Chicago public school teachers, many of them wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with their union logo, lined up early this morning to vote on whether to authorize a strike if a contract can't be worked out with the district.
Contract talks are ongoing, and Chicago Teachers Union vice president Jesse Sharkey admits the vote is being taken to serve as "leverage in the negotiation process."
Under a 2011 state law, 75 percent of CTU membership must give their approval before a strike can take place. The CTU hopes to top that percentage to send a message about teacher dissatisfaction with reforms being pushed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools.
Shortly after 6:30 a.m., the first teachers began to cast their votes at King College Prep High School on the South Side.
One by one they walked into the school's main office and checked a box, either "yes" or "no," on a sheet of paper asking whether they authorize the union to strike if a new contract is not reached. Then they folded their ballots and stuffed them into an envelope.
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, a longtime science teacher at King, arrived to cast her vote just before 7:30 a.m. As she moved through the school, she was encircled by flashing cameras and television crews.
After folding up her ballot, Lewis was asked by a reporter how she voted. "I voted yes," she said with a short laugh. "Obviously you all didn't get the message that this is a secret ballot."
Afterward, Lewis reiterated to reporters why the union was calling for a strike authorization vote while negotiations for a new contract were ongoing.
"It's important to take now because we need to make some movement at the table," Lewis said. "(CPS) needs to understand that now we have the voice of 30,000 people at the bargaining table with us. It has to be now."
Although union leaders have said improved working conditions are central to the contract talks, Lewis acknowledged teacher wages are a big component. The union has asked for a 30 percent salary increase for its teachers over the next two years, while the school board has countered with a 2 percent offer.
Lewis said she hoped the two sides could strike a deal somewhere in the middle.
As for the strike authorization vote, Lewis said the union is going to be cautious and not make the tally public until all votes are tallied. Union spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin said that could stretch into next week.
"I'm not going to announce results until they are done," Lewis said. "We're going to take our time. It's that serious."
Jocelyn Shaw, a speech and world literature teacher at King, told reporters she voted to authorize a strike because she wanted to show the school board and the mayor the strength of the union.
"I'm ready to show Mr. Emanuel that we mean business," Shaw said.
The last time teachers went out on strike was in 1987.
Speaking to a group of parents on the Southeast Side today, CPS chief Jean-Claude Brizard said teachers deserve a raise, but not on the scale the union is proposing.
"While we need our teachers to be paid well, we can't afford what is being asked," he said at a parent schools involvement workshop at Christian Fellowship Flock Church.
Later, at a press conference outside the church, he insisted teachers are voting for a strike without knowing the district's final offer or the arbitrator's recommendations.
"Teachers are being asked to vote on incomplete, grossly inaccurate information," Brizard said.
The arbitrator is to issue recommendations July 16. After that, the process calls for steps that would take 45 days before teachers could walk out.
Emanuel and education reform groups have chastised the union for taking the strike vote before the arbitration process is complete. They’ve argued that the intent of the state’s education reform was for final offers to be made public and to allow for a compromise to be reached.
This week, Education Reform Now, a sister organization to Washington D.C.-based Democrats for Education Reform, began running radio ads calling parents to sign a petition against what they called “an early strike vote.” Another national education reform group new to Illinois, Stand for Children, is also running an online petition against the strike vote.
Brizard sent a letter to teachers on Tuesday accusing the union of misleading its members about the district’s proposals. The letter said CPS is not changing its class size policy and is offering teachers more professional development time.
Union representatives at the schools will be checking each teacher’s name against a master list and the ballots will be returned to CTU’s downtown office in secured ballot boxes in the evening.
The union has also provided four citywide locations for those teachers and union members that work across the district. The union plans to have observers, a group of faith leaders, at CTU headquarters as the ballots are counted by hand.
While CTU hopes to reach the 75 percent marker on the first day, they plan to keep ballots open for the remainder of the week, which is allowed under the CTU’s election rules.