CHICAGO — Teachers with Chicago Public Schools have begun voting on whether to strike this school year, but a difference in the voting method has drawn criticism.
Members of the Chicago Teachers Union on Wednesday began voting on whether to authorize union leadership to call for a strike. Rather than a private voting system, the union is using a "petition" method where teachers' votes are written on a sheet for any union member to see.
With the new method, votes are collected in schools, where teachers mark their vote next to their signature. The method is different from last year's vote, which used ballots.
In an editorial, the Tribune said the approach fostered intimidation and compared the union vote to sham elections held by Suddam Hussein in Iraq and Kim Jong Un in North Korea.
Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, defended the changes, saying last year's vote was more costly and required a lot of organizing and planning. The switch to a petition vote was done to save money and time, he said.
"It was a huge organizational endeavor," Sharkey said.
Last year's vote cost at least $100,000 as the union had to hire workers to collect ballots from 550 work sites, not to mention the cost of ballots, boxes and seals needed to make it a more secret vote, Sharkey said.
The move to a petition vote has been met with some criticism, including the Tribune editorial board, which said a public vote allows members to shame others into approving the strike.
Sharkey said the comparisons to dictators were unfair and distorts the reasons why a petition vote was held.
"The Tribune has been a shrill opponent of the CTU and public education for so long now that I'm never really surprised," Sharkey said. "It's a new low, even for them."
Under state law, the CTU needs 75 percent of its members to approve a strike. That is an unusually high threshold, Sharkey said.
"If 80 percent of our members vote to approve with 80 percent turnout, that would still be a fail," Sharkey said.
Sharkey said a petition vote is more in line with union tradition, where for decades large issues like strikes were determined by voice votes in crowded halls. Sharkey said the approach allowed for thorough discussion.
"It's a really important part of the union that people listen to and talk to their co-workers," Sharkey said. "Unions don't work unless people can argue with each other and engage each other in a way that talks about what we want to do together."
Members will continue to vote through Friday, and Sharkey said an announcement on the strike could come by Monday morning.
Teachers have taken to Twitter to announce their support for the vote.