After 11 days, Chicago teachers strike to end as union, mayor reach deal

After 11 days, Chicago teachers strike to end as union, mayor reach deal
By Brendan O’Brien

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Chicago teachers will end their 11-day strike against the third-largest U.S. school system after their union and district officials reached a tentative settlement on Thursday of a labor battle that canceled classes for 300,000 students.

The five-year contract includes funding for more than 400 additional social workers and nurses, spending that the union argued was necessary to allow teachers to focus on curriculum, according to the union.

It was the second-longest in a wave of U.S. teachers’ strikes that played out across West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and California over the past few years, topped only by a three-week June strike in Union City, California.

Like the earlier walk-outs, Chicago teachers had pushed for more money to ease overcrowded classrooms and more support staff, in addition to seeking a wage increase for the district’s 25,000 teachers.

A tentative deal reached late on Wednesday fell apart when the two sides disagreed over how many missed school days for students – and days of pay for teachers – would be tacked onto the end of the school year. The agreement reached on Thursday calls for five, less than the 11 the union had sought, the union said.

It was an early test of first-term Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who campaigned on improving the city’s schools but said the school district could not afford the sharp increases in spending on counselors and nurses that teachers sought.

“It was important to me that we got our kids back in class. Enough is enough,” Lightfoot said during a news briefing after the deal was reached. “I think it was the right thing for our city and I am glad this phase is over.”

Union members expressed frustration that Lightfoot had been unwilling to extend the school year by 11 days to make up for the lost classes. Pressure for a settlement had ramped up in recent days as teachers braced for their first paychecks reduced by the strike, as well as the prospect of health insurance expiring on Friday.

“This fight is about black children and brown children in the city of Chicago getting the resources in their school community that they have been deprived of for generations,” union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said during a news conference after the announcement.

The tentative agreement includes enforceable staffing increases of 209 social workers, amounting to one in each school, a case manager in each school and 250 additional nurses, the union said.

The district also committed to spending $35 million to reduce oversized classrooms and prioritizing schools that serve the most vulnerable students.

City officials did not immediately respond to questions about contract details. The union had sought a three-year contract.

Crowds of red T-shirted teachers took to Chicago’s streets during the strike’s two weeks, picketing some of the 500 schools across the city and holding rallies and marches in downtown Chicago.

Democratic presidential contender U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren on Oct. 22 joined the striking teachers on the picket line, and strikers also joined in protests against Republican President Donald Trump during his visit on Monday to Chicago.

The work stoppage forced officials to cancel classes, but school buildings stayed open for children in need of a place to go during the strike.

The strike angered parents and students, particularly the families of student athletes, as the walkout coincided with state-wide play-offs, which teams have competed for months to attend, and where college talent scouts look for candidates for athletic scholarships.

The strike came seven years after Chicago teachers walked out for seven days over teacher evaluations and hiring practices. In 2016, teachers staged a one-day walkout to protest the lack of a contract and failure to stabilize the school system’s finances.

Chicago resident Jackie Rosa thanked teachers for their “fearless fight” and courage in holding out for a deal.

“You put your bodies on the line to bring TRUE EQUITY to our children,” Rosa said on Twitter. “Chicago owes you everything.”

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago, additional reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Scott Malone, Chizu Nomiyama, Bernadette Baum and Dan Grebler)

No school for Chicago students; teachers strike enters second week

No school for Chicago students; teachers strike enters second week
By Brendan O’Brien

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Classes for more than 300,000 students in Chicago were canceled for a third straight school day on Monday, although striking teachers reported progress over the weekend over issues such as class size and staffing in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the third-largest U.S. system.

Some 25,000 teachers went on strike last Thursday after their union was unable to reach an agreement with Chicago Public Schools over pay, overcrowding in schools and a lack of support staff, such as nurses and social workers.

At a news conference on Monday morning, Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said that over the weekend, the board of education gave the union written proposals about reduced class sizes and increased staffing.

But he said the board still had not met certain union demands, such as improved clinical services for students and staffing a school nurse in every school every day.

“We’re optimistic that this does not have to be long, but there does need to be a commitment of new resources,” Sharkey said.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot wrote a column for the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper on Sunday in which she noted her own background growing up in a disadvantaged school district, saying she understands how important educational equity is.

“I am disappointed that the Chicago Teachers Union has decided to strike,” she wrote. “I believe our contract offer is fair and respectful of the union’s leaders and their members. But my disappointment will absolutely not soften my resolve to reach an agreement.”

The strike is the latest in a recent wave of work stoppages in school districts across the United States in which demands for school resources have superseded calls for higher salaries and benefits.

In Chicago and elsewhere, teachers have emphasized the need to help underfunded schools, framing their demands as a call for social justice.

Although the latest work stoppage has forced officials to cancel classes, school buildings are staying open for children in need of a place to go.

The strike comes seven years after Chicago teachers walked out for seven days over teacher evaluations and hiring practices. In 2016, teachers staged a one-day walkout to protest the lack of a contract and failure to stabilize the school system’s finances.

