Chicago Looks to Strike

The Chicago Teachers Union has established itself as a union that fights for the entire working class. In striking tomorrow, the union’s strategy is about solidarity — not only within their own union, but with SEIU Local 73, whose members earn poverty wages and are also walking off the job.

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union gather at a rally ahead of an upcoming potential educators strike on September 24, 2019 in Chicago. Scott Heins / Getty

Barring any last-minute movement at the negotiating table tonight, over 35,000 Chicago Public Schools workers will go on strike tomorrow. Leading the charge is the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), building on its recent contract fights and the nationwide teachers’ movement, and driven by a shared vision of a just education system for all. In 2012, Chicago educators gave a blueprint for using union contract negotiations and militant workplace action to fight for broad reforms that benefit all workers; today, they’re doing it again.

The numbers and strike approval vote alone would make it one of the most significant strikes in years: 25,000 CTU teachers, clinicians, and support staff (94 percent of whom authorized a strike); 7,500 special education classroom assistants, custodians, security officers, and bus aides from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73 (97 percent); and 2,500 SEIU Chicago Parks District supervisors, attendants, instructors, and landscape laborers (94 percent).

But the most important aspect of the unions’ strategy for the labor movement is their commitment to solidarity — not only with fellow members of their own union, but with another union, Local 73, as well as students and all of working-class Chicago.

Negotiations have stalled in recent weeks over the Chicago School Board’s refusal to meet either union’s demands. But unlike 2012, when Local 73’s leadership accepted an early contract, in a move that many teachers and SEIU rank-and-file members believed undermined the CTU’s negotiating position, the two unions have supported each other both publicly and at the bargaining table. “The schools don’t work without all of us,” CTU president Jesse Sharkey recently stated.

Their cooperation extends to their strike date: October 17 enables the parks district workers to join them on the picket line. It would be the first strike in the park district’s eighty-five-year history, underscoring both the dire circumstances many CPS workers face and their conviction that a united front is necessary to reverse the many ways the city fails its public employees, students, and their families.

Since 2010, the CTU has bucked the conservatism of most of the US labor movement by openly criticizing the privatization and austerity agenda of former mayor Rahm Emanuel, in both education and the public sector as a whole, and excoriating Democrats’ obsession with charter schools as a means to dismantle education as a public good. That broader vision and opposition to austerity can be seen in both CTU and SEIU’s contract demands.

The CTU is calling for reduced class sizes, as years of school closures and staffing cuts have placed as many as forty kids in a single classroom. A recent union study found that nearly a quarter of CPS classrooms are overcrowded. They also demand staffing that meets students’ needs. One CPS report found 61 percent of schools have a certified school nurse one day per week or less. Similarly, short-staffed special education teachers, social workers, and other specialists can’t meet the needs of students with individualized education programs or serious health issues. That underfunded schools routinely fall short of even legal minimum requirements for students’ well-being is a moral failure that the CTU aims to fix through its contract.

Local 73 is also bargaining on a broad scale. One major issue is CPS replacing custodial employees with contractors Sodexo and Aramark. Besides reducing wages, the private contractors’ lack of training and supplies leaves many schools in squalid conditions. The division of labor into public and privatized also erodes school communities: at a recent meeting of the Chicago Teachers and Staff Solidarity Campaign, a community support group for the strikes, an SEIU member remarked how hard it was for teachers and students to form relationships with custodial contractors who are rotated constantly. It’s these foundational aspects of school life that the workers are willing to strike to restore.

Contract language addressing these issues would establish clear-cut commitments from the city and foster accountability on both sides. But although CPS maintains it agrees with many of the unions’ demands, and pledged, for example, to hire more social workers and nurses, it’s unwilling to put those demands in writing in a contract. The unions are apparently expected to trust Lori Lightfoot will fulfill her promises without any formal mechanism to ensure those promises are carried out. That the mayor really thinks educators will accept this wink-and-a-handshake commitment instead of a written contract that includes these demands is insulting.

And while Lightfoot made fixing the schools a centerpiece of her campaign, she’s offered little of substance to reverse Emanuel’s austerity. A CTU analysis of the city budget that she said provided “unprecedented investments” actually revealed decreases in social workers and nurses, among other cuts.

Local media parrots the CPS narrative. In a recent editorial urging teachers to “take the deal” because “you’ve won,” the Chicago Sun-Times chastised CTU teachers for reaching for more than just raises. But while wages are a crucial component of this fight — especially for Local 73 members working as bus aides making $16,000 a year, and classroom assistants who work second and third jobs to afford the rising costs of housing in Chicago — the unions haven’t accepted an offer that only targets a handful of financial areas of need. “CPS thinks it can buy us off,” the union declared.

Rather than play defense, the unions have shifted tactics. The CTU rejected an independent fact-finding report offering recommendations on only three of twenty-one issues disputed by the board and union: wages, health care, and contract length. It punted on assessing sanctuary schools, which would provide additional support for immigrant and undocumented students, including protection from immigration agents; sustainable community schools, which increase wraparound resources and nonacademic services for students in low-income communities; and adequate substitute staffing — items that may not be traditionally associated with contracts, but which the union considers just as integral to safe, productive schools.

A campaign shaped by educators themselves — the majority of the CTU’s bargaining team are rank-and-file members — that emphasizes community concerns and refuses to settle for unenforceable promises offers a meaningful, replicable model for education workers elsewhere who can reclaim the idea of “education reform” from the privatizers and drive progressive reform of public schools themselves. And by demanding that CPS negotiate over key issues like affordable housing, the CTU and SEIU are making the case that financial compensation is inseparable from staffing, facility conditions, and community needs like habitable living conditions and sanctuary for undocumented students.

The red state teachers’ revolt of 2018 demonstrated that teachers who fight for their students and their communities can draw broad support. The union contract can be a tool for making profound, progressive improvements to schools, that actually serve the public interest, lasting and enforceable. And when confronted with our era’s defining political question, “But how will you pay for it?” their approach doesn’t apologize for the money that educating people requires but asks why real-estate developers and large corporations are so seamlessly subsidized.

CTU vice president Stacy Davis Gates offered a simple answer to this question when reiterating the union’s demand that Illinois’s wealthiest residents pay their fair share, “Where will the money come from? Rich people.”

The need for holistic change in our schools demands a holistic model of contract bargaining. The CTU and SEIU draw direct lines from crumbling facilities and understaffing to policies of privatization and austerity, and take initiative in areas not traditionally seen as within educators’ purview, like housing and immigration. By doing so, they’re showing how these factors all affect the educator’s capacity to teach and the student’s capacity to learn. Their case is unimpeachable. Mayor Lightfoot must now decide whether she’s as committed to children’s education and building a better Chicago for all as the city’s workers are.