Chicago Teachers Won Public Support for Their Strike. Here’s How.

Jeff Schuhrke October 15, 2019

The Chicago public is more likely to side with teachers than the mayor when it comes to a CTU strike. (Photo by Max Herman/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

As 35,000 Chica­go teach­ers, school sup­port staff, and park dis­trict work­ers are set to begin a major strike on Octo­ber 17, they boast the back­ing of stu­dents, par­ents, com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions, and local unions who see the poten­tial work stop­page as a cru­cial bat­tle in the fight for a more just and equi­table city. Thanks to the sol­i­dar­i­ty efforts of com­mu­ni­ty and labor groups, more Chicagoans sup­port the pos­si­ble strike than oppose it, accord­ing to a recent poll by the Chica­go Sun-Times.

The Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) and SEIU Local 73 are call­ing on May­or Lori Light­foot — who was elect­ed this year on a pro­gres­sive plat­form — to put in writ­ing her cam­paign promis­es to improve the learn­ing con­di­tions of the city’s major­i­ty Black and Brown pub­lic school stu­dents. Among oth­er things, the unions are fight­ing to have a full-time nurse, librar­i­an and social work­er in every school, caps on class sizes, afford­able hous­ing for stu­dents and their fam­i­lies, an end to out­side con­tract­ing of school ser­vices, and bet­ter pay and benefits.

For their part, May­or Light­foot and Chica­go Pub­lic Schools (CPS) have urged the CTU to give up demands for bet­ter resourced schools and accept a 5‑year con­tract that pri­mar­i­ly includes wage increas­es. The edi­to­r­i­al boards for the city’s two major dai­ly news­pa­pers have lined up behind the may­or, telling teach­ers to take the deal,” though a whop­ping 94% of CTU mem­bers vot­ed to autho­rize a strike.

It’s so vital we not allow CPS or the may­or to divide the crit­i­cal peo­ple in this equa­tion — which are stu­dents and par­ents — from the unions, which they would like to do,” said Eliz­a­beth Lalasz, co-chair of the Chica­go Teach­ers and Staff Sol­i­dar­i­ty Cam­paign (CTSSC)’s labor committee.

If CPS and the may­or are able to cre­ate a wedge between the union and the com­mu­ni­ty, it’s going to be a far less suc­cess­ful strike, so it’s about bring­ing those forces togeth­er,” con­tin­ued Lalasz, who is also a stew­ard with Nation­al Nurs­es United.

To bol­ster sup­port for the CTU and SEIU Local 73, the CTSSC has held mul­ti­ple events to bring teach­ers and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers togeth­er by hav­ing dis­cus­sions about the con­di­tions in the schools and the impor­tance of the unions’ demands. One such event was an Octo­ber 10 town hall fea­tur­ing speak­ers from over a dozen com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions and local unions.

One of the speak­ers was Cather­ine Henchek, mem­ber of the advo­ca­cy group Par­ents 4 Teach­ers. She explained that when her son enrolled in CPS as a kinder­gart­ner 12 years ago, she was told that he wouldn’t be able to get his med­ica­tion every day because the school only had a nurse once per week.

Twelve years lat­er, we’re still fight­ing for this,” Henchek said. So many schools do not have a nurse, or they have agency nurs­es that are com­ing in, a dif­fer­ent nurse every day. That’s not help­ful for kids with com­plex med­ical needs. They need some­one who knows them.”

At an Octo­ber 14 ral­ly of union mem­bers and sup­port­ers, high school senior Mir­a­cle Boyd talked about why union demands for improved wrap­around ser­vices mat­ter to stu­dents like her. We as CPS stu­dents have to deal with the trau­ma of los­ing a loved one to gun vio­lence every day,” said Boyd. We need trau­ma-informed schools, social work­ers, and therapists.”

Boyd is an orga­niz­er with Good­Kids Mad­C­i­ty, a youth-led anti-vio­lence, restora­tive jus­tice group. I have friends who miss school on the dai­ly because… no one can help them with the hurt and pain of los­ing a class­mate,” she said. The resources stu­dents don’t have won’t allow them the oppor­tu­ni­ty to heal from past or con­tin­u­ous trauma.”