The district has offered a raise for teachers of 16% over five years, enforceable targets for reducing class sizes and the addition of support staff across the district, according to Lightfoot, who was elected in April.

Lightfoot has previously said the union’s initial full list of demands would cost the district an additional $2.5 billion annually.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; additional reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; editing by Richard Pullin and David Gregorio)

Philadelphia refinery workers plan for uncertain future after jobs go up in smoke

FILE PHOTO: A worker leaves the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery carrying personal items, after employees were told the complex would shut down following a recent fire that caused significant damage, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Laila Kearney/File Photo

By Jarrett Renshaw and Laila Kearney

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) – At Erin Pub, a classic Irish neighborhood bar in Norwood, Pennsylvania, dozens of Philadelphia Energy Solutions Inc’s unionized employees crammed around the bar on Wednesday night, toasting to their friendships after learning that day of plans to close the refinery permanently after a devastating fire less than a week earlier.

They were openly worried about what the job loss would mean for their lives and their families. The refinery, the biggest on the East Coast, employed more than 1,000 people, including more than 600 unionized workers. Most were told their jobs would end by mid-July, while others would stay for two weeks beyond that.

“I have a kid I’m about to put through college, and I have no idea how I’m going to do that now,” said one worker, who had been with the refinery for more than a decade and who asked not to be identified.

The workers, both union and non-union, are not expected to get severance packages or health benefits, dumping them into a shrinking energy workforce without a parachute. In the months leading up the closure, the company saved cash by laying off a number of salaried employees, all who received standard severance packages, two sources familiar with the company told Reuters.

“We have some people who have spent their whole careers in the refinery. It’s not just a workplace, it’s a culture,” said Ryan O’Callaghan, president of the local United Steelworkers union and an operator at the refinery.

Many had been through the plant’s ups and downs, from good years earlier this decade to a bankruptcy process last year, but the fire has left them jobless in a region that only employs about 2,000 workers in the refining industry.

“These jobs are hard to duplicate. It’s not like there are a lot of refineries around here anymore, so it’s going to be a challenge,” said Steve Bussone, 54, a union lab technician with 23 years at the refinery.

He was hoping to retire in about ten years, but the closure may delay those plans. He was not preparing to start over at his age and said the potential lack of a severance package makes the whole process that more daunting.

The June 21 fire started in a butane vat and was followed by a series of explosions that ripped through the 335,000 barrel-per-day plant, the oldest on the East Coast, which destroyed at least one key unit and threw fragments onto nearby highways.

Just four days later, Chief Executive Mark Smith said the plant would close indefinitely. The company is planning a sale, but that process, and a subsequent reopening is not likely to happen for years, if at all.

“We cannot commit that (a restart) will occur,” Smith said in a letter to the union. “As such, all layoffs are expected to be permanent.”

For some, Wednesday’s official announcement was a confirmation of what they knew was inevitable after the massive fire.

The plant banked big profits in 2013 and 2014 as it used trains to bring crude oil in from the burgeoning shale business in North Dakota. However, after a 40-year-ban on crude oil exports was ended in 2015, oil drillers found it more profitable to ship crude to U.S. Gulf-area refiners by pipeline and to export destinations.

Since then, the refinery has struggled, even after reducing its credit obligations through a 2018 bankruptcy process and having slashed worker benefits and pensions. Its cash balance had dwindled by 40% to $87.7 million in just three months, leaving it in a precarious position before the fire.

Still, the decision came as a bitter blow, as previous owner Carlyle Group paid itself out nearly $600 million in dividend-style distributions, many taken through loans against the plant’s assets, since taking over the refinery in 2012.

Rich Francis, 28, a gasoline trader at the company, was one of the 150 or so non-union employees fired on Wednesday as the company seeks to shut the refinery.

Like the others, Francis got no severance package and his family’s health benefits run out at the end of July – which will hit hard, as his wife recently had a kidney transplant that requires expensive medication daily.

“They have given me so little runway here. It’s real disappointing in how the company handled this,” Francis said.

The United Steelworkers president said the union is expecting to negotiate severance packages and benefits for union members – but also pushing to rebuild the unit so the refinery can keep running.

“That’s what we’re fighting for,” said O’Callaghan, who started with PES in 2007. “The entire refinery runs without all units on all the time.”

(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw and Laila Kearney; additional reporting by Stephanie Kelly; writing by David Gaffen; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

Police fire teargas as strikes challenge Macron across France

Protestors light flares as they attend a demonstration during a national day of strike against reforms in Marseille, France, March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

By Ingrid Melander and Caroline Pailliez

PARIS (Reuters) – Police scuffled with protesters in Paris and fired teargas and water cannon in the western city of Nantes as strikes broke out across France on Thursday in a challenge to President Emmanuel Macron’s economic reforms.

Passengers walk on a platform at the Gare du Nord railway station during a nationwide rail workers protest against plans to reform the state-run rail service, in Paris, France March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Passengers walk on a platform at the Gare du Nord railway station during a nationwide rail workers protest against plans to reform the state-run rail service, in Paris, France March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Train conductors, teachers and air traffic controllers walked out to join more than 150 mostly peaceful marches in cities and towns – the first time public sector workers have joined rail staff in protests since Macron came to office in May.

