Suburban Chicago teachers conduct seven-day strike

More than 150 high school teachers in the McHenry High School District 156, 60 miles northwest of Chicago, Illinois ended their seven-day strike October 13 after agreeing to a new labor agreement. Teachers walked out on October 1 in the first strike in the district in 30 years after failing to reach an agreement with the District 156 Board of Education on a new contract.

District 156 teachers had previously been working without a new contract for almost two months prior to the strike after their previous contract expired in the middle of August. Under the three-year contract they ratified instructors will keep their current salary schedule for the next two years without receiving any base salary increase.

The strike began after the McHenry Community High School Teachers Association and District 156 failed to agree on a new contract in a closed-door bargaining session September 30. Teachers rejected District 156’s offer at the time of a three-year contract consisting of meager salary increases of 2.09 percent in 2015, 1.85 percent in 2016, and 1.86 percent in 2017.

Over the course of seven school days, teachers picketed outside the district’s McHenry Community High School East and West campuses, affecting approximately 2,600 students between the two high schools. The central issues for striking teachers were salary increases and the coverage of heath insurance premiums.

Under the previous contract, the average starting pay for high school teachers in District 156 is ranked 12th out of 14 among school districts in the region, or $4,343 below average starting pay.

During negotiations prior to the strike, teachers voiced the demands for the district to fully compensate for the increases in out-of-pocket health insurance premiums in addition to maintaining previous stipends of $7,000 for individuals and $15,500 for families. The offer initially put forth by District 156 would have covered only 50 percent of the increases to health insurance premiums, with teachers having to pay the remainder out of pocket.

Teachers also sought to prevent the school board from eliminating the teachers’ present salary schedule under the old contract, a system of guaranteed annual percentage salary increases based on the numbers of years teachers have been employed by the school district. The school board sought to replace this with a system granting flat salary increases with the addition of bonuses to teachers holding graduate level degrees.

Opposition was also expressed to the district’s recent pay cuts in both coaching and co-curricular activity positions. The District 156 board of education was reported to have justified the bareness of its contract offerings as “fair” in the context of “the current economic environment.”

After the strike began, District 156 Board of Education targeted teachers with intimidating tactics, including canceling all health insurance policies as of October 1. This included teachers not participating in the strike while on the leave according to the Family Medical Leave Act. The teachers on FMLA included at least one educator who had just given birth and another who is fighting cancer.

The school board ultimately backed down on the cancellation of health insurance for both teachers on strike and on FMLA at the last minute due to popular outrage over the efforts to blackmail workers into submission.

In addition, the official High School District 156 website smeared teachers’ demands for better pay and fewer health care contributions. The District 156 teachers’ Facebook page showcased a screen shot of a dubious info-graphic on the rise of teachers’ pay that appeared on the District 156 website.

Under the new contract, teachers will receive an average 3.6 percent step increase to their base salary schedule annually over the first two years, with the current salary structure slated to expire at the end of the second year of the contract. This essentially amounts to an acceptance of the school board’s goal of eliminating the salary schedule.

District 156 teachers also will receive a meager one-time bonus at the conclusion of the current fiscal year of $700 for teachers earning less than $50,000 and $625 for all those earning above that amount.

The contract also provides for a committee of union members, board members and an “independent resource” to “establish the new way the association will be paid.”

The strike of District 156 teachers followed another strike by teachers in the northwest Illinois suburbs. Teachers working in four pre-kindergarten to eighth grade schools in Prospect Heights School District 23 struck for seven days after failing to agree on a new three-year contract. District 23 teachers are paid the second to the lowest salary rate among neighboring school districts.

In both instances, the struggles of striking teachers in the Illinois northwest suburbs were systematically isolated by the Chicago Teachers Union (CT), which refused to mobilize a broader fight among teachers against the cuts school districts are seeking to impose.

The CTU, representing the third-largest school district in the US, has instead played a central role in imposing budget cuts proposed by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel. These cuts include the elimination of nearly 1,900 CPS positions, (containing especially draconian cuts to special education programs), $200 million in spending, along with a $30 million increase in funding for charter schools.

These latest attacks on teachers and the basic social right to public education, facilitated by the Democratic Party and imposed by the union, come following the CTU’s preemptive shutdown of the 2012 Chicago teachers strike and the 2013 agreement between CPS and the CTU that resulted in thousands of teachers layoffs and the closure of 50 Chicago public schools.