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Chicago Teachers Strike? Union Leader Karen Lewis Says Odds Are 'Very High'

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Any teacher will tell you how precious summer is, a brief window of relaxation after the grueling academic year. But this summer hasn't been the most pleasant for Chicago teachers.

First, the state legislature passed a law cutting into teachers' abilities to negotiate their contracts, modifying tenure and opening the door for a longer school day and year with no guarantees of additional pay. Then, new Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard revoked their scheduled four-percent pay raises for next year.

Now, Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis is suggesting that teachers might bite back.

In a radio interview that aired on Sunday, Lewis said that teachers may move to go on strike in the coming year. In fact, she described the likelihood of a strike vote as "very high."

“People are very upset. People feel disrespected," Lewis said, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. “We have teachers who have been extremely vilified for political purposes."

She backed off the comments at the South Side's Bud Billiken parade later Sunday, a festival that encourages students to head back to school. "That is not what that was about at all," WGN quoted her as saying. "What I would like to do is focus on what our real issues are, which is finding funding to close these crazy budget gaps."

If a strike were to go through, it would be the first since 1987. That four-week work stoppage ended with concessions from the school board, including a pay raise and smaller class sizes.

But SB7, the major state schools law that passed earlier this year, could keep that from happening this time around. One provision in the bill requires 75 percent of CTU members to agree in order to successfully go on strike. Jonah Edelman, head of the school-policy organization Stand for Children that lobbied hard for SB7, would later gloat that he had outsmarted the CTU on that point. Based on their research, no strike had ever passed with more than 50 percent of union members participating.

CTU "took that deal, misunderstanding, probably not knowing the statistics about voting history," Edelman said in a later analysis of how the bill came about. "And we insisted that we decide all the fine print about the process - she (Karen Lewis) was happy to let us do that."

A CTU spokeswoman later said that wasn't true. "We would not have agreed with this if we did not believe that we had a viable option in collective bargaining," the spokeswoman said to education blog Catalyst Chicago.

If Lewis's remarks are any indication, that threshold may well be put to the test before long.