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Chicago teachers end strike, school to resume Wednesday

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago public school teachers voted on Tuesday to end their strike and resume classes in the third-largest U.S. school district, ending a confrontation with Mayor Rahm Emanuel that focused national attention on struggling urban schools.

Jacqueline Robinson (2nd L) and other members of the Chicago Teachers Union celebrate the end of their strike in Chicago September 18, 2012. Chicago Teachers Union leaders voted on Tuesday to suspend a strike that closed the nation's third-largest school district for more than a week, ending a confrontation with Mayor Rahm Emanuel that focused national attention on how to reform failing urban schools. REUTERS/John Gress

Some 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.

“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. I can guarantee you that.”

The delegates decided to suspend their strike by a voice vote on Tuesday. Lewis said the entire membership of the union will cast a formal vote in about two weeks to ratify the 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.

Lewis led the walkout on September 10, the first Chicago teachers’ strike in 25 years, to protest Emanuel’s demand for sweeping education reforms. Some 350,000 public school students were affected by the largest U.S. labor dispute in a year.

Emanuel on Monday tried to get a court order ending the strike, angering the union. It was not clear if a court hearing scheduled for Wednesday on Emanuel’s legal request would proceed.

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The strike has focused attention on a national debate over how to improve failing schools. Emanuel, backed by a powerful reform movement, believes poorly performing schools should be closed and reopened with new staff or converted to “charter” schools that often are non-union and run by private groups.

Teachers want more resources put into neighborhood public schools to help them succeed. Chicago teachers say many of their students live in poor and crime-ridden areas and this affects their learning. More than 80 percent of public school students qualify for free meals based on low family incomes.

The decision by the union to walk out of classrooms eight days ago rather than accept Emanuel’s reforms galvanized the weakened U.S. labor movement after a string of national defeats.

Retired Chicago teacher Lance Cohn, who said he went through nine strikes while he was working, stressed the unity of teachers and the support of parents during the strike.

Labor unions in the United States have taken a beating in recent years, he said. “I think we’re starting to bounce back,” he said.

Unions lost battles recently in Wisconsin, where Republicans stripped public sector unions such as teachers of most powers to bargain, Indiana’s decision to make payment of union dues voluntary, and the vote of two California cities to curb the pensions of government workers.

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President Barack Obama was silent throughout the nasty dispute in his home city between Emanuel, who formerly was his top White House aide, and a major national union that supports him.

The strike had raised concern that the rift could damage union support for Obama and Democrats in the run-up to the November 6 presidential and congressional elections. Teacher rallies drew support from other unions in the city and from unions in neighboring states such as Wisconsin and Indiana.

Parents have scrambled to find care for children during the strike but opinion polls showed most supported the union.

Some delegates said they wanted the strike to end because they did not want to lose the support of parents inconvenienced by a long dispute.

The contract that was agreed with Emanuel includes several compromises, including on his key demand that teacher evaluations be based on results of standardized tests of student in reading, math and science. Test results will be taken into consideration but not as much as Emanuel originally wanted.

Many Chicago public school students perform poorly on the tests. The union distrusts Emanuel, fearing he will use the results to close scores of schools with poor academic records now that the strike has been called off, leading to mass teacher layoffs.

“I hope he agrees to this in good faith and carries out this contract,” Lewis said.

The proposed deal calls for an average 17.6 percent pay raise for teachers over four years and some benefit improvements. Chicago teachers make an average of about $76,000 annually, according to the school district.

Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Bill Trott and Lisa Shumaker