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Chicago Public Schools fails to get court order ending teachers strike

By Jason Meisner, Hal Dardick, Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah and Joel Hood, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — Lawyers for Chicago Public Schools were rebuffed Monday in their hopes of winning a temporary restraining order and immediately ending the teachers strike.

A Cook County Circuit Court judge did not agree to hold a hearing on the matter Monday. Instead, Judge Peter Flynn raised the possibility of setting a hearing for Wednesday, but questioned if the legal issues wouldn’t be moot if the strike is over by then, according to Roderick Drew, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department.

Larry Dinardo, a lawyer for CPS, told reporters nothing else is expected to happen Monday on the request for a temporary restraining order.

In a complaint seeking the court order, CPS argued that the Chicago Teachers Union is prohibited by state law from striking over non-economic issues and that the strike is a clear and present danger to public health and safety.

It has asked that CTU members be immediately ordered off the picket line and back into classrooms.

“State law expressly prohibits the CTU from striking over non-economic issues, such as layoff and recall policies, teacher evaluations, class sizes and the length of the school day and year,” the motion states. “The CTU’s repeated statements and recent advertising campaign have made clear that these are exactly the subjects over which the CTU is striking.”

The motion also contends that the strike is “a clear and present danger to public health and safety. It prohibits students from receiving critical educational and social services, including meals for students who otherwise may not receive proper nutrition, a safe environment during school hours and critical services for students who have special needs.”

The CTU released a statement calling the CPS complaint groundless and “vindictive.”

“CPS’ spur-of-the-moment decision to seek injunctive relief some six days later appears to be a vindictive act instigated by the mayor,” the union said in a statement. “This attempt to thwart our democratic process is consistent with Mayor (Rahm) Emanuel’s bullying behavior toward public school educators.”

The union asked why the mayor did not file the complaint earlier, or at least filed a claim with the state labor board. “CPS has never filed any claim with the labor board that our strike is illegal,” according to the statement.

The CTU’s House of delegates decided to keep the strike going at least through Tuesday after union chief Karen Lewis met with delegates Sunday to discuss a tentative contract brokered after months of negotiation. Delegates said they wanted more time to consider the deal.

Lewis acknowledged returning to classes Wednesday may be optimistic, considering how difficult it has been for the union and CPS to find agreement on many key issues.

Emanuel reacted sharply to the delay, calling the walkout “illegal” and pledging to seek an injunction in court to force an end to the city’s first teachers strike in a quarter century and return more than 350,000 students to the classroom.

Emanuel has maintained for over a week that the two major sticking points in negotiations — evaluations and the ability to recall teachers who have been laid off — are not legal grounds for a work stoppage.

Zev Eigen, an associate professor at Northwestern University who specializes in labor law, said the mayor and CPS appear to have a good argument.

“The reasons they (teachers) are genuinely, really striking are frankly things on which the law is relatively clear on which they are not allowed to strike,” Eigen said, though he cautioned it’s not a black-and-white issue. “I think there is gray area here, and there are things that could be disputed.

“But if I were ruling on this, I would frankly rule in favor of the injunction, based on the facts and the totality of the circumstances,” Eigen said.

Under the Illinois Labor Relations Act, the union can strike over “policy matters directly affecting wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment, as well as the impact thereon,” Eigen said.

Union officials have said that salary is not the primary issue on the table, weakening its case, he noted.

It will be up to a judge to sort out what the union is really striking over, based on evidence presented by the city. The judge is “going to look at the statute, first try to figure out what the issues are that the union is really striking over and sort through what’s real versus what’s pretextual,” Eigen said. “What’s true? Who knows?”

If the city does not prevail, however, the lawsuit could backfire by stretching out the dispute, he said.

Teachers back on the picket line Monday morning insisted they needed more time to consider the complex agreement.

“When we got the papers, they were still warm,” said James Flynn, a member of the House of Delegates.

Flynn did not see the delay as any sign of distrust in Lewis and other union officials who had negotiated the deal, saying Lewis would want delegates to confer. “Her leadership has been one of rank and file.”

Brandon Johnson, a Westinghouse College Prep social studies teacher, believes teachers should have time to comment on the deal before the strike is called off.

“What they wanted to ensure was that all the members had an opportunity to weigh in on this framework,” Johnson said, calling the review a “democratic process.”

“I think folks are very accustomed in this city to a top-down approach and President Lewis provided her recommendation and I think that recommendation is going to be strongly considered,” he said. “We appreciate the leadership, we trust our leadership, but we’ve said all along that this membership belongs to its members.”

Still, the delegates’ vote Sunday was a surprise. Momentum had been building for a tentative agreement since Friday, when CPS officials and union leaders announced that they agreed upon a framework for a new teachers contract. All that had to be worked out over the weekend was some of the sticky details that had proven so difficult.

In the 10 months since contract talks began, Lewis and union leadership have riled up rank-and-file members with talk of being bullied and disrespected by Emanuel’s aggressive approach to education reform. The mayor’s push to lengthen the public school day and year without collaboration with the union struck a nerve with union leaders who, in turn, entered negotiations demanding a 30 percent raise.

Lewis ended talks Friday saying she was “very comfortable” with the deal she was taking to delegates. But as the meeting unfolded Sunday, Lewis had the difficult task of reining in their high expectations.

“Let’s be real,” Lewis told them at one point, asking them to “have some honest conversations” about the deal in front of them.

“This contract is not going to solve everything,” she said.

At one point, Lewis asked, “Are we going back to school?”

Delegates shouted back “No!”

Afterward, some union leaders were seen in tears, exhausted. They had been working 27 hours, around the clock since Saturday morning, on finishing the written language of the agreement.

Rehak said delegates understood the pressure on them to end the strike Sunday.

“That weighed on us,” he said. “We thought about our children. We thought about our colleagues. We thought about all of that.”

But in continuing the strike, the union runs the risk of losing the support of parents who have backed them up to now.

Diana Peters used up her available time off last week to take care of her three children during the strike. Peters had told her kids — ages 8, 14 and 16 — that school might start again Monday.

But Monday morning, she found herself taking another day off from her job as a patient care technician at Northwestern Hospital. “They’re understanding (at work), but my time is up,” Peters said.

She dropped her 8-year-old off at William Ray Elementary, one of CPS’ contingency schools open during the strike to provide a safe place for kids to go, though not regular schooling.

“Now I still have to figure out what to do with the other two,” Peters said. “We’ve got to keep our kids busy.”

As far as how this might affect her job, she said: “I’m just taking it a day at a time.”

“I think teachers need what they’re trying to get,” Sabrina Hodges, mother of 11-year-old Lee, said as she dropped her son off at Ray Elementary on Monday morning. “But we’ve got to pay bills too. I’ve got to work.”

Hodges is a nurse who takes care of patients at their homes. She has been running late each day she has to drive to Ray to drop off her son.

Rochelle Pickett, grandmother of a 9-year-old boy named Clifton, dropped off Clifton at Ray on Monday morning.

Pickett said Clifton had his uniform ironed and his backpack packed for school when they learned Sunday night that the strike would continue.

“All of us want school to open up,” Pickett said.

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