Chicago teachers strike: Union now hoping school might resume Monday

Marking a turnaround in tone and substance, Chicago Public Schools and its teachers union reported Thursday night that negotiators made progress toward resolving a bitter strike now heading into its seventh day.

In back-to-back press conferences, both sides reported movement, without offering specifics, in daylong negotiations.

The union hinted at a deal that could lead to school resuming Monday. “That is absolutely our hope,” said Jennifer Johnson, the union’s chief of staff. “The details are moving, there’s been a good back and forth today,” 

The city’s negotiators, in only their second press conference since the strike began, echoed the sentiment. “We are encouraged about  the productivity from today, having some really strong discussions about proposals already on the table,” Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade said. “The tone is respectful… There is definitely more progress at the table.” 

School has been canceled Friday for a seventh day, equaling the length of the teachers walkout in 2012. The fact that it’s not a Chicago record offers little solace to parents: Teachers walked out six months into Mayor Harold Washington’s term, in 1987, for 19 work days.

Thursday’s talks reflected a positive tone that hasn’t been heard since the weekend. 

Still, negotiators have not reached any tentative agreements on staffing, class size or teacher prep time, and the union has not scheduled a meeting of its House of Delegates, the representative body whose vote is needed to approve a contract agreement and call off the strike. 

So far, the city and the union have made tentative agreements on protecting counselor time, funding programs to help paraprofessionals become teachers, and teacher evaluations. In an appearance on ABC7, schools chief Janice Jackson described most of the agreements as being compromises by Chicago Public Schools. “The compromise has been on our side,” Jackson said. 

But bargaining team members say that’s because issues like evaluations or counselor time are not demands that require significant funding. 

The strike will come down to what both sides can agree on around resources, and union bargaining team members told Chalkbeat they spent Thursday discussing what they could and couldn’t move forward with to end the strike. 

On the city’s side, negotiators wouldn’t specify how much flexibility there was in funding, or how Wednesday’s contentious back-and-forth about how much money will go toward the contract has impacted negotiations. 

“We have all been very clear about the investments being made in this contract, and we are focusing on continuing to have productive conversations,” said deputy mayor for education and human services Sybil Madison. 

Even as teachers negotiations show positive movement, negotiations for the other union on strike, SEIU Local 73, appear to be stalled. 

The union representing 7,500 special education classroom assistants, bus aides and custodians said the district is refusing to negotiate with them.

Larry Alcoff, the union’s lead negotiator, said in a press conference there had only been two bargaining sessions with the city since the strike began: one that lasted for an hour and a second that lasted just 12 minutes. City officials could not offer more, he said.

“This is not a publicity stunt,” Alcoff said. “It’s a sincere request that school district negotiators work with us.” 

The city denied that it cut off talks, and said it was the union that shortened the second session. Speaking on WBEZ Thursday morning, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city had put together a “fulsome” offer that includes an immediate 9% wage hike for the district’s lowest-paid workers.

The next two days could see more dramatic action if resolutions in the two strikes aren’t reached. The teachers union conducted civil disobedience training Thursday.

On Friday union members will rally at downtown’s Buckingham Fountain, and on Saturday morning, they plan a larger gathering with labor allies.

Negotiations are planned for Friday and through the weekend.