The CTSSC has exist­ed since CTU’s his­toric 2012 strike, when it mobi­lized com­mu­ni­ty turnout at ral­lies and pick­ets, coor­di­nat­ed the union’s strike head­quar­ters, and served as an infor­ma­tion hub. Since then, and increas­ing­ly over the past 20 months, a wave of mas­sive teacher strikes has rocked the coun­try — offer­ing inno­v­a­tive exam­ples of com­mu­ni­ty sol­i­dar­i­ty that are now being repli­cat­ed in Chicago.

One such exam­ple is Bread for Ed, a fundrais­ing and sol­i­dar­i­ty project to pro­vide meals to stu­dents and teach­ers for the dura­tion of the strike. This pro­gram would pro­vide a crit­i­cal ser­vice, as over 400,000 Chica­go stu­dents depend on school meal pro­grams for break­fast and lunch.

Pio­neered by the East Bay, Cal­i­for­nia chap­ter of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca dur­ing the 7‑day Oak­land teacher strike this Feb­ru­ary, the Bread for Ed mod­el has been adopt­ed by Chica­go DSA and Chica­go Jobs with Jus­tice. The two groups recent­ly set up a Bread for Ed GoFundMe page, sur­pass­ing the orig­i­nal fundrais­ing tar­get of $10,000 in only three days. If a strike hap­pens, food will be pre­pared and served at neigh­bor­hood orga­ni­za­tions, alder­man­ic offices, church­es, and local restau­rants, as well as on pick­et lines.

So far the response [to Bread for Ed] has been over­whelm­ing­ly pos­i­tive. Tons of peo­ple are reach­ing out want­i­ng to get involved,” Abby Agri­esti, co-chair of the Chica­go DSA Labor Work­ing Group, told In These Times. We want to make sure that the media and city can’t use the lack of food for stu­dents as a cud­gel against the teach­ers and staff, blam­ing them.”

Com­mu­ni­ty sup­port­ers also worked with the unions to hold an Art Build from Octo­ber 4 to 6 — anoth­er mod­el bor­rowed from this year’s Oak­land teacher strike. Held at CTU head­quar­ters, the Art Build brought rank-and-file union mem­bers togeth­er with par­ents, stu­dents, allies, and artists to put their cre­ativ­i­ty to work by mak­ing pick­et signs, ban­ners (includ­ing para­chute ban­ners), and posters to be used at strike pick­ets and rallies.

The CTSSC has orga­nized week­ly call-ins to the mayor’s office and draft­ed an online sol­i­dar­i­ty state­ment for indi­vid­ual union mem­bers around the coun­try to sign onto, which gar­nered near­ly 500 sig­na­tures with­in a week. The sol­i­dar­i­ty cam­paign is also cir­cu­lat­ing a state­ment of sup­port pledg­ing to join CTU and SEIU mem­bers on the pick­et lines, which has been signed by over 60 com­mu­ni­ty and labor orga­ni­za­tions across the city.

Mean­while, mem­bers of Chica­go DSA’s Labor Work­ing Group have can­vassed at CTA stops to talk with com­muters about the impor­tance of the unions’ demands and to inoc­u­late them against anti-union talk­ing points.

The unions aren’t just bar­gain­ing for bet­ter wages or pen­sions; they’re bar­gain­ing for vital things that we need in our com­mu­ni­ties.” Agri­esti explained. We see this as hand-in-hand with our mis­sion as social­ists to build a bet­ter world.”

Efforts to build com­mu­ni­ty sup­port appear to be work­ing, as indi­cat­ed by the Sun-Times poll. The poll found that 49% of Chicagoans were like­ly to back the strike, while 38% would be opposed. A quar­ter of those polled are CPS par­ents, who over­whelm­ing­ly sup­port the unions and would blame May­or Light­foot if there is a walkout.

If the work stop­page hap­pens, the CTSSC plans to mobi­lize turnout on the pick­et lines through its email and text mes­sage list, as well as its social media accounts, which reach thou­sands of peo­ple. For par­ents, the coali­tion Raise Your Hand for Illi­nois Pub­lic Edu­ca­tion has cre­at­ed a web­page with infor­ma­tion on what fam­i­lies can do dur­ing the strike, includ­ing how to sup­port the unions.

Most par­ents don’t want a strike, we want our chil­dren to be in school, to be learn­ing,” Henchek said. But we know that if we’re going to have the wrap­around ser­vices, the class sizes, the social jus­tice that our chil­dren deserve, then there may need to be a strike.”

Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke

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