Will the Teacher Strike Wave Hit Chicago Again?

CTU picketers marching

With 83 percent of students living in poverty, more nurses and social workers are essential. Photo: CTU.

Update, September 27: The union announced the strike vote results last night: 94 percent of members voted to authorize a strike.

Twenty-five thousand Chicago teachers started the school year with a possible strike in their sights.

Chicago Teachers Union members leafleted and picketed with school employees and parents outside schools their first week back. A three-day strike vote wraps up tomorrow.

The earliest they could strike is October 7. And this time they could be joined on the picket line by 7,000 school workers in the Service Employees (SEIU) who have also authorized a strike.

Last night Sen. Bernie Sanders joined a rally at CTU headquarters, telling the crowd, “I think that the Chicago School Board should be very nervous."

Three years ago, in its last contract fight, CTU held a one-day walkout and went to the brink of an open-ended strike. Four years before that, in 2012, its nine-day strike inspired teachers around the country to fight back against budget cuts and the scapegoating of workers.

What’s different this time around? There’s a new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, who appointed a new school board, although she is using the same bargaining team as former “Mayor 1%” Rahm Emanuel.

Lightfoot beat the CTU-endorsed candidate by a wide margin in April. Both ran on progressive promises to improve public schools and the city, but Lightfoot’s outsider image won over Chicago voters.

She won’t make such an easy villain as Emanuel, a bullying D.C. insider-turned-investment banker. But Lightfoot’s softer approach hasn’t slowed both unions’ path to a strike.

“What’s baffling,” said elementary school teacher Karen Soto, “is the board’s negotiating team is nodding at what we are saying. They said to us, ‘We feel your pain.’

“We say, ‘Put it in writing,’ and they say, ‘We aren’t ready to put it in writing.’”

$1 BILLION AVAILABLE

With a new governor, Illinois has passed a budget that sends a billion dollars more into the country’s third-largest school district. Yet the school board and bargaining team have all but ignored the union’s demands to invest in public schools.

“The money is there,” said CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates. “Our city leadership makes choices. They choose to give $1.3 billion to build development in what they call a ‘blighted area’ in one of the richest parts of Chicago.”

After years of budget cuts, layoffs, school closings, and outsourcing, the status quo is crumbling infrastructure, too-large classes, and poverty wages for teacher aides, paraprofessionals, custodians, and bus drivers. Students’ needs are going unmet at a time when rising rents, immigration raids, and gun violence are ongoing threats in their neighborhoods.

“It’s really hard to be a kid in this city,” said social worker Mary Difino. “Our kids aren’t getting the level of therapy that’s appropriate for the problems they face.”

Special education classroom assistant Susana Ibañez, an SEIU Local 73 member, said staffing is part of both unions’ demands. There aren’t enough classroom staff, security guards, or bus aides. Ibañez is sometimes pulled from her classroom duties to cover security. “It’s a domino effect,” she said. “It hurts everyone.”

“When the board is negotiating,” Soto said, “they are thinking in dollars, and we are thinking we need someone in that classroom.”

POVERTY WAGES

SEIU members are also demanding better schedules, an end to outsourcing, wages above the poverty line, and additional training for staff who often work in large classes with high-need students.

Many employees’ own children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the district’s measure of student poverty.

CTU used to represent many of the special education assistants who are now in SEIU. It still represents similar positions such as teacher assistants and instructional assistants, along with clerks and parent advocates.

Since class-size caps are often violated, CTU wants a stronger mechanism to enforce them. The union is demanding that if the class size exceeds the cap, a new class should be created or a teacher’s aide should be added to the room—or else the teacher should get extra pay.

“When you have the student ratio of 42 kids to one teacher, that’s a bad mix,” said LaShawn Wallace Burks, a paraprofessional who works with special ed students.

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By coordinating their strikes, the unions have the opportunity to make gains district-wide and avoid being divided and conquered.

