CHICAGO (Reuters) - Thousands of Chicago teachers and other union workers marched through downtown Chicago on Friday afternoon after a day-long strike to demand a contract and more money for education while school officials moved to block future walk-outs.
The teachers picketed schools in the country’s third-largest district, which has a $1.1 billion deficit and because of its low credit rating must pay crippling interest rates to borrow money. The strike affected close to 400,000 students.
“We are here for not only the children of Chicago. We’re here for the young adults of Chicago. We’re here for people that deserve and are entitled to a real future,” Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis shouted to thousands of union members at the rally and march.
The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) are at the center of a power struggle between Illinois’ Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, who wants to weaken unions and take control of the district, and union-backed Democrats who control the state legislature.
Both the union and CPS management want the state to rescue under-funded Chicago teachers’ pension plans and to overhaul the state school-funding formula so the system gets more money.
A target of Friday’s protests, Rauner called the strike illegal. “It’s shameful that Chicago’s children are the victims in this raw display of political power,” he said in a statement.
Lewis, who led a seven-day teachers’ strike in 2012, accused Rauner of attempting to destroy Chicago’s schools.
Schools Chief Executive Forrest Claypool filed a complaint with a state labor panel in an attempt to block future union walk-outs of this type and to seek reimbursement to CPS for strike-related costs.
Also on Friday, Illinois’ Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan said the state does not have the authority to take over CPS and to block its ability to borrow, an opinion Claypool said should put Rauner’s CPS takeover pursuits “to rest.”
Chicago teachers have worked without a contract since July.
Erik Young, a social studies teacher at King College Preparatory High School, raised his fists in the air as motorists honked horns to show support for the picket line outside the school.
“We have so many issues,” Young said. “Hopefully it sends the message that we are tired of not having a contract for 10 or 12 months.”
Fast food, airport and university workers joined in the demonstrations on Friday, and the afternoon rally closed streets around the state’s James R. Thompson Center in downtown Chicago.
The protests focused on a nine-month state budget standoff between Rauner and Democrat lawmakers that also has affected funding for social service programs and public universities.
Because of the budget impasse, the district’s call for $480 million in state assistance to make a required June pension payment for teachers has gone unanswered.
Chicago’s Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who controls the school system, opposed the strike.
“I don’t want to see our kids punished on their education. They get one shot at it. I believe they belong in the classroom, learning,” Emanuel said.
Additional reporting by Karen Pierog; Writing by Dave McKinney; Editing by Dan Grebler and Fiona Ortiz