Lawyers for the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools are back at work today attempting to hammer out the details of an agreement that could get 350,000 Chicago public schools students back into the classroom on Monday.
Lawyers for Chicago Public Schools began drafting a new teachers' contract this morning based on a framework hammered out during five days of negotiations during this week's teachers strike. They started at 9 a.m. this morning and expect to be done with legal language by Sunday afternoon.
"We're hopeful that we can do it, and like I said, the devil's in the details in contracts, and we want it in writing," Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey said going into negotiations now focused on contract language.
"We are still fighting for fair schools," he said, outside the office of union attorney Robert Bloch. "We still want to make sure that communities are defended, and so we are going to go in today and keep working on the details."
He then made reference to the union rally set for noon at Union Park at Ashland Avenue and Lake Street on the Near West Side. Teachers gathered there before marching to Garfield Park about 2:30 p.m. after the rally ended.
"We're going to take a little break for lunch, and we're probably going to go to the rally," he said. "There's going to be a big rally at Union Park. We expect 40 - 50,000 people there, and then we're back at it, and we're going to work as long as it takes today to get something accomplished."
CPS teachers and their supporters -- almost all wearing red T-shirts -- began flooding into Union Park just before noon today, gathering for a rally to show the strength of the teachers union as officials try to finalize details of a new contract to end the teachers' week-long strike. Police estimated the crowd at around 2,500 people about 2 p.m.Barbecue smoke wafted over the park on the Near West Side as crowds gathered around a stage and in the shade under trees. The atmosphere resembled that of a street festival, with families and friends posing for photos and a marching band parading through the park.
Pop music blasted from speakers near the stage. Small groups of police officers wandered through the crowds.
The rally started with Rev. Jesse Jackson saying a prayer for diplomats killed in Libya and children killed in Chicago and cities across the country.
He then led teachers in a series of chants, including "respect the teachers" and "save the children."
"The struggle you have launched in Chicago, this is not just a Chicago struggle," Jackson told a sea of teachers dressed in red. "This is a struggle for working people everywhere ... This is a struggle for justice."
Loretta Johnson, secretary treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, applauded the example Chicago teachers have set for the nation.
"I remember in Baltimore, we had a 95 percent strike, but it didn't look like this," Johnson said pointing toward the massive crowd. "You have proven to the world that you're not going to take it anymore.
"The challenge was to stand up for children, and you have done that. If you don't stand up for children, who will?"
Despite the upbeat feel of the rally, Lisa Roule, an English teacher at Simeon High School, said she and other striking teachers are trying to drive home an important message today.
"It's an opportunity for us to stand up and let our voices be heard," Roule said as drivers passing the park honked their horns in support. "All these decisions about education are being made, and teachers need to be a part of the discussion."
Kevin Lee, a math teacher at Simeon, said he was cautiously optimistic that a deal to get teachers and students back in the classroom could be reached this weekend.
"We're hoping they turn in something we can approve," said Lee, a nine-year veteran of CPS. "If not, we'll ask them to rewrite it and do it again until it's right. That's what we do every day."
Tara Dunne, a science teacher at Steinmetz College Prep on the Northwest Side, said she and other teachers hope the strike ends soon, but only if an acceptable deal can be reached.
Dunne said she is especially concerned about CPS nurses, counselors and social workers whom she said have unmanageable workloads.
"We want to get back," Dunne said. "But we want the right framework in place so the kids get the best education."
Paul Mulchrone, a music teacher at Carter Elementary in the Washington Park neighborhood, sat on a blanket under a tree at the rally with his three children, all younger than age 4.
He said he's been picketing and knocking on doors in the neighborhood near his school this week not just to garner support for a new contract, but also to draw attention to the violence and poverty that affect so many CPS students and their families.
"Turf battles have never been worse" in the neighborhood near his school, Mulchrone said. "It's a very, very dangerous place to live. And our school lacks some of the basic things we need to teach our kids -- computers, books, things like that."
Mulchrone said he hopes the strike succeeds in highlighting the challenges faced by many of the city's public schools and their students.
"We're striking for a fair contract, but we're also using this strike to send a message," he said. "If you want us to improve test scores or however you measure it, then we need the resources and we need (the city) to invest in the schools."
John Coughlin, who is originally from Madison, Wis., and lives in Wicker Park, said missing today's rally was not an option.
The stay-at-home father is not in a union but was motivated to attend half a dozen rallies in Wisconsin over the last year by family members who are teachers and union members.
"That got me to be more political, and the more I looked into it, the more dirt I saw," he said. "I had to be here to support the idea that every child deserves the right to a good public education."
Today's rally has been dubbed a "Wisconsin-style" demonstration by the CTU. Milwaukee Teachers Education Association President Bob Peterson told Associated Press he expects a few hundred Wisconsin teachers to be in Chicago for the noon rally at Union Park.
Asked what constitutes a Wisconsin rally, Coughlin said, "Not just your typical band of college kids and hippies. It's about a cross section of people -- not just union members -- standing up for what's right."
Both sides said after a half-day negotiating session Friday that a "framework" for agreement had been reached, but they also cautioned that more needed to be done.
Officials with the union, the district and the city were saying little about where things stood after Friday's session. But according to an administration source, the elements of the agreement so far include:
  • Teacher evaluations in which student performance makes up 25 percent of a teacher's performance rating in the system's first year and a higher percentage in future years.
  • Annual wage increases that are believed to be close to the district's earlier offer of a 3 percent base salary hike in the first year of the contract and 2 percent raises in subsequent years. In their previous contract, teachers were given 4 percent annual base salary bumps.
  • Raises for years taught, known as step pay increases, would be limited to midcareer educators from their fifth through 10th years with the district.
Another source close to negotiations said that a basic agreement has been reached on another major sticking point, a recall policy for laid-off teachers. Under that agreement, highly rated teachers who are laid off because of school closings will have a chance to be rehired at the school receiving the students from the school that was closed, provided there is a vacancy, the source said.
If a deal is completed and delegates vote to end the strike that began at midnight last Sunday, schools could reopen Monday, but the contract would have to be ratified by the union's 26,000 members, a process that likely would take place the next two weeks.
Sharkey said that whether the contract gets approved is not up to him or other union leaders.
"Our members are going to make the decision, frankly, about whether the contract in writing passes or not," he said. "Frankly, the educators of Chicago have their expectations raised and feel like they are fighting for a cause, and I think anyone who thinks this is a foregone conclusion that this thing is over is missing an important part of the story, which is that people are going to have to look for themselves, think about it, talk amongst each other and make a real decision about whether the contract that's on the table when we are done meets the needs of the educators and the schools in the city."
He added: "I'm not willing to say we're out of the woods. We have a contract to get. And I'll say it again. Teachers want to see it in writing."
Friday's agreement ended a week of intense bargaining, raucous picketing in front of dozens of city schools and massive rallies that drew thousands of teachers downtown to voice their opposition to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his agenda for education reform.
The teachers strike, the city's first since 1987, culminated 10 months of often contentious contract negotiations between union leaders and Emanuel's hand-picked school board.
Tribune reporters Noreen A. Ahmed-Ullah, Joel Hood and Kristen Mack contributed.