When Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis announced Wednesday that the CTU was rejecting the arbitrator’s suggestions in the fact-finding report, she said it was because important grievances like class sizes and the longer school day were not even brought to the bargaining table.
That's because two education reform bills, one passed in 1995 and the other passed last year, narrowed the range of issues that can be discussed during collective bargaining.
The 1995 Chicago School Reform Amendatory Act created two classes of discussion: a “mandatory” one, which deals with economic factors; and a “permissive” category, which governs issues which "are within the sole discretion of the educational employer to decide to bargain," according to the law.
The bill, which also ushered in mayoral control of schools, took issues such as class size off the table for discussion unless both bargaining partners agreed on them.
Most recently SB7, an education reform omnibus bill signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn in June 2011, added issues of school day and year length to issues that are "permissive."
In the case of the negotiations that have placed Chicago's labor battle in the international spotlight, the only issue that both Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the CTU agreed to was the discussion of pay.
SB7 was co-sponsored by more than 50 legislators including Sens. Kimberly A. Lightford, Antonio Muñoz, James T. Meeks, Kwame Raoul and Jacqueline Y. Collins and made several changes to collective bargaining between the city and the union.
These included mandating that the CTU get 75% of bargaining-unit members to vote in favor of a strike, and creating a fact-finding panel to look at the final offers from both sides in the case of a protracted contract disagreement.
But the most controversial, and restrictive, according to Robert Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Chicago-Illinois, was the imposition of "mandatory subjects.”
"SB7 has real implications for the ebb and the flow of the bargaining process," said Bruno.
That permissive category is very broad, and it encapsulates a lot of the really important items that CPS and CTU are in disagreement over, but under SB7 they can only talk about these subjects and include them in a bargaining agreement if both sides agree to discuss those issues and agree that they are going to include them in the agreement.
In this case, said Bruno, the only subjects that the union can legally strike over are economic subjects - "so it's about salaries."
This means that off the table are a host of issues, paradoxically those that the CTU and its allies have argued are essential to the development of students as well as the working conditions of teachers.
Class sizes are a major sticking point – a CTU analysis found that classrooms for younger students in CPS were larger than 95 percent of those in districts in the rest of Illinois, and the union said the average CPS class size in kindergarten is 24.6.
Meanwhile, teachers and parents have argued that school closings and “turning-around” underperforming schools, which involves the wholesale change of teaching personnel, rather than further investment in these schools, leads to violence and disrupted learning.
This year the Board of Education voted to close seven public schools and “turn around” ten others.
"We've said to our teachers that we want fair compensation," said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey. "We've also said we want a better (school) day and we want to make sure class sizes don't spike. (Our members) know that we simply don't have a wage demand."
Due in large part to one of the tenets of SB7, none of these issues are being discussed at the bargaining table.
"The issues the teachers would argue are most important to them are not what the law compels the employees to bargain over and that they are consequently not free to strike over," said Bruno. "That makes the bargaining very restrictive, because you spend a lot of time not talking about what you really need to be talking about in order to get an agreement."
The latest request of the union was a 25 percent raise over the next two years, down from their initial request of a 30 percent raise. CPS, meanwhile, put its most recent offer at an 8 percent wage increase over the next four years.
The arbitrator had proposed a 15-20 percent raise for the upcoming year because of the planned longer school day.
Now that both the union and CPS have rejected the fact-finder’s recommendations, there is a 30-day cooling period while discussions continue before the union can call a strike.
Whether a strike would force issues such as class size and school closures to be addressed remains to be seen.
Photo credit: sierraromeo [sarah-ji]