Emanuel's court bid to end strike stalls, teachers call it "vindictive"
CHICAGO (Reuters) - A Chicago judge said he will not act until at least Wednesday on Mayor Rahm Emanuel's request to block a teacher's strike and the union accused the mayor of a "vindictive act" as the walkout moved into a second week.
Emanuel's lawyers went to court on Monday seeking an injunction to have the strike declared illegal under state law. Circuit Court Judge Peter Flynn set a hearing on the request for Wednesday morning, according to Chicago Public Schools.
Emanuel went to court after union delegates decided on Sunday to extend the strike in order to consult with rank-and-file members on whether to accept a new contract negotiated with Emanuel and the Chicago school district.
The stalemate left some 350,000 kindergarten through high school students out of school for at least the first two days of this week, forcing parents to scramble for alternative child care for a second week.
The union, which represents some 29,000 striking teachers and support staff, blasted Emanuel's legal gambit in a statement on Monday, calling it a "vindictive act."
"This attempt to thwart our democratic process is consistent with Mayor Emanuel's bullying behavior toward public school educators," the union said. "Members of the (Chicago School Board) want to trample our collective bargaining rights and hinder our freedom of speech and right to protest."
Delegates for striking teachers are due to meet again on Tuesday to decide whether to end the walkout. Teachers picketed at dozens of schools on Monday, although the picketing was thinned by the Rosh Hashanah Jewish holiday.
"State law expressly prohibits the (union) from striking over non-economic issues, such as layoff and recall policies, teacher evaluations, class sizes and the length of the school day and year," the school district said in a statement. "The (union's) repeated statements and recent advertising campaign have made clear that these are exactly the subjects over which the (union) is striking."
No injunction request has been filed in an Illinois education labor dispute since 1984, when the state gave Chicago teachers the right to strike. It also deepens the rift between the Democratic mayor, a top fundraiser for President Barack Obama's campaign, and organized labor, which is needed to help the Democratic Party get out the vote for the November 6 election.
Gerald Maatman Jr., a labor and employment lawyer for Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago, said Flynn may be delaying the hearing in the hope that the two sides will settle their differences by Wednesday.
"My sense is they (Emanuel and school board) are using the court system to make their political points," Maatman said.
But Emanuel's strategy could backfire if the union delegates meeting on Tuesday decide that a compromise agreement their leadership has negotiated with Emanuel is not good enough and vote to continue the strike.
Emanuel's lead negotiator made clear on Monday that the school district does not want to reopen a compromise agreement struck with the union last Friday.
"We are done negotiating," Chicago School Board President David Vitale said.
If the union does not end the strike on Tuesday and Flynn rules the strike illegal, the union would face the prospect of sanctions for staying away from work.
Maatman said Flynn could levy fines or in an extreme case, he could order the arrests of the union leaders. Any injunction blocking the strike almost certainly would be appealed to a higher court.
Teachers walked off the job on September 10 over Emanuel's demand for sweeping education reforms, in the biggest U.S. labor action in a year.
Only a fraction of the 350,000 elementary, middle school and high school students affected by the strike have been using 147 schools manned by principals and non-union staff who have provided meals and activities for part of the day.
About 80 percent of Chicago public school students qualify for free meals due to low family incomes. Churches, community centers and park facilities also have tried to provide help.
"I do think going into the second week there is concern about the children being out of school longer and losing the good will of the public," said DePaul University professor Andrea Kayne Kaufman.
Opinion polls last week showed Chicago voters supporting the union.
Willie Nawls, who has four children in Chicago public schools, said he has been fortunate because his two oldest children in high school could take care of the younger two.
"I'm very upset," he said of the strike. "I'll be patient with the union and see what they try to work out."
As part of the compromise deal worked out on Friday, Emanuel had backed off on some demands for teacher evaluations, agreeing to phase in the use of student testing to rate teachers and dropping an insistence on pay based on merit.
Emanuel also is offering an average pay rise of more than 17 percent over four years, which the union accepts. But that would worsen the district's projected $665 million budget deficit for the current fiscal year and add pressure to close more schools to save on costs.
"There's a lot of mistrust of the board," said Amanda Lord, a striking Spanish language teacher picketing with two dozen others at Sayre Language Academy on the city's west side on Monday. "We had a tentative agreement coming into this year, which they did not fully honor. We want to be careful."
The showdown has highlighted a national debate over how to improve failing inner-city schools. Like Chicago, many school districts in large cities are losing students to the suburbs and have a high percentage of children from low-income households.