Chicago Teachers Didn’t Win Everything, But They’ve Transformed the City—And the Labor Movement

Rebecca Burns November 1, 2019

Chicago teachers made history through their strike. But their fight isn't over. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Chica­go teach­ers and staff returned to the class­rooms Fri­day after more than two weeks on strike. Their walk­out last­ed longer than the city’s land­mark 2012 strike, as well as those in Los Ange­les and Oak­land ear­li­er this year.

The Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) strike also last­ed long enough for the season’s first snow­storm to blan­ket thou­sands of teach­ers and staff who sur­round­ed City Hall Thurs­day morn­ing to demand May­or Lori Light­foot agree to restore missed instruc­tion­al days as a final con­di­tion of their return­ing to work. After a few hours, the union and the may­or arrived at a com­pro­mise of five make-up days — a move Light­foot had resist­ed until the eleventh hour, despite the fact that it’s a stan­dard con­clu­sion to teacher strikes.

Over the course of an often-bit­ter bat­tle, CTU and its sis­ter union, SEIU 73, over­came a series of such ulti­ma­tums from the recent­ly elect­ed may­or. Before the strike, Light­foot had refused to write issues such as staffing increas­es or class size caps into a con­tract at all. Fol­low­ing a bud­get address last week, Light­foot vowed that there was no more mon­ey left for a bailout” of the school dis­trict. But a ten­ta­tive agree­ment approved by CTU del­e­gates Wednes­day night requires the school dis­trict to put a nurse and social work­er in every school with­in five years and allo­cates $35 mil­lion more annu­al­ly to reduce over­crowd­ed class­rooms. Both unions also won pay bumps for sup­port staff who have made pover­ty wages. 

Yet these sub­stan­tial gains still fell short of what many mem­bers had hoped to achieve, giv­en that they were fight­ing for basic invest­ments already enjoyed by most sub­ur­ban school dis­tricts — invest­ments that Light­foot her­self had cam­paigned on this spring. 

It took our mem­bers 10 days to bring these promis­es home,” CTU Vice Pres­i­dent Sta­cy Davis Gates told reporters after an agree­ment was reached over instruc­tion­al days. But I want to tell my mem­bers: They have changed Chicago.” 

Mem­bers of SEIU 73 rat­i­fied their con­tract this week, and CTU mem­bers will now have 10 days to do so. But the impact of the two-week walk­out is like­ly to extend far beyond the con­tracts themselves. 

Dur­ing dai­ly ral­lies that drew tens of thou­sands of teach­ers, staff and sup­port­ers, the unions repeat­ed­ly made the argu­ment that there was plen­ty of wealth in the city to invest in schools and pub­lic ser­vices — it was just con­cen­trat­ed in the wrong hands. They also touched on what’s often a third-rail for pub­lic-sec­tor unions, crit­i­ciz­ing the resources lav­ished on police at their expense. The strike’s momen­tum will car­ry over most imme­di­ate­ly into a bud­get bat­tle with Light­foot, with the teach­ers’ union part­ner­ing with a larg­er coali­tion fight­ing to tax cor­po­ra­tions and lux­u­ry real-estate at a high­er rate in order to fund afford­able hous­ing, pub­lic men­tal health clin­ics and oth­er services. 

The teach­ers union also shone a light on an opaque financ­ing tool known as Tax Incre­ment Financ­ing, or TIF, that’s intend­ed to fun­nel addi­tion­al prop­er­ty tax dol­lars to blight­ed” areas, but that crit­ics say is akin to a cor­po­rate slush fund.” On Tues­day, nine CTU mem­bers were arrest­ed at the head­quar­ters of Ster­ling Bay to protest the city’s deci­sion to award the Wall-Street backed devel­op­er more than $1 bil­lion of TIF sub­si­dies ear­li­er this year.

That day in and of itself was huge because we were able to call out the city’s hypocrisy,” says Rox­ana González, an 8th-grade teacher at Dr. Jorge Pri­eto Math and Sci­ence Acad­e­my who was among those arrest­ed. The fight to fund what our com­mu­ni­ties need is a much longer one than our con­tract fight, and teach­ers across the city are going to con­tin­ue to be a part of it.” 

The two-week walk­out will also like­ly have rever­ber­a­tions for teach­ers and oth­er union mem­bers out­side of Chica­go. The CTU’s 2012 strike helped inspire a nation­al net­work called Bar­gain­ing for the Com­mon Good” that has brought togeth­er unions seek­ing to expand the scope of con­tract bar­gain­ing beyond pay and benefits. 

In many ways this was both the tough­est and most vision­ary strike fought yet on the prin­ci­pals of Bar­gain­ing for the Com­mon Good,” says Joseph McCartin, the direc­tor of the Kalmanovitz Ini­tia­tive for Labor and the Work­ing Poor at George­town University.

