Chicago Teachers Union leaders will meet on Tuesday to decide whether to end a strike that has closed the nation's third-largest school district for more than a week and focused national attention on how to reform failing urban schools.
Some 800 union delegates representing the 29,000 teachers and support staff in Chicago Public Schools will meet at 3 p.m. (2000 GMT) in a second attempt to try to get approval from delegates for a proposed new contract negotiated with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
The group, which can end the strike with a simple majority, decided on Sunday to continue the walkout for two days so they could review details of the proposed new contract. But there was some optimism about the coming vote from the union.
"My feeling is that we go back to work tomorrow," David Temkin, a school social worker picketing on Tuesday. "I think we've done everything we set out to do. We all want to be back in school and we don't want to lose the parent support."
Teachers union President Karen Lewis, who backed the tentative agreement, said she was "always an optimist" but delegates "very well could" vote down the agreement and keep striking.
"Teachers like to see what it is they are going to be voting on because we've been burnt by CPS in the past," she said.
Lewis led the walkout on September 10, the first in 25 years, to protest Emanuel's demand for sweeping education reforms aimed at improving Chicago's struggling inner-city schools. Some 350,000 public school students were out of school for a seventh day on Tuesday in the largest U.S. labor dispute in a year.
Emanuel tried and failed to get a court order ending the strike on Monday, angering the union. The judge will consider the complaint on Wednesday.
The outcome of Tuesday's meeting may depend not only on how union delegates feel about the tentative agreement, but also on how they react to Emanuel's decision to go to court to stop the strike. In a statement released on Monday, the union called Emanuel a bully and said the legal move was "vindictive."
STAKES ARE HIGH
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.
President Barack Obama has been silent about the nasty dispute in his home city between his former top White House aide, Emanuel, and a major national union that supports him.
The strike has fed 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 have drawn strong support from other unions in the city and from unions in neighboring states like Wisconsin and Indiana.
The teachers union on Tuesday said members would join with striking local workers at a local Walmart distribution center who are protesting working conditions, saying a foundation supported by the company's founding Walton family has given millions of dollars to "pro-voucher, pro-privatization groups" attacking unionized schools.
Parents have scrambled to find care for children during the strike. But in the first week most parents and Chicago voters supported the union, according to local opinion polls.
At a rally on Tuesday outside the headquarters of Chicago Public Schools that drew several hundred demonstrators, Denise Murphy, a 36-year-old mother of five children, four of them enrolled in public schools, supported strikers' demands.
"Obviously, we want our kids back in school," she said. "But what good is it when they're in a class with 35 or 40 other kids and they don't have books?"
The contract that union delegates will consider includes numerous compromises from Emanuel, including a key demand that teacher evaluations be based on results of standardized tests of student 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 once the strike is called off, leading to mass teacher layoffs.
"They are extraordinarily concerned about it," Lewis said on Sunday of rumors that Emanuel may close more than 100 schools. "It undergirds just about everything they talked about."
The proposed deal calls for an average 17.6 percent 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.
A decision by the teachers to reject the deal and continue the strike would throw the compromise deal into doubt. Emanuel's chief negotiator, School Board President David Vitale, said on Monday the district was done negotiating. The district already faces a $665 million budget deficit in the current fiscal year.
If the strike continues, attention will turn to the court hearing on Wednesday when Cook County Circuit Judge Peter Flynn will consider whether the strike is legal.