Champaign teachers are upping the ante in their contract negotiations.
Threatening to use the most potent weapon in its arsenal, the union representing Champaign's teachers plans to hold a strike authorization vote even as negotiations continue.
School board members and administrators call the planned vote "premature," but the union plan mimics the aggressive tactic employed recently by the Chicago Teachers Union and subsequently adopted by other teachers' unions across the state.
This tactic is designed to evade the process established in reform legislation that was passed by the Illinois General Assembly and aimed at making it harder for unionized teachers to go on strike.
Champaign schools Superintendent Judy Wiegand expressed disappointment over the planned vote because "neither side has gotten to the point of making its last, best offer." Premature though the planned vote may be, contracts negotiations are all about leverage, and the union plans to use what leverage it has.
The only issue left unresolved in the planned one-year contract is money.
It is, of course, pointless to urge restraint on the part of union negotiators. No matter what the state's fiscal circumstances or what financial uncertainties confront the school district, the union sees its job as getting the best possible deal for its members.
That is not how the public views these kind of standoffs. Hammered by a brutal recession, a lagging recovery, a 9.1 percent unemployment rate and a bankrupt state that passes, but does not necessarily deliver, appropriations to local school districts, taxpayers take a dim view of threatened walkouts and higher taxes.
As justification for their pay demands, teachers point out that they were denied an increase in the last school year, although they did receive a scheduled 1.7 percent step increase for another year's tenure. This year, the district has offered an increase in addition to the step increase, but not enough to get the union to accept.
Needless to say, a teachers' walkout would be devastating to Champaign students and parents, and the union is counting on that prospect to win further concessions. At the same time, the district cannot allow itself to be so cowed by that prospect that it pays more than is prudent in these troubled times.