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Chicago teachers strike to drag into a third day

Chicago public school teachers and their supporters picket in front of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) headquarters on September 11, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP)

CHICAGO: A strike of Chicago teachers that has closed the nation's third-largest school district will drag into Wednesday after unionized teachers and negotiators for Mayor Rahm Emanuel failed to reach an agreement in the biggest labor dispute in the United States in a year.

Negotiations adjourned late on Tuesday with both sides saying they had made progress but had not secured a deal to get 29,000 teachers and support staff back in inner-city schools.

Speaking earlier on Tuesday at a school where children affected by the strike were being supervised, Emanuel repeated that the two issues in dispute were how to evaluate teachers and more authority for school principals.

Chicago Teachers Union leader Karen Lewis, who has clashed with Emanuel, differed on the state of the talks. She said only six of nearly 50 union contract provisions had been agreed.

"There's not been as much movement as we would hope," Lewis said of the talks on Tuesday.

Earlier, Lewis was greeted with applause and shouts of "Thank You Karen," when she appeared at a rally of thousands of teachers in downtown Chicago. For the second day, teachers wearing red T-shirts marched and chanted "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Rahm Emanuel's got to go."

Emanuel, who resigned as President Barack Obama's White House chief of staff to run for Chicago mayor in 2011, has shown no sign of backing down in the confrontation.

The mayor's chief negotiator, David Vitale, criticized the teachers as the talks recessed on Tuesday. "This is not the behavior of a group of people who are serious about helping our children," Vitale said.

Other Chicago unions closed ranks behind Lewis and the teachers. Randi Weingarten, the national president of the union representing Chicago teachers, appeared at a press conference flanked by local union representatives from nurses, janitors, transit workers and police officers to pledge support.

The union representing janitors said that if the strike is not settled within 48 hours, some janitors would stop crossing picket lines to clean schools where children are supervised.

A poll taken on Monday showed 47 percent of Chicago registered voters supported the union while 39 percent oppose the strike and 14 percent did not know. The poll by McKeon and Associates of 500 Chicago registered voters, has a margin of error of 3.8 percent, and was reported in the Chicago Sun-Times.

With no sign of an early end to the strike, the patience of parents was tested as they juggled child care and work.

Many parents stayed home from work with their children on the first day of a strike affecting some 350,000 children.

Chicago school officials said only about 18,000 students took part in a half day of supervision on Monday at 144 public schools, where kids received breakfast and lunch.

One complaint from parents was that the centers closed at 12:30 p.m. On Tuesday, the school district announced that they would be staying open until 2:30 p.m. in future.

At New Landmark Missionary Baptist Church in the violence-ridden East Garfield Park neighborhood, 26 children showed up on Tuesday compared with 14 on the first day of the strike.

Some parents decided to bring children to the church rather than schools, where striking teachers were picketing, said Ticina Cutler, 32, who has three sons in Chicago Public Schools. "I don't want to cross any picket lines," she said.

The strike has forced the cancellation of all public school-related extracurricular activities such as sports and the arts. It has not affected about 52,000 students at publicly funded, non-union charter schools attending classes as usual.

The face-off in Obama's home city is the biggest private or public sector labor dispute since 45,000 Verizon Communications workers went on strike last year.

The stakes are high for both supporters and foes of a national movement for radical reform of urban schools.

The most contentious issue is teacher evaluations, which Emanuel insists should be tied to performance of students, and which is at the heart of the national debate on school reform.

Emanuel is proposing that Chicago teachers be evaluated based on a system that would rate teachers in several categories. Administrators would observe them in the classroom. Students would be asked about teacher strengths and weaknesses. And, most controversially, many teachers would be assessed based on their students' performance on standardized tests.

The union fiercely opposes the proposed evaluation system, arguing that many Chicago students perform poorly on standardized tests because they come to school hungry and live in poor and crime-ridden neighborhoods.

"We are miles apart because this is a very serious ideological difference here," Lewis said.

Chicago Public Schools are offering teachers an average 16 percent pay rise over four years and sweetened benefits such as paid maternity leave and picking up most of the costs of pensions, which critics say already gives the union too much.

For the second day, Obama was silent on the Chicago strike which pits his ally Emanuel against organized labor, a key supporter of the president.

Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a former Chicago schools chief, issued a statement on Tuesday that avoided taking sides in the dispute even though his own education plan includes some of the reforms sought by Emanuel.

Republicans have sought to exploit the divisions within the Democratic coalition by publicly supporting Emanuel.

While Chicago and Obama's home state of Illinois are expected to vote for him in November, a prolonged strike could make it harder for Obama to motivate unions to get out the vote in key Midwest swing states such as Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio.

Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee teachers union in Wisconsin, said some of his members were wearing red in solidarity with the Chicago union. Most teachers support Obama for many reasons, not just his education policy, Peterson said.

But some independent-minded union members might be affected in Milwaukee, he said, where a big Obama vote is crucial to the president winning the state on Nov. 6.

"If the strike isn't settled, it could (hurt) the Obama campaign and my hope is that the mayor of Chicago gets it together and finds a way to settle the strike," Peterson said.

 

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