What Other Unions Can Learn from the Historic Gains We Won in the Chicago Teachers Strike

Jackson Potter November 26, 2019

Chicago teachers went on strike in 2019 and won. (Xinhua/ via Getty Images)

As a Chica­go Pub­lic Schools (CPS) stu­dent from first grade through high school, and in my 17 years of teach­ing in the sys­tem, none of my schools ever had a full-time social work­er or nurse every day of the week.

In the first con­tract the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) secured in the era of legal­ized pub­lic sec­tor bar­gain­ing, in 1967, the lan­guage states: a plan shall be devised to make avail­able to teacher nurs­es a list of vacan­cies to which they may indi­cate their desire to trans­fer.” That lan­guage, pro­vid­ing no firm guar­an­tee of staffing ratios, remained vir­tu­al­ly unchanged for half a cen­tu­ry. All sub­se­quent con­tracts until 2019 include no ref­er­ences to bilin­gual edu­ca­tion, ded­i­cat­ed staff and resources for our home­less stu­dents, case man­ag­er posi­tions for our diverse learn­er pop­u­la­tion, sanc­tu­ary lan­guage to pro­tect undoc­u­ment­ed stu­dents from ICE, liv­ing wages for our low­est-paid para­pro­fes­sion­al mem­bers, or a ded­i­cat­ed arti­cle on ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion. Now, that’s all changed. 

After 52 years of strug­gle, and an 11-day city­wide strike, we were final­ly able to secure these crit­i­cal demands — and more. We won 180 case-man­ag­er posi­tions, 20 Eng­lish lan­guage pro­gram teach­ers, full-time staff for home­less stu­dents, up to $35 mil­lion to low­er exces­sive class size and even nap time for our lit­tle ones. This ded­i­cat­ed effort to win sem­i­nal staffing sup­ports and edu­ca­tion­al jus­tice for CPS stu­dents did not hap­pen overnight — it’s been a long and pro­tract­ed fight for the schools they deserve. 

Dur­ing the lead up to the 2019 strike, the edi­to­r­i­al pages of the two major news­pa­pers in town, the Chica­go Tri­bune and the Chica­go Sun-Times, took turns slam­ming us for intran­si­gence, greed and ide­al­ism, often in the same sen­tence. The Sun-Times ran an edi­to­r­i­al in the days before the strike that demand­ed we Take the deal” and stat­ed we should accept the lat­est con­tract offer from the Board of Edu­ca­tion, a sweet deal that most Chicagoans would just love to get.” Pri­or to the strike, May­or Lori Light­foot offered a 16% raise over a 5‑year agree­ment, a salary offer that the CTU even­tu­al­ly accept­ed. How­ev­er, none of the cen­tral issues raised from when the strike began to when it end­ed had any­thing to do with that ini­tial salary offer. 

In the last months of 2018, the CTU col­lect­ed hun­dreds of pro­pos­als from our 27,000 mem­bers. Of the hun­dreds of sub­mis­sions, many described how to fix a bro­ken and anx­i­ety-rid­den teacher eval­u­a­tion sys­tem, how to ramp up prepa­ra­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion time, ade­quate pay and ben­e­fits, and more. There were also a num­ber of ideas that went well beyond a tra­di­tion­al col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment. One pro­pos­al demand­ed the school dis­trict pro­vide hous­ing for all 18,000 home­less stu­dents in the dis­trict by cre­at­ing afford­able hous­ing through a real estate trans­fer tax, cor­po­rate head tax and uti­liz­ing the city’s Tax Incre­ment Financ­ing (TIF) pro­gram. Despite May­or Lightfoot’s claims to sup­port a pro­gres­sive agen­da that reflect­ed the CTU’s vision for schools, real­i­ty proved more complicated. 

Light­foot cam­paigned on a promise to pre­vent a strike by address­ing our key con­cerns and demands. Yet, dur­ing nego­ti­a­tions, her team refused time and again to meet them.

Once CTU went out on strike on Octo­ber 17, Light­foot claimed the con­tract was not the appro­pri­ate place” to address the needs of home­less stu­dents. While she promised to add more social work­ers and nurs­es to the school bud­get, she refused to put it in writ­ing and make those com­mit­ments explic­it with­in the col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment. By the end of the strike, we made sure that both sup­ports for home­less stu­dents and guar­an­tees for more social work­ers and nurs­es were indeed put in writ­ing. At the incep­tion of the strike, May­or Light­foot was adamant that there was no more mon­ey for our con­tract. But by the end, we won tens of mil­lions more dol­lars in the new contract. 

This con­tract fight wasn’t the first time the CTU raised com­mon good” pro­pos­als to ele­vate broad­er demands not typ­i­cal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with a union contract.

