Chicago Teachers Weigh a Strike

Chicago teachers begin a three-day strike authorization vote today, the latest in their contract battle against Mayor Lori Lightfoot and education austerity. The strike, potentially joined this time by SEIU Local 73 school staff members, could be just as important as their 2012 victory against Rahm Emanuel.

Striking Chicago teachers and their supporters attend a rally at Union Park September 15, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Chicago teachers begin voting today on whether to authorize a strike for a new contract. The Chicago Tribune editorial board, ever dedicated to advancing the noble cause of labor, had some friendly advice for Chicago teachers: take the “generous” deal on offer from Mayor Lori Lightfoot that “respects your profession and your dedication.” Chicago Public Schools (CPS) administrators, also eager to help teachers understand just how good they have it, applauded the Tribune editorial on social media.

Anyone want to guess how loud the yelling got in the homes of Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members that morning?

Speaking of yelling exactly loud enough, Bernie Sanders is coming to Chicago tonight to rally with members of CTU and SEIU Local 73, the other major union in CPS, which is also in a battle for a fair contract. Earlier this month, Sanders tweeted his support for the two unions, and his campaign message against the power of the 1 percent will amplify the issues at stake in another battle over Chicago schools.

The teachers’ strike authorization vote will take place in every school over the coming three days; Local 73 members already voted overwhelmingly to authorize a walkout. Under a union-busting state law rammed through during Rahm Emanuel’s tenure as mayor, Chicago school unions need “yes” votes from 75 percent of the entire bargaining unit, not just those who cast a ballot, to strike.

But the CTU defied Rahm, the state legislature, and everyone else who thought it would be impossible for them to strike, and easily cleared that bar in 2012. Members are confident they’ll do it again — and send a message that Chicago Tribune–style arrogance won’t get workers at CPS to stop yelling.

Katie Osgood, a special education teacher at Suder Montessori Elementary School on the West Side, says teachers are fed up with “generous” offers that shortchange the unions on critical questions like adequate staffing, class size, and everything else that goes into quality public schools.

“There’s no payoff that they can give us that will cause us to look away from the harm being done to kids and our workers in the buildings,” Osgood says. “It’s gone on too long — austerity budgets, privatization, destabilization of our schools, especially schools on the South and West Side . . . A ‘yes’ vote gives us the power we need to make change.”

A Strange Kind of Respect

The Tribune’s advice might go down well in Chicago’s corporate boardrooms and bankers’ corner offices, but for teachers and school workers, it’s a different story. “Respects your profession”? Then why are CPS negotiators coming to the table with proposals to take away hard-won gains for teachers to practice their profession to high standards? One sticking point among many in talks is CPS’s demand that teachers give up even more control over prep-time periods so school principals can dictate the content of three out of five of them.

The school workers in Local 73 don’t even get that much respect. At a fact finder’s hearing about their contract this summer, a CPS official rejected the local’s call for special education classroom assistants (SECAs) to have prep time — because the work of SECAs with diverse learners is “intuitive” and doesn’t require planning, the official testified. Needless to say, many SECAs were deeply offended. (Last week, Local 73 rejected the report of that fact finder, starting the clock for a walkout to take place as early as October 17 — around the same time as the CTU could strike if teachers vote to authorize one.)

CPS likewise has a strange way of respecting teachers’ “determination.” The city has cut staffing so close to the bone that teachers have to be really determined to handle overcrowded classrooms in schools without enough — and in many cases, any — librarians, nurses, social workers, and other support staff.

CTU put increased staffing in support positions at the top of its list of contract demands for this round, and incoming mayor Lori Lightfoot promised that hiring in these areas would be a priority for her, too. But she and the school board she appointed are refusing to put their stated commitment to increased staffing in writing in the contract.

That’s especially problematic given a union analysis of the CPS budget passed by the board in August, which shows that Lightfoot’s promises to hire more support staff aren’t matched by actual budgeted positions. For example, Lightfoot promised to add two hundred school social workers over five years and claimed the new budget adds thirty-five this school year. But when the union went over the numbers in what’s known as the CPS position file, they found three fewer social worker positions compared to last year.

The mayor promised 250 more nurses hired over five years, and while the union says twice as many are needed, Lightfoot’s claim of thirty more budgeted nursing positions this year does at least almost match up with the actual budget. For this school year, the district has 135 listed positions for certified school nurses, the highest of three nursing classifications. But twenty-eight of those positions — over one in five — are vacant.

First of all, let it sink in that there are 107 certified school nurses in a district with more than 500 schools. But beyond that, the underlying reason for the high job vacancy rate is that CPS doesn’t approve or post many of these positions until the start of the school year — sometimes months after school begins — when most of the nurses looking for a job in schools have already taken positions.

That means little relief for nurses in the CPS system and their grinding routine of covering multiple schools every week. The stress of providing the care that students need and deserve while constantly being expected somewhere else takes a toll.

Erica McIntosh is a health service nurse who covers a high school in the Little Village neighborhood on the Southwest Side on Monday, goes to another high school on the Northwest Side and an elementary school on the West Side each Tuesday, and then bounces between all three the rest of the week.

And that’s better than when the school year started: McIntosh was assigned to visit a third school every Tuesday, this one down on the South Side, until she “yelled and screamed” and got that changed. All this leads to situations where McIntosh has to make nursing decisions she never should have to.

