Chicago teachers authorize one-day walkout

By Dave McKinney

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The Chicago Teachers Union's governing body voted on Wednesday to send its 27,000 members and support staff off the job for one day next month to protest slow-moving contract talks and inadequate education funding.

The planned walkout, which Chicago Public Schools (CPS) administrators characterized as illegal, represents the latest jolt for the nation's third largest public school system that faces a $1.1 billion structural budget deficit, caused largely by escalating annual pension payments.

The walkout was announced early Wednesday evening after the union's governing body voted overwhelmingly in favor of the work stoppage despite earlier reports that the approach favored by CTU president Karen Lewis had fueled dissension within the union's ranks.

After the vote, CPS asserted the CTU vote could embolden Governor Bruce Rauner in his push to take over the financially troubled system.

"We're particularly disappointed that the CTU leadership has given Governor Rauner more ammunition in his misguided attempt to bankrupt and take over Chicago Public Schools," CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said in a statement.

The CTU's so-called "Day of Action" was aimed at protesting decisions by CPS to suspend certain pay raises for teachers and to force them to contribute a greater share of their paychecks toward pensions, both cost-cutting steps the union has called unfair labor practices.

But after CPS backed off implementing the plan that would have cost teachers 7 percent of their earnings while saving the district $65 million, the union broadened the purpose of the scheduled walkout to protest the unwillingness of Rauner and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to embrace unspecified revenue increases for the state's public schools.

"People are very, very upset and want to do something serious," Lewis told supporters at a Chicago labor hall, where her members voted 486-124 in support of the daylong walkout.

Before Wednesday's vote by the CTU House of Delegates, Claypool condemned the union for promoting a walkout he characterized as "an illegal strike that would take a critical day of instruction away form our students to say nothing of encouraging teachers to break the law."

Appearing at a Chicago Board of Education meeting, Claypool said the district was prepared "to keep students safe, fed and engaged" in the event of a walkout but did not indicate how it intended to carry out that plan in the system's 600 schools.

The labor strife comes at the same time Rauner has called for a state takeover of CPS in a move that could choke off the district from loans on which it has depended for cash flow.

(Reporting by Dave McKinney; Editing by Bernard Orr)