Chicago's Emanuel goes to court over teachers strike
Chicago Mayor and former Obama administration official Rahm Emanuel addresses the first session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 4, 2012. REUTERS/Eric Thayer
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s effort to use the courts to get a quick end to a strike by thousands of public school teachers stalled on Monday as the walkout moved into a second week.
Larry Dinardo, a lawyer for the school district, said Circuit Court Judge Peter Flynn would not set a hearing for Monday on the mayor’s complaint that the strike was illegal. Lawyers said the judge may set it for Wednesday.
“We should know when that will be later on today,” Dinardo told reporters.
Striking teachers are due to meet on Tuesday to decide whether to end the strike after delaying a decision on Sunday. Picketing at dozens of schools by teachers continued on Monday but was thinned by the Rosh Hashanah holiday.
The Chicago Public Schools filed a complaint in circuit court against the Chicago Teachers Union seeking a preliminary injunction “to end the strike immediately” citing two reasons: danger to “public health and safety” of the students and alleged violation of Illinois state law that prohibits strikes except for wages and benefits.
“State law expressly prohibits the CTU from striking over non-economic issues, such as layoff and recall policies, teacher evaluations, class sizes and the length of the school day and year,” the school district said in a statement. “The CTU’s repeated statements and recent advertising campaign have made clear that these are exactly the subjects over which the CTU is striking.”
Emanuel’s move took the dispute into uncharted territory as no injunction request has been filed in an Illinois education labor dispute since 1984, when the state gave Chicago teachers the right to strike. It also deepens the rift between the Democratic mayor, a top fundraiser for President Barack Obama’s campaign, and organized labor, which generally backs Democratic candidates.
The dispute between Emanuel, a former top White House aide to Obama, and the union had been close to resolution on Sunday when the union bargaining team recommended to a meeting of union activists that the five-day strike be suspended.
But a majority of the 800 or so union delegates, wary of promises made by Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools, ignored the leadership and extended the strike until at least Tuesday.
The famously short-tempered Emanuel immediately issued a statement saying he would go to court to try to have the strike declared illegal.
“We are done negotiating,” Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale said on Monday.
PARENTS AND PATIENCE TESTED
Some 29,000 public school teachers and support staff have been on strike since Sept. 10 over Emanuel’s demand for sweeping education reforms.
Only a fraction of the 350,000 elementary, middle school and high school students affected by the strike have been using 147 schools manned by principals and non-union staff who have provided meals and activities for part of the day.
About 80 percent of Chicago public school students qualify for free meals due to low family incomes. Churches, community centers and park facilities have also tried to provide help for parents.
“I do think going into the second week there is concern about the children being out of school longer and losing the good will of the public,” said DePaul University professor Andrea Kayne Kaufman. “Like everyone else, I was disappointed that there wasn’t a ratification.”
Opinion polls last week showed Chicago voters supporting the union, but that could change as the strike drags on.
Willie Nawls, who has four children in Chicago public schools, said he has been fortunate because his two oldest children in high school could take care of the younger two.
“I’m very upset,” he said of the strike. “I’ll be patient with the union and see what they try to work out.”
SCHOOL CLOSURES WORRY UNION
The mayor’s negotiators and the union had worked out a compromise deal on Friday that they hoped would end the strike. Emanuel had backed off on some demands for teacher evaluations, agreeing to phase in the use of student testing to rate teachers and dropping an insistence on pay based on merit.
Emanuel is also offering an average pay rise of more than 17 percent over four years, which the union accepts. But that would worsen the district’s projected $665 million budget deficit for the current fiscal year and add pressure to close more schools to save on costs.
“There’s a lot of mistrust of the board,” said Amanda Lord, a striking Spanish language teacher picketing with two dozen others at Sayre Language Academy on the city’s west side on Monday. “We had a tentative agreement coming into this year, which they did not fully honor. We want to be careful.”
The showdown has highlighted a national debate over how to improve failing inner-city schools. Like Chicago, many school districts in large cities are losing students to the suburbs and have a high percentage of children from low-income households.
Teachers mistrust Emanuel and the school district because scores of schools have been closed in recent years. They fear Emanuel will close up to 200 Chicago schools once the strike ends, which would lead to mass layoffs of unionized teachers.
“They are extraordinarily concerned about it,” teachers union leader Karen Lewis told reporters on Sunday. “It undergirds just about everything they talked about.”
They accuse Emanuel of trying to “privatize” public education by allowing outside groups to run largely non-union “charter” or “contract” schools financed with public funds.