Chicago public school teachers have voted to end a strike and resume classes in the third-largest US school district, ending a confrontation with Mayor Rahm Emanuel that focused national attention on struggling urban schools.
About 800 union delegates representing the 29,000 teachers and support staff in Chicago Public Schools voted overwhelmingly to resume classes on Wednesday, after more than two hours of debate on Tuesday.
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“I am so thrilled that people are going back,” Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said. “Everybody is looking forward to seeing their kids tomorrow.”
Lewis, an outspoken former high school chemistry teacher, said the entire membership of the union would cast a formal vote in the next two weeks to ratify a new contract agreement.
The delegates ended the strike on their second attempt, having decided on Sunday to continue the walkout for two more days so they could review details of a proposed three-year contract with Emanuel.
Emanuel had to retreat from a proposal to introduce merit pay for teachers, and he promised teachers that at least half of all new hires in the district would be from union members laid off by the closing of schools.
Speaking at Walter Payton College Prep school in Chicago after the vote, Emanuel said he was pleased by the outcome.
“This settlement is an honest compromise,” he said. “It means a new day and a new direction for Chicago public schools.”
Lewis led the walkout on September 10, the first Chicago teachers’ strike in 25 years, to protest against Emanuel’s demand for sweeping education reforms. About 350,000 public school students were affected by the largest US labour dispute in a year.
Emanuel on Monday tried to get a court order ending the strike, angering the union. A court hearing on his request is scheduled for Wednesday.
Galvanising US labour
The strike focused attention on a national debate over how to improve failing schools. Emanuel believes poorly performing schools should be closed and reopened with new staff or converted to “charter” schools that are often non-union and run by private groups.
Teachers want more resources put into neighbourhood public schools to help them succeed. Chicago teachers say many of their students live in poor, crime-ridden areas and this affects their learning. More than 80 per cent of public school students qualify for free meals based on low family incomes.
Only about 60 per cent of Chicago students graduate from high school – below the national average of 75 per cent – while more than 90 per cent pass out in some affluent Chicago suburbs.
The decision by the union to walk out of classrooms eight days ago rather than accept Emanuel’s reforms galvanised the weakened US labour movement after a string of national defeats.
Unions lost battles recently in a number of states. In Wisconsin, Republicans stripped public sector unions such as teachers of most powers to bargain; Indiana took a decision to make payment of union dues voluntary; and two California cities have voted to curb the pensions of government workers.
President Barack Obama was silent throughout the dispute in his home city between Emanuel, who had been was his top White House aide, and a national union that supports Obama.
The strike had raised concern that the rift could damage union support for Obama and Democrats in the run-up to the November presidential and congressional elections. Teacher rallies drew support from other unions in Chicago and from unions in neighbouring states such as Wisconsin and Indiana.