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Chicago Teachers Union President Backs Off Strike Rhetoric

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said contract negotiations with the Chicago Public Schools have been going well, and she thinks a strike can be avoided.

After delivering the keynote address at an event honoring Rev. Martin Luther King at Northeastern Illinois University on Thursday, Lewis told reporters she's happy with the way things are progressing in contract talks.

Union sources told CBS 2 the positive tone at the negotiating table means a crippling strike, like the one CPS and Mayor Rahm Emanuel endured in 2012, is much less likely this time around. But Lewis wouldn't shut the door entirely on a walkout.

"People always worry about that strike. That's what happens when you don't get to an agreement, right? So at this point, that's not the way things are looking, but I'm not going to rule it out, either," she said. "I think people need to be prepared either way."


Lewis said she's heard reports that CPS plans to announce hundreds of layoffs at its administrative offices on Friday. Word of the central office layoffs comes just days after CPS failed to send out layoff notices to thousands of teachers, as CTU had feared.

CPS Chief Executive Officer Forrest Claypool had previously warned about the possibility of thousands of teacher layoffs at the start of the second semester to help plug a $480 million budget hole, but notices would have had to be sent to teachers on Monday for layoffs to begin at the start of the new semester on Feb. 8.

Lewis said all that is a good sign that teachers will not be laid off.

"I think the signal is that they're going to try to keep cuts as far away from the classroom as possible," she said.

She also said she believes CPS has been negotiating in good faith in the most recent rounds of talks.

"I think that happened after we took a strike authorization vote, though. Then, all of a sudden, things started changing. People really were looking to try to get something done," she said.

Lewis also criticized Gov. Bruce Rauner's proposal to authorize the state to take over CPS, and allow the district to enter bankruptcy protection, calling it an attempt to undermine progress at the bargaining table.

"We're doing fairly well. This was Governor Rauner's theater, which I feel was sabotage; because Forrest Claypool was in New York trying to sell bonds for CPS, and here comes Rauner at this moment in time. Why is he talking this craziness right now?" she said.

Lewis said the governor has no business suggesting the state take control of Chicago Public Schools when he can't get a state budget passed.

"First of all, it's not going to happen. A, he's delusional. B, I would say he's crazy, but you all always cut the good stuff I say about him. How are you going to go somewhere else, and … put your nose in somebody else's business when your own is raggedy?" she said. "He needs to clean up his own house first, and move on; but he really needs to let grown folks do what grown folks do, and he needs to sit down before he breaks something."

Contract negotiations between CTU and CPS have continued for more than a year, and pension issues have been a particular bone of contention, but Lewis hinted teachers might be willing to give up a longtime benefit, the so-called "pension pickup."

Since 1981, the city has agreed to pay for 7 percentage points of the 9 percent pension contribution for every CTU member. Last year, Lewis said Claypool's request to eliminate the pension pickup as strike-worthy, but on Thursday she said teachers might have to give that up to reach a deal.

"I think people understand what dire straits CPS is in," "I think people have sort of taken the fact that we're going to lose certain things in this contract"

She said that could "possibly" include the pension pickup.

However, Lewis said the union won't budge on incremental pay raises known as "step and lane" increases, which are based on how long someone has been teaching.

"That is the bedrock of our professionalism; so steps and lanes, no," she said.

Some political observers believe there is another reason behind the new harmony between CTU and the Emanuel administration. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been weakened by the Chicago Police Department scandals, and it's widely believed he's in no position to battle the Chicago Teachers Union again.

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