Chicago Schools Are on the Verge of Two Strikes

In their 2012 strike, nearly 30,000 Chicago Teachers Union members planted a flag for labor militancy in public education. Today, they’re again on the verge of another strike — and they may be joined by 7,000 SEIU education workers.

A Chicago teacher picketing during a one-day strike wears a Chicago Teachers Union Local 1 sweater and a sticker and button on April 1, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. Joshua Lott / Getty

The Chicago Teachers Union may paint the town CTU red as they did in 2012 if they strike this fall. But they could be joined by a big splash of SEIU purple.

The other major union in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), Service Employees International Union Local 73, representing 7,000 special education classroom assistants, custodians, bus aides, and security guards, is also without a contract, and its members voted by a wide margin this summer to authorize a strike if they don’t get a living wage and protection against privatization.

Like the CTU, Local 73 argues that members’ struggle is about more than dollars and cents — it’s a fight for the schools that Chicago’s students, teachers, and staff deserve. But in a union where the average member working in CPS makes around the amount that the federal government classifies as a very low income for a family of two in the Chicago area, the dollars and cents matter, too.

Both SEIU and CTU report disappointment in negotiations with the city, now led by new-mayor Lori Lightfoot, who claims she wants to improve conditions for working Chicagoans. In mid-September, SEIU will get the findings of a fact-finder’s report that could side with the union — or set the stage for a strike, if Local 73 rejects it.

Before this year, the two unions often found themselves at odds. In 2012, while a showdown between the CTU and hated former-mayor Rahm Emanuel was coming to a head, Local 73 signed an early agreement that teachers and some SEIU members thought undermined a united fight that could have won more for everyone.

This year is shaping up differently. Over the summer and during the first week of school following Labor Day, CTU and SEIU leaders stood together at rallies and press conferences, and members walked each other’s informational picket lines. Last week, the CTU’s governing body, the House of Delegates, set a date for a strike authorization vote, but Local 73 has already held its strike vote — and it was a resounding yes. The union easily surpassed the restriction in an undemocratic state law requiring 75 percent of the entire bargaining unit, not just those who vote, to authorize a strike in Chicago schools: 84 percent of Local 73 members cast a ballot — and of those, 97 percent voted to walk.

“There was a saying when I was coming up,” says Evelyn Davis West, a special education classroom assistant (SECA) at William Bishop Owen Scholastic Academy on the Southwest Side. “A closed mouth is an unfed mouth. If you don’t open your mouth, you’re not going to get fed, right?

In her late August speech on the city’s budget crisis inherited from Emanuel, Lightfoot talked about the need to “shore up individuals and families who aren’t just living paycheck to paycheck, but are constantly on the cusp of financial ruin.” That’s an argument for meeting SEIU Local 73’s demands.

In one of the richest cities in the country, union workers instrumental to the public school system are making poverty wages. The union points to the income limits used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to determine eligibility for benefits. According to HUD, the “very low-income limit” for a family of two in Chicago is $35,650 — which is roughly the median salary for CPS SECAs represented by Local 73.

More than half of SECAs work a second job to make ends meet, according to a survey conducted this summer by the union, which estimates the same is true for other members at CPS. Alyssa Rathan, a SECA at McCutcheon Elementary School, points out that this means Local 73 members are “leaving here having worked a full-time job, a lot of them working with kids, changing diapers, giving hugs, giving emotional and physical support to students, to go to another job afterward and exert more energy.”

In her fourth year at McCutcheon, Rathan is working on a master’s degree in school counseling to go with another master’s she already has in sociology. But on her salary from CPS, she can’t afford rent on top of tuition and everything else. So she still lives at home with her family.

Local 73 is asking for a salary bump for SECAs and other members over and above the regular raises that the CTU and SEIU are asking for. According to the union, the total cost of what it wants beyond what CPS is offering amounts to 0.25 percent of the district’s annual operating budget.

The union is also pushing for increased staffing and stricter rules so SECAs aren’t pulled off their specified assignments with students who have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). “My role is supposed to be in the classroom, assisting the teacher with children with IEPs, but then I get pulled for security or for recess-lunch monitoring,” says West, the SECA at Owen. “How are they getting their fair share if I have to be away from the classroom for thirty to forty minutes?”

Local 73 also represents the bus aides who ensure the safety of diverse-learning students on their way to and from school. These CPS employees often report for work before dawn and aren’t done for the day until after the sun sets. But because they’re only paid for four to eight hours on the clock, they make as little as $16,000 a year. At the fact-finder’s hearings this summer, one bus aide testified that she spent three months living out of her car last year.

Custodians represented by SEIU are threatened by another problem: privatization. Since 2014, CPS has paid corporate giants Sodexo and Aramark some $700 million to supervise custodians — “basically to mismanage our members,” says Sable Russell, Local 73’s lead field organizer. The union says its members regularly report shortages of basic supplies, neglected trainings, and arbitrary discipline due to the incompetence of their privatized supervisors. The Chicago Sun-Times has run a series of exposés about the dire state of schools in the Sodexo-Aramark era.