The union engaged in some effec­tive pop­u­lar edu­ca­tion about the struc­tur­al issues of school under­fund­ing that it can fol­low up on in the future. Although it was a dif­fi­cult fight, the CTU has come away with gains that will make the schools bet­ter and encour­age teach­ers else­where to fight for sim­i­lar things.” 

One of CTU’s bold­est com­mon good” demands was for afford­able hous­ing — a move that cap­tured nation­al head­lines and became a cen­ter­piece of the mayor’s nar­ra­tive that the union was stalling nego­ti­a­tions through an over­ly polit­i­cal agenda. 

While the union didn’t win on hous­ing assis­tance for new teach­ers or gain the school district’s sup­port for rent con­trol, one of CTU’s ear­li­est and clear­est vic­to­ries was an agree­ment to hire staff specif­i­cal­ly to sup­port the more than 17,000 home­less stu­dents in Chica­go Pub­lic Schools — an approach that could be a mod­el for oth­er school districts. 

Oth­er key wins on social jus­tice issues include new guar­an­tees for bilin­gual edu­ca­tion, includ­ing more ded­i­cat­ed teach­ers for Eng­lish lan­guage learn­ers, and a dec­la­ra­tion that Chica­go schools are sanc­tu­ary spaces. 

These are vital issues in a school dis­trict where near­ly half of stu­dents are Lat­inx and near­ly one-fifth are Eng­lish lan­guage learn­ers, says González, who also helped push for these changes as a mem­ber of the CTU’s Lat­inx cau­cus. She has pre­vi­ous­ly faced a lack of resources and the poten­tial for dis­ci­pline when she tried to aid a for­mer stu­dent who reached out to her for help with a pend­ing depor­ta­tion case. As part of the new agree­ment on sanc­tu­ary schools, the school dis­trict will cre­ate a train­ing pro­gram for staff on how to respond to ICE pres­ence in schools and assist immi­grant stu­dents. It will also allo­cate up to $200,000 annu­al­ly to help employ­ees nav­i­gate immi­gra­tion issues. 

The vic­to­ries are less clear-cut when it comes to the key issue of sup­port staffing. The dis­trict will begin hir­ing more nurs­es and social work­ers in the high­est-need schools this year, but it will take five years before they’re guar­an­teed for every school. And while the CTU has high­light­ed that nine out of 10 major­i­ty-black schools in Chica­go do not have a librar­i­an, the agree­ment cre­ates a joint union-school dis­trict com­mit­tee on staffing equi­ty” that will pro­vide a path — but not a guar­an­tee — for high-need schools to hire addi­tion­al librar­i­ans, coun­selors or restora­tive jus­tice coordinators. 

Some teach­ers say they were pre­pared to con­tin­ue strik­ing until more progress was made on staffing, small­er caps on class sizes and regain­ing teacher prep time elim­i­nat­ed under pre­vi­ous May­or Rahm Emanuel. But fac­ing an intran­si­gent may­or, wors­en­ing weath­er and a Novem­ber 1 dead­line for the sus­pen­sion of their employ­er health insur­ance, CTU del­e­gates ulti­mate­ly vot­ed on Wednes­day night to approve the ten­ta­tive agree­ment by a mar­gin of 60%. 

Class size remains a par­tic­u­lar con­cern for instruc­tors like Jeni Crone, an art teacher at Lind­bloom Math and Sci­ence Acad­e­my. While CTU won for the first time an avenue to enforce hard caps on class sizes, the rec­om­mend­ed lim­its them­selves remain the same: Up to 31 in high school class­es, depend­ing on the sub­ject, which can reach 38 stu­dents before an auto­mat­ic rem­e­dy is triggered. 

Crone pre­vi­ous­ly taught at Kelvyn Park High School, but lost her job there in 2017 amidst a round of bud­get cuts that led to the loss of 11 posi­tions at the school. She says she repeat­ed­ly saw high class-size caps used as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to merge two small­er class­es into one larg­er one. Before her posi­tion was cut, her three art class­es were com­bined into two, with 34 and 35 stu­dents, respectively. 

It’s one of the eas­i­est ways for CPS to save mon­ey,” she says. But we should be nor­mal­iz­ing small­er class sizes.”

Still, Crone says she is cau­tious­ly opti­mistic” about the contract’s wins, and is deter­mined above all to make sure that union mem­bers remain unit­ed with stu­dents and par­ents to con­tin­ue demand­ing more.

I am not total­ly con­tent, but the way I see it, it’s OK for us not to be con­tent,” Crone says. That means I still want bet­ter for my stu­dents, and we should always want bet­ter for them.” 

Rebec­ca Burns is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive reporter whose work has appeared in The Baf­fler, the Chica­go Read­er, The Inter­cept and oth­er out­lets. She is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rejburns.
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