CHAMPAIGN – Union leaders are setting up communications systems and making other preparations for a strike Oct. 31 if contract negotiations don't make progress.
"We're taking this seriously and doing all the things we have to do to prepare members for a strike," said Jon Nadler, field service director for the Illinois Federation of Teachers. "We're acting on the vote last week, executing what members want us to do."
On Oct. 12, teachers met after school to review contract progress. At that meeting, they took an intent-to-strike vote that passed by a 452-to-10 margin. The union represents about 800 district teachers.
The two sides met with a federal mediator for the first time Wednesday night, a session that lasted more than five hours, but union leaders say little progress was made.
"We saw no movement in the board's position on salary and other key language items, even with the help of the mediator," said Champaign Federation of Teachers President Greg Novak, a librarian at Jefferson Middle School.
"The good news is, we have a meeting with the mediator scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 25," said Assistant Superintendent Beth Shepperd. "We feel like slight progress was made and with hard work and compromise we can do it. The mediator was beneficial, and as long as we're talking, that's good news."
Novak said district officials seem to be focusing on facilities, public relations, data collection and other priorities. "A contract with teachers doesn't appear to be a priority," he said.
This year, a change in state retirement rules added a new dimension to contract talks. Earlier this year, the state capped end-of-career salary raises at 6 percent, down from the 20 percent that's been the rule for years, by penalizing districts paying more.
"We had high hopes of settlement Wednesday, but there was no movement in salary numbers," Nadler said. "There was movement on some things, but not at the same level as salaries. We told the negotiator we're doing things differently this time. We're not going to let this contract go into January. Teachers have the right to have attention directed at their salaries."
He said midnight Oct. 30 is the deadline for settlement and if there's no progress, teachers will then activate phone and e-mail lists to let everyone know the strike is on for the next day.
Although district e-mail was down Thursday until about 2 p.m., teachers eventually got union communications that included strike preparation instructions. They include:
– Choosing "strike captains" at each school to pass questions on to union leadership and to pass along news and instructions. They will meet at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 25, at IFT headquarters at 1802 Fox Drive.
– Organizing a phone tree and an e-mail tree so all members can be kept up-to-date on events as they unfold.
– Making plans for day care and refreshments for picketing members.
The union is making arrangements with the Champaign Schools Credit Union and the American Federation of Teachers to provide interest-free loans for teachers if they strike.
And if there's a strike, the union will stage rallies at high-visibility locations like the Mellon Building and Carrie Busey, Bottenfield and Stratton schools
Union members this year have vowed they won't allow a repeat of what happened after their previous contract expired June 30, 2002. Talks went into January 2003 before the two sides came up with an agreement that paid 4 percent salary increases for two years and a 4.5 percent increase the third year.
That contract expired June 30.
"The problem is, people are more tired than anything," Novak said. "This should have been done in August. Teachers are having to do more work, more bookkeeping, more data management, and having the staff happy doesn't seem to be a priority. "
Garden Hills teacher Betty Rowell said for teachers, it's business as usual until union leaders say otherwise. "We do what we do to the best of our ability until we find it we're not going in," Rowell said. "A strike affects everyone, parents, teachers, members of the community. It's strange there's not more movement."