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Wins, losses and draws in Chicago school strike

By Michael Pearson, CNN
updated 6:32 PM EDT, Wed September 19, 2012
  • NEW: Students, parents relieved as classes resume
  • Teachers won decisively, labor expert says
  • A contract deal was endorsed Tuesday night by teacher union representatives
  • Rank-and-file teachers still need to vote on the new deal

(CNN) -- It's a "half a loaf" kind of day in Chicago.

As schools reopened Wednesday -- the day after teachers union representatives voted to suspend their eight-day strike -- union leaders, city officials and even students could all claim a few wins and admit a few losses after a bruising battle that had both sides hurling insults like pro wrestlers.

Teachers were happy to secure concessions limiting a school reform program that they said would harm students and cost teachers jobs.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel walked away with a teacher evaluation system and other changes that he says will make educators more accountable.

And there was even an upside for the 350,000 Chicago kids who had to go back to school after an unexpected eight-day holiday.

My View: The Chicago teachers' strike from an ambivalent union member's perspective

Mayor Rahm Emanuel greets students as they arrive at Frazier International Magnet School on Wednesday, September 19, in Chicago. Wednesday was the first day back for students and teachers after union representatives voted to suspend the eight-day strike. Mayor Rahm Emanuel greets students as they arrive at Frazier International Magnet School on Wednesday, September 19, in Chicago. Wednesday was the first day back for students and teachers after union representatives voted to suspend the eight-day strike.
Chicago teachers strike
Photos: Chicago teachers strike Photos: Chicago teachers strike
Chicago teachers strike ends

"It was kind of boring being at home, so I'm kind of glad I'm going back to school so I don't have to have any more baby sitters," South Loop Elementary School student Grace Bauer said.

In all, teachers appear to have come out ahead in a strike that gained nationwide attention, said Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and director of its Labor Education Program in Chicago.

"Across the board, on every issue, the teachers got a more favorable outcome than the school system," he said Wednesday.

The deal, which still must be ratified by the union's overall membership, calls for an average raise of 17.6% over four years, down from the 30% initially sought by the union.

But it also strips out a merit pay program that would have been tied to increased emphasis on student test scores.

That emphasis remains in the contract -- it's mandated by state law -- but scores will count for a lower percentage of teacher evaluations. The district had wanted scores to count for as much as 45% of evaluations. It will count for no more than 30%, according to the deal.

Teachers also managed to hold the line on health insurance increases, and protect seniority pay increases and raises for additional education that the school system wanted to limit or eliminate.

Union officials also trumpeted victories in giving laid-off teachers better job opportunities than district officials had proposed, more control over their own jobs and protections from intimidation by supervisors..

The union didn't get all it wanted. In addition to the salary compromise, the school day and year will be extended, effectively adding more than two years of instruction time to to the school career of a student who starts next year, Emanuel said.

Teachers also backed off on their insistence that laid-off teachers be given even more consideration for jobs.

"The mayor doesn't walk away empty-handed from this," Bruno said. "He's not a loser ultimately in this."

The contract deal, endorsed Tuesday night by teacher union representatives, is an "honest compromise," Emanuel said after teachers had agreed to return to work.

"This is in the best interest of our students, who need the very best teachers," he said Tuesday. "It is in the best interest of our teachers, who always strive to achieve the best results they can for their students and want to develop as professionals, as every professional does."

One parent on the impact of the strike

Despite Bruno's assessment, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis was less enthusiastic, calling the deal an "austerity contract" because it includes lesser wage increases.

But Lewis said the strike drew national attention to important issues facing educators, school districts and students.

"I think this has been an opportunity for people across the nation to have their voices heard, and I think we're moving in the right direction," she said.

The city's nearly 30,000 teachers walked out on September 10 when negotiations broke down after months of talks.

At the time, Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff, said city schools must adopt reform measures similar to those championed by his former boss, President Barack Obama.

The president's Race to the Top initiative calls for reforms, increased emphasis on teacher performance and broader emphasis on charter schools, among other things.

Teachers, however, said the school system wanted to attach too much importance to the performance of students, arguing that the behavior of many students in school is beyond the control of educators. They said they also worried about what would happen to teachers who lose their jobs as the district closes underperforming schools, and about plans to close schools and cut programs.

With school districts across the country dealing with financial shortfalls and pressures to make reforms under Obama's program, the strike quickly gained national attention.

Education analysts said the strike in the nation's third-largest school district could have lasting implications in the growing national debate on teacher and school performance, which has been an issue in legislatures and contract negotiations from coast to coast.

The strike soon turned into something of a boxing match, with Emanuel bluntly accusing teachers of valuing their pocketbooks over the futures of thousands of schoolchildren, and union leaders blasting the mayor as a bully trying to intimidate them into a bad deal.

On Sunday, after negotiators reached a tentative deal but union leaders declined to suspend the strike, Emanuel went before reporters to vow court action to force teachers back to work.

Why they teach, despite it all

Union teachers, however, dug in, accusing the mayor of trying to limit their rights to read the newly settled contract. A judge refused to immediately hear Emanuel's request for a court order, setting the stage for Tuesday's vote.

While not all Chicago teachers were happy with the deal, Lewis predicted it would pass when rank-and-file teachers vote in a few weeks.

"There is no such thing as a contract that will make all of us happy, and we're realistic about that," she said Tuesday.

For now, she said, they're just glad to be back in class.

Parents were also relieved.

"I'm just glad that everyone got what they wanted, but I just wanted the children to be first," Lisa Russell, a parent, told CNN affiliate WLS-TV. "And I believe they are first."

CNN's Ted Rowlands, Kyung Lah, Greg Botelho and Chris Welch contributed to this report.

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