“You know that the person you’re taking care of right now needs your help,” she says, “but you know that you have to be at another place where people also need your help.” Plus, she says, CPS administrators don’t hesitate to pressure nurses to head to another assignment. “The way we’re working,” she says, “is not in the best interest of the patient. We’re working in the best interest of the mathematicians down at CPS.

Some “Generosity”

So what about that “generous” offer the Tribune gushed about? Every media account of the teachers’ contract battle marvels at the city’s offer of a 16 percent wage increase over five years for school workers.

But the math doesn’t add up for teachers. First of all, over five years, CPS’s proposal isn’t that much ahead of inflation, especially after added health-care costs shifted onto union members are taken into account.

Plus, CPS workers need to make up for lost ground. During the last contract negotiations in 2016 — when the teachers went on a one-day strike and came within minutes of an open-ended strike before Emanuel caved on key issues — CPS was in dire financial straits as a result of being “broke on purpose” by Emanuel and his old hedge-fund confederate, then–Republican governor Bruce Rauner. Unilaterally imposed furlough days in the schools in 2016 and 2017 knocked nearly four percentage points off the cost-of-living adjustments in union contracts.

All told, according to the CTU, cost-of-living adjustments for CPS union members from 2012 to this year added up to 7.3 percent, while the overall rate of inflation climbed by 10.5 percent. And the standard measure of inflation doesn’t account well for the cost of housing, which rose at a much faster rate in Chicago, as in other major cities.

For workers at the bottom of the ladder in CPS, it’s a constant struggle to make ends meet on a paycheck that is classified as “very low income” by the federal government. Among the PSRPs (paraprofessionals and school-related personnel) represented by the CTU, the city’s “generous” contract offer would leave teacher assistants with an annual salary in 2020 of under $36,000 — the same level that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development sets as “very low income” for a family of two in Chicago in assessing benefit eligibility. The special education classroom assistants of SEIU Local 73 are in the same boat, and other members of Local 73 at CPS make even less.

Christel Williams-Hayes, the recording secretary of CTU and a PSRP in CPS for twenty-six years before that, points out that many paraprofessionals have advanced degrees, just like teachers, but choose to do the work they love. “Everybody should be compensated for the work we’re doing,” she says, “and the respect should be there as well.”

CPS has the money to show educators some respect this time around. The system is benefiting from more than $1 billion in additional funding annually, money that was hoarded by the state government during the Rauner-Emanuel era and was finally extracted via new school funding formulas, in large part because of years of pressure from the CTU, other unions, and parent and community organizations.

In an interview for the new CTU Speaks podcast, union president Jesse Sharkey pointed to an opinion poll showing that nearly four in five Americans think teachers are underpaid, yet only 50 percent of educators said the same. “No one is more accommodating and self-sacrificing than a bunch of educators,” Sharkey said. “But there comes a time when, if you want to advocate for what’s right for the students, you have to start by advocating for what’s right for yourself.”

A Message to Send

Many of the Tribune’s complaints this year about irresponsible teachers seem relatively mild compared to past diatribes. During the 2016 contract battle, after CTU members again voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, the Trib compared teachers to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

But the firmly Republican paper couldn’t fully contain the contempt and venom that Chicago’s elite have historically directed at any group of workers that dares to take a stand. Its editorial ended with some old-fashioned labor-bashing propaganda: “Teachers, don’t be goaded by your strike-hungry union leaders into a walkout. It’s unnecessary. Kids shouldn’t be locked out of their schools for who knows how long to feed an ego-driven demonstration of power by CTU leadership.”

Dave Steiber, a social studies teacher in his thirteenth year at CPS, ticked off the insults and empty promises that teachers have endured, then concluded: “I would rather teach and be in the classroom, but I’m ready to strike . . . I’ll strike for every single one of my [almost 2,000 former] students. I’ll strike for all my future students. I’ll strike for my two sons in CPS. It should come as no surprise that I will be voting yes to authorize my union to strike.”

Back in 2012, Rahm Emanuel thought he had the teachers bullied into submission and fearful that voting for strike authorization would turn the public against them. But tens of thousands of teachers taught him and all of us the meaning of solidarity and struggle. On the picket lines, at downtown demonstrations, and in working-class neighborhoods across the city, Chicago showed it was what the Chicago Tribune has always loathed: a union town.

The example of the CTU’s strike spread — slowly and haltingly at first, until the first national strike wave in generations erupted a year and a half ago with educators in West Virginia, followed by the other red state revolts, then the blue state uprisings that shook cities like Seattle and Los Angeles.

“I view that movement of educators making common cause with the public as very much connected to the movement work that we’ve been doing in Chicago,” Sharkey said on the CTU podcast. “And we should be taking inspiration back from that movement, and remind ourselves that we can accomplish great things when we organize, when we ourselves are organized, when we lift up what we’re doing and how that appeals to the common good. That’s going to mobilize teachers, it’s going to mobilize members of the community, it’s going to mobilize parents. All those forces, when we’re joined together, make us a much stronger union and a much stronger movement.”

Chicago teachers have another message to send over the next three days. Then it will be time for Lori Lightfoot, CPS administrators, and their mouthpieces in the media to stop lecturing educators and start forking over what’s needed for the schools that students, teachers, staff, and all of Chicago deserve.