Chicago teachers' strike grinds into third day

More than 350,000 students have been out of class for three days

By Don Babwin

Published September 12, 2012 7:00PM (EDT)

The public exchanges between striking Chicago teachers and the school district grew more personal Wednesday as negotiators returned to the bargaining table on the walkout's third day.

A top district negotiator, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, criticized teachers union President Karen Lewis for using the word "silly" when describing the negotiations to a crowd of adoring teachers a day earlier.

"It is not silly that we spent over 10 hours yesterday attempting to bridge the gap," Byrd-Bennett said just before the talks resumed. "We take these negotiations incredibly serious."

The strike has canceled classes for more than 350,000 students.

Union officials continued to play down the chances of a quick resolution to the dispute, which centers on the district's proposed new teacher evaluation process and a policy on rehiring teachers that have been laid off. The district said it had presented the union with a new comprehensive proposal Tuesday and was demanding either a response in writing or a comprehensive counter-proposal.

"It's going to take time to work things out," Lewis said. "It's also going to take the will to make compromises. We have made quite a few. We would like to see more on their side."

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, commenting on the strike after a City Council meeting, pushed again for a quick conclusion to the talks, saying the final issues could be resolved with the children back in school. Nevertheless, he said, district officials were arranging for children to receive more computer access at drop-off schools so they can spend time learning as the strike goes on.

On Tuesday, officials in the country's third-largest school district announced that, beginning Thursday, the 147 drop-off centers where students can get free breakfast and a morning of supervision will be open six hours a day rather than four.

As the teachers walk the picket lines, they have been joined by parents who are scrambling to find a place for children to pass the time or for baby sitters. Mothers and fathers — some with their kids in tow — are marching with the teachers. Other parents are honking their encouragement from cars or planting yard signs that announce their support in English and Spanish.

Unions are still hallowed organizations in much of Chicago, and the teachers union holds a special place of honor in many households where children often grow up to join the same police, firefighter or trade unions as their parents and grandparents.

"I'm going to stay strong, behind the teachers," said the Rev. Michael Grant, who joined educators on the picket line Tuesday. "My son says he's proud; 'You are supporting my teacher.'"

But one question looming over the contract talks is whether parents will continue to stand behind teachers if students are left idle for days or weeks. That ticking clock could instill a sense of urgency in the ongoing negotiations.

Mary Bryan, the grandmother of two students at Shoop Academy on the city's far South Side, supports the teachers because she see "the frustration, the overwork they have." A protracted labor battle, she acknowledged, would "test the support" of many families.

Parents "should stick with them, but they might demand teachers go back to work," Bryan added.

To win friends, the union has engaged in something of a publicity campaign, telling parents repeatedly about problems with schools and the barriers that have made it more difficult to serve their kids. They cite classrooms that are stifling hot without air conditioning, important books that are unavailable and insufficient supplies of the basics, such as toilet paper.

"They've been keeping me informed about that for months and months," Grant said.

It was a shrewd tactic, said Robert Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"This union figured out they couldn't assume the public would be on their side, so they went out and actively engaged in getting parent support," Bruno said. "They worked like the devil to get it."

But, said some reform advocates, public opinion could swing against the union relatively soon if the dispute seems to carry on with no resolution in sight.

Juan Jose Gonzalez is the Chicago director for the education advocacy group Stand for Children, which has hundreds of parent volunteers and was instrumental in pushing legislative reforms in Illinois. He says parents "are all over the map" in terms of their support for teachers or the school district.

"Within a day or two, all parents are going to turn their ire toward the strike," Gonzalez said. "As parents see what the district offers and see the teachers not counterpropose, they will become increasingly frustrated with the grandstanding."

Already, there are some parents who don't understand why teachers would not readily accept a contract offering a 16 percent raise over four years — far more than most American employers are giving in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Rodney Espiritu, a stay-at-home dad whose 4-year-old son just started preschool, said the low test scores he's read about suggest teachers don't have "much of a foot to stand on."

In a telephone poll conducted Monday by the Chicago Sun-Times, nearly half of people surveyed said they supported the teachers union, compared with 39 percent who oppose the strike. Almost three-quarters of those polled regarded Emanuel's efforts to resolve the dispute as average, below average or poor. The poll of 500 registered voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

Don Babwin

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Chicago Chicago Teachers Strike From The Wires Rahm Emanuel Teachers Teachers Unions