Chicago schools’ top labor negotiator on the veteran pay dispute and what he’s learned from all those union contracts

Chicago’s biggest education story of this school year was the bitter 11-day teachers strike and the contract that emerged from it. 

The news made headlines around the country, but most stories never mentioned the name of one central figure behind the conflict and its resolution. 

That’s Jim Franczek, the labor lawyer who negotiated the Chicago teachers contract and seven others in the course of his 25-year career as the city’s chief labor negotiator. 

He’s worked with some of the biggest names in Chicago politics, including former mayors Harold Washington, Richard M. Daley, and Rahm Emanuel, as well as with Illinois house chief Michael Madigan. He also helped draft two key pieces of legislation that changed power and collective bargaining in Chicago: the 1995 law that instituted mayoral control of Chicago Public Schools and another law that limited what unions could bargain over, and raised the vote threshold required to authorize a strike. 

“I’ve been involved, in one way or the other, in virtually every piece of labor legislation that’s come out of the General Assembly,” Franczek said. 

In an interview in his West Loop office,  he chuckled at a photo of a protester holding a sign with Franczek’s photo, labeled “CPS’s ZOMBIE NEGOTIATOR,” and a gravestone bearing his name.

Franczek said he has tried to stay out of the spotlight. But nonetheless he has earned the ire of some Chicagoans fighting the city’s education reform movement. 

Chalkbeat sat down with Franczek to discuss veteran teacher pay, what the media misses, and the real relationships at the bargaining table. 

Here are five key topics from that conversation. Franczek’s answers have been edited for length and clarity. 

On working with Mayor Lori Lightfoot 

I’ve negotiated the CPS contract eight times now. And this was, without question, the best CPS team I ever had. It was intelligent people who cared. It was people who were invested in the process.

Mayor Lightfoot is extremely bright. She’s extremely committed. She’s a very strong personality. And I think she emphasized enormously good leadership during this entire process. 

On his tips for successful negotiating 

There are three Ps: prep, process and people. By far the most important part of it is preparation, dealing with clients, coming up with ways to navigate through the process. I put a not-insignificant amount of premium on relationships with my client and the union. 

These things are tension-filled enough without creating personal animosities, so I go out of my way to do the small but important things that enhance human relationships. You [have to be] courteous and respectful, and don’t swear unless you are doing it for a reason. I recognize other people’s needs and wants and try to be responsive to that. Little things over the course of time make a significant difference in the process.  

On the veteran pay standoff 

It was one of the last, if not the last, issue settled, and it was agreed that we, being CPS, would provide $5 million for teachers on step 14 [for those who have taught 14 years] or higher, and $25 million over the course of five years. We said to the union that those were our absolute amounts, and did not want those amounts to compound.  

The agreement was $5 million a year, and that we’ll figure out. 

Frankly this is not all that unusual, though the numbers are fairly significant. We will work it out. 

On his involvement in the passage of the 1995 bill that shifted Chicago schools to mayoral control 

My advice [to then-Mayor Daley] was that the labor law did not make any sense anymore. It needed to be changed to accommodate the complexity of the Chicago Public School system. Now 25 years later, it’s time to look at it again. But during those 25 years, I think in a lot of ways, and maybe friends over on the union side — and I do have friends over there, believe it or not — will disagree. But we’ve done a lot of good things. You have a longer day and have a longer year. That’s because of 1995. 

You don’t have these teachers sitting off in a room on layoff and reserve teacher pools like we had prior to ’95. That used to cost us hundreds of millions of dollars. That doesn’t happen anymore. 

So I’m not all that defensive about it. In retrospect, maybe I could have done some things better. But big-picture-wise, I don’t feel badly about my advice at all.

On what the media misses 

When the press reports upon this [negotiations], they’re literally [reporting] the tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg. In a world where there’s instant communication, you don’t have either the time or the willingness or the incentive to do a thought piece on what happens. But that’s just the nature of the beast. 

This is an extremely complex process. We met 91 times with Chicago Teachers Union between January and Oct. 31. We met 28 days in October. We spent god knows how many hours, we exchanged god knows how many proposals, we had all sorts of meetings and all sorts of different topics. The complexity of all of that cannot be measured or captured in newspaper articles. It just can’t.