In 2010, we sug­gest­ed that the Chica­go Board of Edu­ca­tion tap into the TIF pro­gram — a sys­tem where decades worth of prop­er­ty tax­es are fre­quent­ly divert­ed from schools, parks and libraries to sup­port devel­op­ments in the wealth­i­est parts of the city. At the time, May­or Richard M. Daley’s chief nego­tia­tor for the teach­ers’ con­tract, Jim Franczeck, told us that TIF is too com­pli­cat­ed” and that the funds were unavail­able to schools due to a fire­wall between the city and school budgets.

By 2016, we cracked the pur­port­ed TIF fire­wall and forced then-May­or Rahm Emanuel to unleash a record $87.5 mil­lion to stave off a strike. This year, May­or Light­foot, fol­lowed suit and released anoth­er record TIF sur­plus of $163 mil­lion to the pub­lic schools.

On top of win­ning new fund­ing streams, our broad­er social jus­tice demands built upon vic­to­ries in the recent Los Ange­les teacher strike, as well as Boston’s teacher con­tract cam­paign that won lan­guage on class size restric­tions. In no small way, the 2019 CTU strike was con­nect­ed to a ris­ing move­ment of teach­ers nation­al­ly that has fun­da­men­tal­ly altered the polit­i­cal and labor land­scape in the Unit­ed States. 

When we struck in 2012, the action was large­ly defen­sive in nature and came on the heels of Scott Walker’s attack on col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights in Wis­con­sin. This year’s strike rep­re­sent­ed a move into offense — beyond efforts to stop school clos­ings, vouch­ers, bank­rupt­cies, pen­sion liq­ui­da­tion or state take-overs. Instead, we’ve added about 750 new posi­tions into our schools, staffing that will dra­mat­i­cal­ly increase invest­ments into our class­rooms for the first time in decades. We’ve also added new lan­guage that estab­lish­es sanc­tu­ary schools,” requir­ing CPS to pro­hib­it the entry of ICE agents into our build­ings unless they have a war­rant. The new agree­ment also pro­vides crit­i­cal immi­gra­tion and legal ser­vices to our stu­dents and their families. 

The labor move­ment will look back on the 2019 strikes in Chica­go and LA as the time when #Red­ForEd began to sup­plant aus­ter­i­ty and cor­po­rate reform with edu­ca­tion­al equi­ty and invest­ments into our Black and Lat­inx school com­mu­ni­ties. While we have a way to go before pub­lic schools in Chica­go match the school fund­ing received by wealthy sub­ur­ban dis­tricts, this agree­ment gets us closer.

One of the keys to our vic­to­ry was labor sol­i­dar­i­ty. Chica­go teach­ers struck along­side the 7,000 school employ­ees in SEIU Local 73, which did not occur in 2012. These school work­ers also won large-scale vic­to­ries in their con­tract, and by stand­ing with us on the pick­et lines, they showed the pow­er of true col­lec­tive action. 

The vic­to­ries in our strike built upon years-long efforts to bring Chica­go char­ter school teach­ers into the CTU, align­ing 11 char­ter school con­tracts. This strate­gic choice led to the first char­ter school strikes in the nation’s his­to­ry, and won pro­vi­sions on class-size and sanc­tu­ary schools that set the stage to win them through­out the district.

To win more, we teach­ers should con­sid­er part­ner­ing with pri­vate sec­tor union strug­gles. Imag­ine if we had been able to join forces with the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers in their labor strug­gle with GM, or coor­di­nat­ed with ware­house work­ers to shut down the region’s sup­ply chains? Such an approach could help build the social pow­er nec­es­sary to advance a set of region­al work­er demands to sig­nif­i­cant­ly alter the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic land­scape for all workers. 

When I was a first-grad­er in CPS in 1984, there weren’t social work­ers or nurs­es in every school, no case man­agers, no coor­di­na­tors for home­less stu­dents, and lim­it­ed adher­ence to legal lim­its on spe­cial edu­ca­tion, bilin­gual and ear­ly child­hood state laws. On Novem­ber 16, over 81% of CTU mem­bers rat­i­fied a con­tract that pos­sess­es all of those com­po­nents. While there are many demands we were unable to win, we made mas­sive strides toward equi­ty in the classroom.

Through­out his­to­ry, social move­ment strug­gles have always been pro­tract­ed. It’s tak­en three con­tract cycles for the CTU to turn back near­ly 40 years of attacks on our pub­lic schools. It’s a shift made pos­si­ble through strike action cou­pled with a bur­geon­ing nation­al teach­ers move­ment — and tak­ing risks to lift up work­ing-class demands that go far beyond tra­di­tion­al col­lec­tive bargaining. 

Jack­son Pot­ter is a Chica­go Teach­ers Union trustee, mem­ber of the Big Bar­gain­ing Team and a teacher at Back of The Yards Col­lege Prep.
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