Updated: Champaign teachers 'overwhelmingly' vote to authorize a strike

Updated 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

CHAMPAIGN — Champaign teachers are still hoping to reach a deal on a contract with the school district without striking, and two bargaining sessions are scheduled this month.

Union members voted "overwhelmingly" Tuesday afternoon to authorize a strike, said Cathy Mannen, president of the union that represents them.

The union has not set a strike date, though, and has collective bargaining sessions scheduled for Oct. 15 and Oct. 24.

The vote happened at a general membership meeting at Centennial High School, and Mannen estimated that 500 teachers attended. She said there's no calculation yet of the percentage who approved the strike authorization, but said the members made clear that the union's negotiating team can decide to strike if it decides that is necessary.

The Champaign school district issued a statement last week saying it was "surprised and disappointed" by the strike-authorization vote.

"We firmly believe that the issues on the table can be resolved through continued collective bargaining," the statement said. "We value and respect our faculty and staff and want to work with the CFT to come to a successful conclusion to these negotiations."

The Champaign Federation of Teachers has been negotiating a new contract since April with the school district, and the two sides have been working with a federal mediator.

The district asked to negotiate a one-year contract when collective bargaining started, Mannen said.

The teachers' contract expired June 30, and that was a one-year extension of a previous three-year contract with the school district. The union represents more than 800 teachers.

The union took the strike-authorization vote because it's concerned about the pace of negotiations, Mannen said. The sticking point is salary, she said.

"We don't feel like the district has made progress," Mannen said, and teachers who have been working hard since August, and in some cases, July, want a fair contract that reflects their dedication.

Last week, school board President Sue Grey said the school board respects and is proud of its teachers.

"We're not trying to slight anybody," Grey said Thursday.

The school district's statement last week said it "has twice modified its salary proposals, and these offers are above a step increase and exceed the increase in the cost of living."

"(The union) has not responded to these proposals and instead has decided to ask its membership to authorize a strike," the statement said.

A strike authorization vote is when the union's negotiating team goes back to its membership to report on how negotiations are going, Illinois Federation of Teachers spokesman David Comerford said last week.

The union members then give the team feedback and take a vote to give the bargaining team authorization to call a strike if necessary, Comerford said. The vote has to do with the union's constitution and is different than the intent-to-strike vote the union would have to file with the state Educational Labor Relations Board at least 10 days before striking.

Comerford said a new state law has changed the timeline on which downstate teachers strike.

After the school district and union have been working with a federal mediator, either side can declare an impasse at any time. Both sides then must submit, within seven calendar days, their final offers to the Educational Labor Relations Board. The labor board must then post the offers on its website for two weeks, after which a strike could happen.

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