December 14, 2015 / 12:21 PM / 3 years ago

Chicago teachers' union votes to authorize a strike

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago public school teachers have voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, preparing for what could be the second walkout at the financially troubled system in less than four years and adding to pressures on Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Demonstrators march during a Chicago Teachers Union protest in Chicago March 27, 2013. REUTERS/John Gress

Teachers in the nation’s third-largest school system voted over three days last week on whether to allow a strike, if union leaders decide lack of progress in contract negotiations means a work stoppage is necessary.

A total of 88 percent of all teachers - or 96 percent of those who voted - agreed to authorize the strike, the union said in a statement on Monday. Under state law, at least 75 percent of union members must approve.

The potential for a strike increases the political strain on Emanuel, a Democrat and former chief of staff to President Barack Obama. Protesters have called for his resignation since last month’s release of a video showing a white police officer shooting to death a black teen. The officer, Jason Van Dyke, was charged with murder.

“Chicago Teachers Union members do not want to strike, but we do demand that you listen to us,” said union Vice President Jesse Sharkey in a statement. “Do not cut our schools, do not lay off educators or balance the budget on our backs.”

Union President Karen Lewis has cautioned members to save 25 percent of their pay in anticipation of a long strike next year.

The district, which serves about 400,000 students at more than 600 schools, faces a $1.1 billion structural deficit and thousands of possible teacher layoffs after Christmas. The teachers’ union said that the system wants teachers to give back $653 million worth of benefits.

Emanuel has blamed state government, which gives Chicago schools 15 percent of state education funding, though it accounts for 20 percent of the state’s public school students.

Emanuel spokeswoman Lauren Huffman that the mayor finds cuts “unconscionable” and hopes that the union will join the city and school system in demanding a fair funding system.

Emanuel already has a tense relationship with the teachers’ union, starting with the seven-day 2012 strike - the district’s first in 25 years - and exacerbated by the decision to close 50 schools in 2013.

The system’s former chief executive, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, pleaded guilty in October to fraud related to a no-bid contract for her former employer, infuriating parents and teachers who had already seen budget cutbacks.

Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Matthew Lewis

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