whether to authorize a strike in the event negotiations with the city's school district fall apart.
The union believes a strike authorization would give it more leverage in negotiations with Chicago Public Schools that have dragged on since November and come as the district is facing a $700 million deficit. Voting is taking place over several days.
Union president Karen Lewis said members don't want to disrupt the start of the next school year with a strike but that a strike authorization would give the union more muscle.
"It's important to take now because we need to make some movement at the table," she said after casting her ballot at a Chicago high school.
The union decided to hold the vote now, rather than waiting for the recommendation of an independent fact-finder, which is due in mid-July as part of the contract talks. Union officials say voting before the end of the school year will ensure a better chance of getting 75 percent of the 25,500 members that they need to authorize a strike.
The district has proposed a five-year deal that guarantees teachers a 2 percent pay raise in the first year of the five-year contract as well as the introduction of "differentiated pay" that could be tied to a host of criteria, including taking hard-to-fill jobs and leadership positions at their schools. Behind a high-profile push by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the district is also proposing lengthening the school day by 10 percent, said Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Becky Carroll.
The union argues the longer school day will mean a 20 percent increase in working hours for teachers. It wants a two-year deal that calls for teachers to receive a 24 percent pay raise in the first year and a 5 percent pay raise in the second year. The union also wants language in the contract that would reduce class sizes.
Teachers voting at King College Prep High School Wednesday complained about unmanageable class sizes and the impact of a longer school day on tired students, many of whom already stay at school until 6 p.m. because of tutoring and other activities.
"It's a safety issue," said English teacher Samantha Sims. "Most of our students ride public transportation."
"And go across gang lines," added Faye Lynn, a library media specialist at the school.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard told a group of parents at a meeting Wednesday that teachers should get a raise but not the amount the union wants.
"While we need our teachers to be paid well, we can't afford what is being asked," the Chicago Tribune quoted him as saying.
Speaking to reporters at the event, he questioned why the vote was being held before the district has made its final offer and before the recommendation by the independent fact-finder.
"Teachers are being asked to vote on incomplete, grossly inaccurate information," Brizard said, according to the paper.