Teaching Profession

In a First, Chicago Teachers Rebuff Contract

By Julie Blair — October 29, 2003 4 min read
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The Chicago Teachers Union and the city’s board of education were back at the bargaining table last week, after the rank and file rejected a proposed contract for the first time in CTU history. A strike now looms.

Teachers vetoed the five-year deal 60 percent to 40 percent on Oct. 10, with 91 percent of members voting—the highest turnout ever for such a vote, according to Deborah Lynch, the union’s president. Under the proposal, teachers were offered annual 4 percent raises in addition to mandatory, salary step increases given each year, slightly higher health-insurance costs, and an extended school day, in exchange for working fewer days each year.

Teachers have been working under the old contract since it expired June 30.

“This ‘no’ vote was a real expression of anger and frustration that the proposed contract didn’t make up for the last eight years of lousy raises ... during boom times,” Ms. Lynch said last week. “Teachers felt this should have been their turn.”

Despite union efforts to explain the complex contract to members, she added, some remained confused about how the changes would play out. Information was also purposely muddled by one political faction of the 36,000-member union, which was ousted from power when Ms. Lynch took office in 2001, the president charged.

The school board offered a “very reasonable contract, given the economy,” said Peter Cunningham, a spokesman for the board and the 439,000-student district, the nation’s third largest. “We’re committed to making this work and keeping schools open. We’re willing to talk and see if there can be common ground.”

The CTU house of delegates was to decide this week whether the talks were at an impasse, Ms. Lynch said. If union leaders decide the situation is dire, they may recommend a strike. Members would have to vote on a walkout before it could take place. Union members last walked out in 1987, when they picketed for 19 days.

Some educators, meanwhile, said they were ready to strike.

“I’m 50-something, and I would actually lose money in this contract,” said Michael L. Altman, who teaches law and sociology at Steinmetz Academic Center. “I think we’ve bitten the bullet for a long time.”

Teachers received between 2 percent and 3 percent raises per year under the old four-year pact.

Contract Critique

Critics of the proposed contract argued it was riddled with problems.

For one, they said, it covered too long a time without locking in the 4 percent raises beyond the first year. Moreover, charges for health insurance would have gone up $15 per month, with prescription-medicine costs increasing slightly as well.

On average, health insurance costs members 1.3 percent of their salaries.

“It looked pretty good on paper, but once you’ve worked through the logistics of it, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be,” said Dorothy Bowman, an English teacher at Collins High School. “The health-care premiums eat into your raise.”

Others complained about a provision that would have extended the school day for 20 minutes, though the number of days school would have been in session would have decreased by seven days.

“As soon as my guys heard that, they figured out that even though the board was giving us days off, we were still giving a little more than three days of free work,” said Theodore T. Dallas, a veteran educator who teaches horticulture at the Wells Community Academy and chairs the union’s Progressive Caucus, which was in power for years until Ms. Lynch took over.

Still, many teachers were upset that the contract had been rejected.

“It was more than fair,” said Jeanine T. Saflarski, a kindergarten teacher at Jacques Marquette Elementary School.

Many other sectors of workers haven’t seen raises in years, she added, and health-care premiums are going up across the board, so it seemed reasonable to pass small, incremental costs along to teachers. “Let’s not get greedy,” Ms. Saflarski said.

The teacher added that many members may have voted against the contract not because they thought it was a bad deal, but to sabotage the career of Ms. Lynch, who is up for re-election next May after one term.

The controversial union leader, considered to be one of the most progressive in the nation, has worked to improve the practice of teaching and other classroom issues in addition to pay and health-care benefits. (“Long Passage,” June 5, 2002.) Some critics believe she has overstepped her bounds and, instead, should be advocating for union members, not those they instruct.

“Certainly, there was a faction involved in this,” Ms. Lynch said, “that was more concerned about getting a ‘no’ vote than about getting a good contract for the union.”

Mr. Dallas denied that his caucus had the power to force a ‘no’ vote, though he said he did encourage members to veto it. “She’s making that accusation because she’s unhappy,” he said.

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