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‘It’s A Definitive Shift’: Chicago Teachers Union Strike A Major Victory For Public Education

After eleven days on strike, more than 30,000 teachers and support staff in Chicago returned to school after reaching a tentative agreement with Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Lori Lightfoot on October 30. They also agreed to make up five of the school days missed during the strike.

“It’s a definitive shift in the entire landscape, not just in Chicago, but throughout the U.S., away from privatization, school closures, charter schools, and the kind of Koch Brother-funding of private schools instead of public schools, a threat we’ve been fending off for the last 30 years,” said Jackson Potter, a high school teacher and union bargaining member in Chicago.

Potter continued, “This contract really represents advances—and not just trying to preserve what we had or prevent the annihilation of the public system—but how to expand it, fortify it, and have a considerable [investment] in low income students of color and their communities that starts to look more [like] what we see in wealthy white suburbs.”

The strike was the longest teacher strike in Chicago since 1987, and Chicago is the third largest school district in the country.

In 2019, thousands of teachers across the country went on strike in Los Angeles, Oakland, Denver, West Virginia, and at smaller school districts in Ohio, Massachusetts, and New York, while teachers in several other states have held rallies and demonstrations pushing their state legislators to increase investment in public education.

Nearly 400,000 teachers went on strike in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, North Carolina, and Colorado in 2018. The strikes were in response to years of budget cuts, stagnant wages, and other austerity measures.

Teachers and support staff walked out on October 17 after Lightfoot, who took office earlier this year, failed to meet union demands to increase resources and investment in the Chicago Public Schools system. The union and teachers held picket lines, marches, and rallies throughout the city, rallying support for their demands from community members, local, state, and federal legislators, including 2020 Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden.

On October 29, nine union protesters were arrested during a demonstration outside the offices of Sterling Bay, the developer of a multi-billion dollar project in Chicago that received a $1.3 billion tax subsidy at the end of Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral administration.

“Our arrest is symbolic of the failed priorities of our city. We give billions to mega developers without a bat of an eye. Meanwhile, teachers have to strike for 11 days to fight for what our students deserve and should have already been getting,” said Hilario Francisco Dominguez, a special education teacher in Chicago and one of the nine protesters arrested at the demonstration.

Though Lightfoot blamed the union for stalled negotiations that forced the union to go on 11-day strikeeven characterized the call for increased investments and resources as a “bail out”, her administration eventually caved to the surmounting public pressure to end the strike.

Lightfoot admitted after the strike ended that her administration should have done a lot more work to resolve the contract before the strike began after campaigning on the promise a teachers strike would not occur under her administration.

“In the spirit of compromise, we agreed. It was a hard-fought discussion, it took a long time to get there, but I think this was the right thing to do for our city,” said Lightfoot during a press conference on October 31.

Ten days from now, rank and file union members will vote on the tentative agreement, which includes several of the union’s core demands fought for in the strike.

The five-year tentative agreement includes a deal to ensure every school in the district hires a nurse and social worker. It adds support staff to schools, such as homeless coordinators and special education case managers. Teachers also won $35 million to reduce classroom size throughout the district.

“Another big win was the significant pay increase for the lowest paid workers in both the Chicago Teachers Union and the SEIU. Many of these clerks, classroom assistants, and special education assistants were making poverty wages, and they will be lifted out of poverty with this contract,” said Phillip Cantor, a science teacher at North-Grand high school in Chicago.

[Note: Service Employees International Union Local 73, which consists of support staff for Chicago schools, like bus aides and custodians, were on strike too and ended their strike a few days before the CTU agreed to a deal.]

Cantor noted the new contract includes pay increases for teachers that will start to make up for rates that have lagged behind the inflation rate over the last decade, increased resources and staffing for special education, English as a second language, improvements to availability of substitute teachers, and the adoption of a sanctuary policy for undocumented students in the district.

“The main sticking point, which we did not get the city to address, is the lack of preparation time elementary teachers have,” added Cantor. “Currently, teachers get about four hours per week of preparation time. This is not nearly enough for lesson planning, grading, tutoring students, communicating with parents and collaborating with other teachers.”

Chicago teachers pushed for an additional half hour for prep time each morning before students arrive, but the district rejected this demand.

Lightfoot additionally opposed a request to back legislation in the Illinois state legislature that would allow Chicagoans to elect who runs the public school system. The mayor currently appoints board members.

Teachers attempted to force the city to address the lack of affordable housing, but Lightfoot refused to discuss this pressing issue in the context of contract negotiations.

Yet, school counselors won language in the tentative agreement that will grant them the right to actually counsel students, as several school counselors throughout the district have been used to fill in understaffing needs such as substitute teaching, lunch, and recess duties.

“That takes away from being able to work with students,” said Kristy Brooks, a school counselor in Chicago for 14 years, and a union bargaining committee member.

Brooks mentioned during bargaining she provided the district with data demonstrating the impacts school counselors who focus on counseling have on improving grades and attendance rates of students compared to counselors who are expected to perform other duties.

“Why did we have to go on strike to win these things that should be so obvious? We finally won the right to have nurses, social workers, homeless coordinators, and the right for preschool students to take a nap. A lot of the things we won, it’s absurd if you’re not in Chicago Public Schools to think we had to go on strike,” Brooks added.

Brooks concluded, “It was the power of this strike, the people in our city, marching and demanding that won those things, and it shouldn’t have to be this hard to get our students what we need in Chicago But it was.”

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Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato is a Freelance Journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. His writing has appeared in The Intercept, The Hill, The Guardian, Denver Post, Truth-Out, and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @MSainat1