Chicago teachers launch one-day strike in call for funding

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union and their supporters march in protest Friday during a one-day strike aimed at getting lawmakers to increase funding for schools.
Members of the Chicago Teachers Union and their supporters march in protest Friday during a one-day strike aimed at getting lawmakers to increase funding for schools.
Published April 2, 2016

CHICAGO — Chicago teachers took to picket lines Friday in a one-day strike they said was aimed at getting lawmakers to adequately fund schools in the nation's third-largest district.

The walkout closed schools for nearly 400,000 students, who had the option of spending the day at "contingency sites" Chicago Public Schools opened at churches, libraries and school buildings.

Among those picketing outside Oscar DePriest Elementary School was special education teacher Brian Orlinsky, who said he hopes the walkout will be a wake-up call for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and other lawmakers.

"There's not enough textbooks," the Spencer Technology Elementary School teacher said. "There's not enough technology that's up-to-date and that's working."

Friday's actions also could foreshadow a longer strike over a new labor contract, which by law can't occur for several weeks.

The Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike in 2012, shutting down schools for more than a week before reaching an agreement with Emanuel. That contract expired in June, and the negotiations for a new one have been going on for more than a year.

Tiffany Stockdale, whose two children attend CPS, said she agrees with the teachers even if closing the schools is an inconvenience. She said the strike seemed like the only way to get people in power to listen.

"This is what the teachers have to do and I think the parents — whether it's hard, whether it's easy — they should support this," Stockdale said. "If they have to be out longer, so be it."

Emanuel said he agrees more money is needed for schools, and particularly for districts like Chicago's that serve poor students. He urged the union to join him and CPS in lobbying the Legislature rather than closing down schools, noting many students depend on CPS for meals and other help.

"Our kids are paying a price that I don't think is right," Emanuel said.

CPS, which faces a $1.1 billion budget deficit and billions more in pension debt, already has halted salary increases, imposed three furlough days and made other cuts to schools. It reached an agreement earlier this year with union leadership on a proposal that included salary increases. But a larger union bargaining team rejected it, partly because it required employees to contribute more toward their pensions and health insurance.

The union and its allies say the only way to get a fair contract and improve struggling schools is to pressure lawmakers to approve new revenue, either through a tax increase or other changes.

Illinois entered its 10th month without a state budget on Friday.

Schools CEO Forrest Claypool said teachers who were on strike wouldn't be paid for the day.

He also said the district filed a complaint Friday with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board seeking to block the union from another "illegal strike." Claypool says that by law the union and district must exhaust a series of steps before teachers may strike; the union says its action is legal.

"We think it's important that it be clearly established that whether children are in school and being educated is not subject to the whims of the Chicago Teachers Union leadership," he said.

Claypool said the district also wants the union to cover the yet-to-be-determined cost of opening the contingency sites.