LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
The fight over collective bargaining in Wisconsin grabbed the country's attention for months. Governor Scott Walker recently survived a recall triggered by that fight. Now, there's a public union battle brewing in neighboring Illinois. Members of the Chicago Teachers Union outmaneuvered the mayor, school officials and anti-union education groups and overwhelmingly approved a measure which allows them to strike if contract negotiations fail. NPR's Cheryl Corley has more.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: There hasn't been a school strike in Chicago for 25 years. But the current contract between Chicago teachers and the Chicago Public Schools expires at the end of next week.
Recently, about 90 percent of the union's membership - nearly 24,000 workers - voted to support a strike if it's called. CTU President Karen Lewis says it was an indication of the rocky relationship between the union and school management and...
KAREN LEWIS: The absolute abject lack of respect and scapegoating of teachers, paraprofessionals and clinicians throughout this country. I mean that's all we hear. Everything that's wrong with the educational system is our fault.
CORLEY: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's wants more privately run charter schools. He stripped teachers of a 4 percent raise and his effort to institute longer school days while side-stepping the union contract infuriated union members. Add to that a change in state law that set the threshold for a strike authorization vote at 75 percent.
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CORLEY: During the last day of school at Cesar Chavez Elementary School last week, art teacher Michael Bochner watched as other teachers ripped huge sheets of colored paper from rolls as they prepared for an evening celebration for students. Bochner says when teachers learned the new state law aimed at preventing a strike would count people who didn't vote as no votes, teachers realized it was a huge effort to blunt the union's power.
MICHAEL BOCHNER: So here at Chavez, we had 100 percent participation on the first day, which is much more than we've ever had for any election ever before.
CORLEY: Mayor Emanuel denied that his support for the change in the state law backfired but he did acknowledge the strong 90 percent vote.
MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: It's a huge number.
CORLEY: Negotiators for the school district and the union are wrangling over wages, class size and other issues. Even so, Emanuel offered a small olive branch as he talked about the wide gap in the proposals for teacher pay raises.
EMANUEL: They deserve it. They've earned it and appropriately have gotten it and should get it in the future. What I want to make sure is our children also have a full day and full school year equal to their full potential, which has not been done to date.
CORLEY: Chicago's Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard adds that no one in Chicago is looking to mirror Wisconsin by trying to do away with negotiating rights.
JEAN-CLAUDE BRIZARD: No Wisconsin here - and I don't think we need Wisconsin here. But again, what I want is I don't want my kids being caught in the middle of all of this. I don't want my families anxious about what's going to be happening in September.
CORLEY: University of Illinois-Chicago labor Professor Robert Bruno says although there are lessons that both the union and school board can takeaway from the Wisconsin saga, he says Mayor Emanuel, former chief of staff to President Obama, may also have another question to consider.
ROBERT BRUNO: How exactly does it look to have a major collective bargaining dispute - a strike of public sector workers in his home city on the eve of a tight presidential election with battleground states all around Illinois?
CORLEY: It may not come to that. The union and school leaders say they're looking for common ground as the negotiations continue and CTU President Lewis says the 90 percent strike authorization vote is making those negotiations just a little bit easier.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News- Chicago.
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