By Dave McKinney and Justin Madden
CHICAGO(Reuters) - Decried as illegal by critics, 27,000 Chicago public schoolteachers planned on Friday to leave their classrooms to protest the lack of a contract and failure to stabilize the finances of the third largest U.S. public school system.
The Chicago Teachers Union's one-day strike comes at a point when educators have worked without a labor agreement since last July. The district, with its $1.1 billion deficit, also faces the possibilities of state funding cuts and a state takeover pushed by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, a Republican.
With more than two dozen union events planned, Friday’s forced day off for about 400,000 Chicago school students represents the highest-profile action in a multi-union, multi-purposed mass protest. Besides Chicago Public Schools' precarious finances, demonstrators intend to rally against what they have described as Rauner’s assault on unions and his unwillingness to fund social-service programs and public universities.
Already facing furloughs, the CTU has hinted at a full-blown teachers’ strike in mid-May over pay increases that are threatened and a desire to protect a retirement perk for teachers where CPS picks up the majority of their pension premiums.
Both Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, which controls the Chicago school system, and Rauner have declared Friday’s walkout illegal. Without offering details, schools CEO Forrest Claypool said on Thursday the district is preparing a legal action against the strike but said teachers participating in the walkout would not face punishment.
"When adults play politics, students suffer," Claypool said. "Instead of forcing our students to miss out on a day of learning, we need to work together to fix a broken state funding system.”
When CTU President Karen Lewis brought her request for a daylong strike to her membership last week, the 486-124 vote authorizing the walkout showed some dissent, but Lewis warned her members not to waver.
“If you let Claypool scare you into crossing the picket line, expect worse things to happen,” Lewis wrote on her Facebook page. “They will never be satisfied with three furlough days. They want deep cuts and to drive a wedge between you and your sisters and brothers.”
Part of the school system’s financial struggles rests with its inability to navigate around a nine-month state budget standoff between Rauner and Democrats controlling the legislature. CPS’ call for $480 million in state assistance to pay a required June pension payment for teachers has gone unanswered, leaving the payment in doubt.
(Editing by Tom Brown)