Other members of Local 73 face a different kind of “outsourcing.” As it was passing a budget that fell short of union demands for increased staffing, the new school board appointed by Lightfoot backed a measure in August to spend $33 million for armed Chicago police — a force notorious for its brutality — to patrol the Chicago Public Schools. Meanwhile, the city has nothing to offer the unarmed security guards represented by Local 73.

On the Thursday morning after Labor Day, on a tree-shaded sidewalk in front of Dawes Elementary School on the Southwest Side, SEIU members, staff, and supporters were walking a “practice” picket line, some sixty strong, and leafleting parents as they dropped off their kids for the third day of school.

It was a symbol of what members and staff alike say is a more aggressive approach to this contract battle after a period of internal turmoil in the local.

In 2012, Local 73 was negotiating a new contract at the same time as the teachers’ union, but local officials cut an early deal, leaving the CTU to stand alone against Emanuel. SEIU wasn’t the only union that tried to “go along to get along” with Rahm. But this placed it on the other side of the CTU, where a new local leadership led by the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators was trying to rebuild the power of the union in preparation for a strike.

In an article at the time, then-Local 73 member Orlando Sepúlveda described discontent among rank-and-file members who feared that “the contract sells workers short — and could be used to undermine teachers in their upcoming contract battle.” SEIU’s agreement was ratified at a chaotic meeting after local officials claimed that voting “no” would lead to as much as half of the local being laid off, but the vote was only 163 to 108 — out of 5,300 members at the time.

The CTU stunned Emanuel with a strike with overwhelming public support in September 2012. At the picket lines in front of every school, SEIU members stopped and talked to teachers before crossing, as they were required to do by their new contract. Many wore red in solidarity and told the strikers they were planning to do as little as possible for CPS during the walkout.

Local 73 leaders continued to end up on Emanuel’s side, even after the mayor exacted vengeance for the CTU victory by closing fifty schools, leading to layoffs for teachers and SEIU members alike and adding to the damage he inflicted on African-American and Latino neighborhoods. Incredibly, when Emanuel started his reelection campaign in 2014, Local 73 made a contribution of $25,000. Earlier, the local had broken ranks with other public sector unions to lobby the Illinois legislature in favor of Emanuel’s pension reform plan to increase the retirement age for state employees, raise their share of contributions, and delay cost-of-living adjustments for benefits.

Sable Russell believes things are different under a new leadership that resulted from the local being put into trusteeship by the SEIU International. In 2016, an internal conflict between former president Christine Boardman and former secretary-treasurer Matt Brandon spilled into various courtrooms with ugly allegations that “seriously disrupted the operations and functioning of the local,” according to the union’s statement announcing the trusteeship.

SEIU trusteeships have long been criticized on the labor left for being an undemocratic practice that cracks down on local leaders who refuse to get in line with the dictates handed down from the International leadership. But in Local 73’s case, Russell says the new leadership team brought in by SEIU listened to the rank and file. A SECA at CPS before going to work for the union last year, Russell says that she was asked to help define the issues that the local is fighting for in a new contract, and that there’s a greater willingness overall to involve members.

She points to the local’s new practice of inviting members to bargaining sessions, which came as a bit of a shock to the negotiating team from City Hall. “CPS was pissed,” Russell said. “We had over a hundred members come in for the first bargaining that was opened up. And I think that [members] liked, number one, having that transparency, and number two, knowing that their voices are being heard.”

The local’s more aggressive approach has drawn more attention for its members and their specific grievances, which are routinely neglected in the media. The CTU, because of its larger size and the lasting memory of the 2012 strike, has the local and national profile to define labor’s side of the discussion on public education, and SEIU members say their voices aren’t always heard. That seems to have changed in this contract battle.

CTU member Carolyn Brown, a reading teacher at Kelly High School on the Southwest Side, says knowing that members of the two unions could be “all in it together” on the picket line, like they are in the classroom, means a lot. “The community support would be stronger, too,” Brown says. “You’re talking about tens of thousands of teachers, their families and friends who know them, our students and their parents, and add to that everyone else who works in a school.”

Local 73’s struggle brings attention to an important aspect of the struggle for public education that runs through the recent wave of teachers’ strikes: solidarity among all school workers along with the wider community.

In the state that kicked off the red-state revolt, bus drivers and cafeteria cooks were a linchpin of the strike in West Virginia. And in the mini-wave of first-ever charter school strikes in Chicago and Los Angeles, teachers’ unions put the needs of support staff up at the top of the list of demands.

In Chicago, this has another dimension. SEIU Local 73 is a predominantly black and brown union. “The assumption is that we’re uneducated,” says Alyssa Rathan, the SECA at McCutcheon, “and this is the only job we can get, so here we are.” People of color throughout Chicago’s working class know that disrespect all too well — and would probably celebrate a union fighting for dignity and justice, as they have for the CTU in recent years.

A strike by the SEIU and CTU together this fall could land a blow against everything wrong with our schools and much more besides: racism, poverty, inequality, union-busting, and the contempt of the city’s 1 percent for the workers who make Chicago run.