Chicago Teacher: Why We May Strike Again

Chicago Teachers have been without a contract for more than a year. They spearheaded a citywide day of action with other unions and community groups on April 1, 2016. Photo: Joe Brusky (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Update, September 26: The Chicago Teachers Union announced this morning that members have voted to authorize a strike, with 90.6 percent turnout and 95.6 percent voting yes. The union's House of Delegates will meet September 28 to decide the next step. A strike could begin as soon as October 11.

Chicago teachers are voting September 21-23 on whether to authorize another open-ended strike.

I remember how worried I was as a rank-and-file teacher on the eve of the 2012 strike vote. I thought we’d never get a majority. The overwhelming yes vote by 90 percent of members came as a huge surprise to me—and gave us all extra motivation to unite on the picket line.

Later I learned that the activists and leaders who’d been organizing for the strike vote weren’t so surprised. Delegates were keeping in close touch, tracking our support in each school to make sure we got the 75 percent member vote that we would need to legally strike.

This time around, I’m one of the people reaching out to my co-workers and students’ parents to build support for a possible strike… though that doesn’t mean I’m not nervous.

Our contract has been expired for more than a year. We already voted by 88 percent in December to authorize a strike, and walked out for one day in April.

The union is holding this second vote partly to discourage any legal attacks from the mayor or governor over technicalities—and partly to solidify our solidarity.


Union Allies

Our April 1 strike focused on more than just our contract. We spearheaded a citywide day of action with other unions and community groups—for instance, supporting organizing at O’Hare Airport and opposing the shutdown of a Nabisco plant.

All the local universities showed solidarity. Many are being hit hard with cuts. Chicago State University, where many African American teacher candidates get their credentials, is closing its doors. I spent half the day at CSU, and half protesting in Chicago’s downtown Loop.

And in August, we teamed up with Labor Notes and various local unions to host a Troublemakers School, where 250 rank-and-file activists attended organizing workshops and exchanged powerful stories.

A Verizon worker told how management couldn’t get the work done during their recent strike—because the bosses barely understand what workers do. A worker from the former Republic Windows and Doors factory described how they occupied their plant and won the right to buy out the company.

Organizing is hard work. But these inspiring stories reminded me how rewarding that work can be.

As usual, the newspapers and TV are parroting the mayor’s line that our pension is the cause of all of Chicago’s financial problems.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel claims he’s offering a 13 percent pay increase. But he wants to eliminate the district’s 7 percent payment toward our pensions, which he insists the city can’t afford.

This makes no sense, since the pension is actually part of our pay. Chicago teachers don’t get Social Security—those contributions are diverted into the district pension system. It’s all we have to retire on.

The city's payment toward our pensions was originally set up as a stopgap measure at a time when the city was financially strapped. In exchange for accepting wage freezes, we were promised future pension payments. To demand that we pick up the pension cost now is a pay cut, and not a small one.

For years our union has been making the point that there’s plenty of money out there to fully fund our schools. That’s why we’re demanding a progressive tax in Illinois to make the wealthy pay their fair share, and demanding that the mayor fight to recover the money he’s lost to big banks in bad deals.


Another constant storyline in the news is that teachers are overpaid and don’t work hard enough. But the truth is that teachers put in extraordinary amounts of time off the clock.

We’re in front of students from clock-in till clock-out, except for a one-hour prep period. That’s not nearly enough time to plan lessons, grade papers, and meet with parents. Just helping one student who comes in with a crisis can take up the whole hour.

So everyone comes early or stays late, unpaid. School starts at 8:45 a.m., but I arrive at 6:30 or 7. My colleagues and I meet straight through our unpaid lunch. And every night I haul home big bags of grading.

The pressures have only gotten worse as we’ve suffered wave after wave of layoffs and closings. The decline in the percentage of Black teachers has been stunning. This year the district closed and consolidated schools again, breaking its moratorium pledge. In August it announced 1,000 more layoffs.

Special education teachers, nurses, and social workers have been among those hit hardest. A high school with 1,400 students has just a half-time social worker. We’re fighting to get a librarian in every school, and gym class every day.

The same week the district announced the latest layoffs, it held a job fair. Administrators do their best to get around seniority rules so they can hire cheaper, inexperienced staff.


Class size is another perennial problem. The district claimed it was closing underutilized schools, but now the displaced students are crowded in elsewhere. Meanwhile they’re pouring money into privately run charter schools, sometimes inside our own public school buildings.



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All these issues are part of our union’s ongoing fight—though they’re not all issues we can legally bargain or strike over.

One issue we’re raising at the bargaining table is standardized testing. None of the private-school or charter-school kids have to endure such a battery of tests. We want contract language against over-testing.

So far, the city isn’t interested—though this is an area where our union proposals would actually save money. The tests are costly, both in required equipment and in teachers’ time. They tie up computers that could otherwise be available to students for coursework.

Meanwhile companies like Pearson are making a bundle developing the tests and selling the curricula and computer programs that go with them.


How They Did It

How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers tells how Chicago teachers transformed their union and organized their 2012 strike.

Check out these excerpts from the book:

Campaigning for Union Office

Changing to an Organizing Culture

‘Wear-Red Fridays’ and Practice Strike Vote

So, here we are. The mayor says one thing, and the teachers say another. Parents don’t know what to believe.

Emanuel’s message that “teachers should have to contribute to the solution” can be confusing even for teachers. No one is immune to the media barrage, and not everyone went through the 2012 strike. In my school about a quarter of the teachers are new.

All summer long, the union has been working to clarify the facts. Young teachers in our organizing internship program have been out knocking on doors, engaging members in personal conversation to find out which issues affect them most.

On the doorsteps, members talk about unfair evaluation practices, poor building conditions, lack of supplies, the expansion of charter schools, privatization of custodial work, and inequity in the process for students to get into “selective enrollment” schools, further segregating our neighborhood schools.

These conversations are also a chance to educate each other. Some teachers don’t realize that our union fought for the resources we do have—like the right to basic supplies, computer access, even bathroom breaks.


We’re also making a push to talk personally with parents. If we do have to resort to a strike, parent involvement will be critical.

On a recent morning before I clocked in, I ran outside to pass out union flyers near the playground. You have to be off school grounds, so I stood on the sidewalk. Any parent who took the flyer, I engaged in a conversation.

Some were sweet and supportive. Others were skeptical, so I asked about their concerns—and when they heard about the issues we’re fighting for, they were receptive. The union is the only force standing up for what public education could be.

My next task as an organizer is to remember those parents’ names and keep the conversation going the next time I see them.

The Alliance to Save Our Schools—a joint effort by the two national teacher unions—has arranged its second National Walk-in Day on October 6. Across the country, teachers and parents will gather to celebrate public schools and then walk into school together.

At my school we’ve already held two walk-ins. Parents and teachers made brief speeches, and we even sang songs with the students. It felt powerful and loving, creating the sense that we’re all in this together.

The city has given Chicago’s working-class schools a bad reputation by underfunding them, segregating them, letting the paint peel off the walls. Schools in wealthier neighborhoods don’t suffer like that.

But despite everything that’s stacked against us, the schools in Chicago are good. Every day I see dedicated staff working to make a safe learning environment for kids. With better staffing and funding, just think what we could do!

Gabriel Sheridan teaches second grade. She has taught at Ray Elementary in Chicago for 19 years.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #451, October 2016. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.