Chicago Educators Are Poised to Strike

The Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Local 73 are on the verge of a strike. Their demands are focused on improving conditions in classrooms — and they’re willing to walk off the job to make it happen.

Chicago Teachers Union president Jesse Sharkey speaks at a rally ahead of an upcoming potential strike on September 24, 2019 in Chicago. Scott Heins / Getty

Regardless of whether there’s a strike on October 17 as is currently promised, the current contract fight of Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), alongside the fight of over 5,000 CPS workers represented by SEIU Local 73, including special education classroom assistants, custodians, bus aides, and security officers, is a milestone for the CTU, teacher union reform, and for public education in the United States. As the union’s president Jesse Sharkey puts it, “we mean to improve conditions in our schools,” and are making those demands alongside another union, of mostly low-wage workers of color.

CTU members, a vast majority of whom are teachers, are demanding smaller class sizes and pay increases for CTU members who are paraprofessionals, as well as hiring more librarians, social workers, and nurses — as regular employees rather than agency temps. While CTU’s contract proposals may seem minor to those outside education, they go to the heart of improving what happens in classrooms with kids.

The union is battling for power about how and what students learn, for example in having elementary school teachers control use of the contractually mandated time for preparation at the start of the day, and protecting the most vulnerable students, those who require special education services, by specifying ratios for allocating case managers to schools and making sure aides are available to help students who need individual assistance.

Insisting these requirements be written into the contract uses the union’s power in collective bargaining to address teachers’ frustration at being unable to provide students with what they need. And though the CTU is framing this struggle with the call for giving “Chicago students the schools they deserve,“ this contract fight has elevated the struggle to a new level, asserting the power teachers’ unions can have in collective bargaining to give students the education they deserve.

One of the most important aspects of this strike is how it has built solidarity among education workers, what activists who led the West Virginia walkouts referred to as “wall-to-wall” organizing. Generally, school workers are represented by a dizzying array of unions, with teachers the largest constituency, one that is primarily white. Chicago is no exception. Seldom do teachers use their clout to bring lower-paid brown and black workers with them. Unions representing workers in “non-pedagogical” classifications often don’t honor picket lines of teachers when they strike.

SEIU Local 73 members have gone without a contract for a year. The union is demanding an end to privatization and cutbacks, improved conditions that permit members to provide meaningful support to students in special education classes and clean and safe school buildings. The union is pushing to increase pay, reward longevity, and restore paid benefit time that was taken away in previous contracts, demanding economic gains that can end the need for school workers to have two or three jobs to live.

The CTU has focused on conditions in classrooms while locating that struggle in the role schools and teachers must now play in helping students and families reeling from the effects of capitalism’s devastation of the working class, black and brown families most brutally. By directly contesting power relations in schools, CTU and the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) from which CTU’s leadership is drawn, and SEIU Local 73 have illuminated what needs to come next for the movement CTU spawned after its 2012 strike, including the “Red for Ed” statewide walkouts, victories of union reformers in myriad cities and states, and last year’s headline-grabbing strikes in Oakland and Los Angeles.

During its 2012 strike, CTU saw SEIU Local 73 cross its lines. In this campaign CTU members, most notably activist special education teachers, who rely on SEIU members as aides in their classrooms, have worked for unity. CTU and SEIU have timed their strike deadlines to coincide and have held joint press conferences.

CTU and Local 73’s current contract fights are a response to deteriorating educational services, a severe problem throughout the country but one most acute in low-income communities. Vicious retribution against the CTU followed on the heels of the 2012 strike, with the district closing dozens of schools and exploiting weakened legal protections to harass union activists who were leaders in schools. Differences within CORE about how best to resist and turn back the attacks, intensified by the illness and loss of its charismatic president Karen Lewis, were reflected in the growth of “Members First,” a conservative caucus that argued CTU’s commitment to social justice, in particular Black Lives Matter, had weakened the union by diverting resources better spent on protecting teachers.

CORE and CTU’s answer to the crisis has been to use the contract campaign to organize, revitalizing the union in the schools, and listening to members. Since the summer, the union has signed up about 3,000 new members, most of them new teachers. The specificity of CTU’s contract demands and its insistence that Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, who was elected on a seemingly progressive program and controls the schools, “put it in writing,” comes from members’ struggles to be heard about what counts, a function of CORE’s and the union leadership’s commitment to the trifecta of social justice, mobilization, and union democracy.

Although few in the labor movement argue explicitly against the need for union democracy, in practice, mobilizing members to participate in campaigns that union officers and staff control substitutes for using organizing to empower members in the workplace. The union acts on commitments to social justice and develops alliances with communities, but power is held by officials at the top. The model of mobilizing without democratizing the union is sometimes urged by advocates of union reform who intend it as an alternative to old-time “business unionism.”

SEIU nationally is arguably the union that has most refined this type of union reform, revitalization from the top, not only without democracy but while sometimes crushing it. Yet Local 73’s history, specifically the local’s takeover by the international, shows how complicated battles over union democracy can be and how hard it is to develop the organizational structures that nurture full participation of members and strong leadership.

The national SEIU model which revives union militancy without building a cadre of rank-and-file leaders who can and will contest leadership policies is a particularly worrisome problem for union reformers in the AFT and NEA who have won leadership on progressive platforms but have done so as individuals or in self-selected slates, without building a base in the schools. CTU and CORE have shown how an independent caucus can challenge the conservatizing pressures that union officials experience, learning from members and, as former Massachusetts teachers union president Barbara Madeloni puts it, pushing elected officers to refuse “the soft handshake” of the boss.

CTU and CORE have taught us, again, that union power doesn’t come from promises by friendly politicians or interventions from union staff. Contract language won at the bargaining table is only as effective in altering conditions as members’ ability and willingness in the schools to enforce the provisions. Moreover, CORE’s experience over the past decade as home for the CTU leadership has taught us that a reform caucus that stays independent of the union apparatus and committed to its principles, including democracy from below, is as difficult to sustain as it is essential.

With this contract campaign, working hand in hand with SEIU Local 73, CTU has established a new gold standard for unions, teaching labor what a “rank-and-file” strategy means in practice.