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Chicago teachers avoid strike after reaching new deal

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After nearly two years, Chicago teachers and officials reach agreement

Tentative teachers agreement still needs to be finalized by union

CNN —  

Chicago teachers avoided a strike late Monday after union leaders and school board officials reached a tentative agreement on a contract that could extend through 2019.

Though it still needs final approval, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the agreement would ensure that nearly 400,000 students enrolled in the city’s 652 schools could attend class for the foreseeable future.

“Kids will be in classes for tomorrow, the rest of the week, the rest of the year, and for the next two years,” Emanuel said.

Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teachers Union, said the deal, 22 months in the making, would give new teachers raises instead of longstanding pension contributions – a key reform pushed by the city. Approximately 21,000 teachers currently employed by CPS would continue to receive pension contributions from the school district.

How we got here

Four years ago, Chicago teachers picketed outside schools over salaries, benefits, and evaluations for nine days. The strike, the first one held by CPS teachers in a quarter century, followed shortly after Emanuel was first elected mayor.

Emanuel, who inherited a more than $1 billion budget deficit from his longtime predecessor Richard Daley, took a hard line against the teacher’s union. Lewis, who was also in her first term, refused to back down as she routinely lobbed insults at Emanuel during rallies and press conferences.

Students missed seven school days during the talks. But both sides eventually shook hands on a new three-year deal.

What both sides wanted

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel avoided the second teachers strike by reaching a new deal with union leaders Monday night.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel avoided the second teachers strike by reaching a new deal with union leaders Monday night.

Since the contact expired last year, Emanuel and Lewis had remained at an impasse over the contract negotiations.

The city had initially pledged to give teachers a raise of 8.75 percent. In exchange, officials wanted to shift more of the burden of pension payments on to teachers. Of the 9 percent Chicago’s public school teachers must put toward their pensions, they only had to contribute 2 percent, while the school system covered the rest.

At one point this year, Lewis referred to those pension cuts as “an act of war.”

But pension costs have spiraled out of control, officials argued. This past July the city barely managed to chip in $676 million to its teacher pension fund after major debt ratings agencies downgraded the fund to junk status in 2015

In addition, CTU had urged the city to increase spending by $200 million to bring aboard new social workers and employees to reduce class sizes. The number of students in CPS classrooms has ballooned in recent years on the heels of school closures.

Down to the wire

Two hours before the midnight deadline Tuesday, Lewis told reporters the union had received a last-minute proposal, leaving parents wondering if their children would be in or out of school.

“They’re going to have to be up a little later,” Lewis said. “Prepare for the worst and pray for the best.”

At that point, Lewis said, the last-minute deal appeared “significantly better” than what they had previously seen–suggesting that a deal was imminent.