“It’s a real mess,” said Didier Samba, who missed his morning commuter train to the suburbs and had more than an hour’s wait for the next at Paris’ Gare du Nord station.

Sixty percent of fast trains, 75 percent of inter-city trains and 30 percent of flights to and from Paris airports were canceled because of the strike.

About 13 percent of teachers walked off the job, the education ministry said, closing many primary schools. Electricity generation dropped by more than three gigawatts, the equivalent of three nuclear reactors, as those workers joined the strike, stoking government fears that the work stoppages could spread.

Public sector workers are angry with plans to cut the public sector headcount by 120,000 by 2022, including via voluntary redundancies, and about the introduction of merit-based pay.

Railway workers are worried by government plans to scrap job-for-life guarantees, automatic annual pay rises and generous early retirement.

“Discontent and worry are spreading very quickly,” said Jean-Marc Canon of UGFF-CGT, one of the largest unions.

While rail workers have planned a three-month rolling strike starting April 3, public sector workers have no plans yet for further action, but they will meet next week to consider it.

“Let me tell you that public sector workers are very mobilized,” Laurent Berger, the head of France’s largest union, the CFDT, told RTL radio.

Protestors attend a demonstration during a national day of strike against reforms in Marseille, France, March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

Protestors attend a demonstration during a national day of strike against reforms in Marseille, France, March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

PARADOX

Opinion polls show a paradox: a majority of voters back the strike but an even bigger majority back the reforms, including cutting the number of public sector workers and introducing merit-based pay.

That has led the government, which overhauled labor laws last year and is crafting a series of other reforms to unemployment insurance and training, to say it will stand by its plans, while keeping a close eye on protests.

On Tuesday, following a retirees’ march, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the government would change tack for the poorest 100,000 out of 7 million pensioners concerned by a tax hike, in a sign that a government that prides itself on being firm on reforms can make exceptions.

“What we need to avoid is that all the grievances fuse together, as was the case in 1995,” a government official said, referring to France’s biggest strike in decades, which forced the government at the time to withdraw reforms after striking public and private sector workers received huge popular support.

“The situation is very different from 1995. At the time there was a big discrepancy with what the government had promised during the elections and what they eventually did.”

Government officials may also have in mind the fact that the May 1968 revolt that convulsed France started 50 years ago, with a student protest at Nanterre university which few at the time expected to trigger unrest that blocked France for weeks.

Police fired teargas and water cannon at a group of hooded protesters who were hurling stones at them in Nantes.

The rest of the morning rally in Nantes was peaceful, with protesters marching behind a banner that read “All together against austerity, let’s defend public services.”

In Paris, police reported scuffles with young protesters ahead of rallies in the city, with a few shop windows damaged.

(Additional reporting by Richard Lough, Bate Felix and Julie Carriat in Paris and Guillaume Frouin in Nantes; Graphic by Leigh Thomas; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Andrew Heavens)

UPS air maintenance workers vote 98 percent to authorize strike

United Parcel Service aircraft are loaded with package containers at the UPS Worldport All Points International Hub in Louisville, Kentucky,

By Nick Carey

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Air maintenance workers at United Parcel Service Inc have voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike against the world’s largest package delivery company as contract talks remained deadlocked over health-care benefits, the workers’ union said on Monday.

Teamsters Local 2727 said 98 percent of those who took part in a mail-in ballot voted to authorize strike action. Eighty percent of the local’s 1,200 members participated in the ballot.

Contract talks have been ongoing for three years. If they remain deadlocked Monday, union representatives say they will begin the process that could lead to a strike within 60 days.

The main sticking point has been healthcare benefits. The Teamsters say UPS is demanding major concessions, including a massive spike in retiree contributions for health-care costs.

“UPS wants huge concessions and our members are not willing to take them,” Local 2727 President Tim Boyle said. “We’re not asking for anything we don’t already have and this demonstrates our members are willing to strike.”The air maintenance staff work at hubs around the United States, with more than one-third in Louisville, Kentucky, which is UPS’ main hub.

A strike could ground UPS’ airplanes, affecting packages shipped by air. While it would not halt all deliveries, it would be a major disruption.

The air maintenance workers are governed by the U.S. Railway Labor Act, which only permits strikes after negotiations and mediation have failed.

If talks remain deadlocked Monday, the Teamsters say they will ask the federal mediator overseeing negotiations to release the union from the bargaining table. If there is no resolution after a 30-day cooling-off period, a board appointed by the president would have to rule on a strike, which would take up to 30 days.

A strike would be highly unlikely during UPS’ crucial holiday peak season this year. But it could go before the presidential board before President Barack Obama leaves office in January.

Kevin Gawlik, an air mechanic for 20 years who works at a UPS air hub in Rockford, Illinois, voted to strike. He said the work is tough and can result in health problems, including hearing loss from working around jet engines.

“That’s why I’m willing to walk out and strike to keep my benefits,” Gawlik, 49, said.

(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)