COMMUNITY DEMANDS

CTU’s demands include:

  • 5 percent raises for each year of a three-year contract.
  • A nurse at every school, more social workers and case managers, and lower caseloads—at least one social worker for every 50 students in areas considered high-trauma.
  • Expanding the number of "community schools," which CTU won in the 2016 contract. Community schools get additional funding for wraparound services for students and parents, such as GED programs, after-school programs, and health care.
  • A commitment from the district to shield undocumented students and families from immigration authorities.
  • A real estate transfer tax on home sales and a millionaires tax, to fund affordable housing.

“The crux of our contract fight is we need consistency,” said social worker Defino, “because that’s the only way we will be successful with kids.

“Today I was at one school in Lawndale, and tomorrow I’m at another school in Humboldt Park. I say to kids, ‘I wish I could be here with you more.’ It burns you out when you are responsible for 1,300 kids, trying to coordinate with teachers at one school when you are at another.”

TOO COMMUNITY-CONSCIOUS?

The union’s internal critics, who lost a spring election challenge 2-1, say the union is too focused on issues beyond members’ pay, benefits, and school conditions.

But of Chicago’s 400,000 public school students, 90 percent are students of color; 18,000 share housing with relatives or live out of their car or in a shelter; and 83 percent live below the poverty line.

It might take a strike to force the city to meet CTU’s big demands on staffing and affordable housing.

In Los Angeles last winter, 33,000 striking teachers forced their district to agree to provide legal support for undocumented students, back a statewide moratorium on charter schools, and end random searches that targeted students of color.

STRIKE WAVE SPREADS

Chicago is following strikes by teachers this year in Los Angeles, Oakland, and Denver.

Charter school teachers in Chicago—also CTU members—walked out last winter in the first charter strikes ever. Teachers also struck last year in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Washington state over pay, staffing, and school funding.

“Teachers are finally saying, ‘If we don’t say something about it, it won’t change,’” Davis Gates said.

Recent polls show big majorities of the public and parents support teachers who strike for pay and benefits. “Based on what we’ve seen already,” said Davis Gates, “there’s less tolerance for this antiquated ‘greedy teacher’ narrative, less tolerance for large class sizes.”

Bargaining began in January, but the district has made few responses to the union’s demands. The contract expired in July with little progress before the parties went into the fact-finding process required by state law.

Homeless advocates marked Lightfoot’s 100th day in office in August with demonstrations demanding that she follow through on promises to tax the wealthy to house the homeless.

The district has offered CTU a deal that would take the new mayor past a reelection campaign. It increased its initial wage offer to 16 percent over five years, and its counterproposal on staffing was that management would not contract out school staff, including nurses, counselors, and librarians, “unless necessary.” Currently the district primarily outsources nurses, claiming the positions are too hard to fill.

STRIKE BUILDUP

CTU members have a steep escalation plan. Before school started, members packed into union headquarters to get updates and materials. Now at each school they’re revving up their contract action team. On the weekends, there will be strike-ready trainings.

The 750-person House of Delegates voted unanimously to hold a strike vote. Under a 2011 Illinois law, intended to hamstring CTU, a strike requires a yes vote by 75 percent of all members—a bar the union cleared easily in 2012 and 2016.

The first weeks of school, CTU members joined SEIU pickets, leafleted parents, and wore red union T-shirts.

In 2012 SEIU settled its contract months before the teachers strike. Members worked during the strike in the closed schools and in the “welcoming centers” where students were sent.

WHAT WILL IT TAKE?

It’s unlikely the district will underestimate the teachers or their public support as it did in 2012.

In 2016, to avoid an open-ended strike, the mayor did something he’d sworn would never happen. He moved $175 million in “tax increment financing”—property taxes siphoned off for development projects—to fill the city’s budget holes, including $88 million to fund a contract settlement.

A strike, or strike threat, will have to create a political crisis of similar proportion. Teachers are betting they can force Lightfoot to find the money their students need.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes # 487. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.
Samantha Winslow is co-director of Labor Notes.samantha@labornotes.org