Chicago Teachers Strike for the Common Good

Chicago educators and school staff are about to enter a third week of striking. They’re showing how unions can use the power of picket lines and public pressure to fight for more than wage increases.

Thousands of demonstrators take to the streets in support for the ongoing teachers' strike, on October 23, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Heins / Getty Images)

Charity Freeman was absent from school picketing during the first days of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike, but she had a note from the Computer Science Teachers Association.

The Kenwood Academy High School teacher is one of ten educators nationwide chosen by the professional association to be equity fellows, and October 18, the second day of the strike, was the select group’s first face-to-face meeting in a yearlong program to help develop better computer science teaching practices. Back in Chicago, at a rally of several hundred strikers and supporters in front of Kenwood, Freeman said she felt honored by the fellowship.

“But that doesn’t make a difference if we’re teaching computer science classes that don’t have enough computers for students,” she told the crowd. “It doesn’t make a difference if, when my students are struggling, they don’t have a social worker to go to. It doesn’t make a difference if we’ve got hundreds of students for every school counselor. It doesn’t make a difference if we can only send our students to the nurse’s office on Thursday.”

The twenty-five thousand educators of the CTU and 7,500 school workers represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73 want their week-old strike to make that difference. And to make sure it does, they want their new contracts with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to commit in writing to increased resources; more nurses, counselors, and other support staff; class size caps; limits on school privatization; affordable housing assistance; and more.

The traditional bread-and-butter issues of wages and benefits are important in this strike, especially for the poorly paid paraprofessionals of both unions whose average annual salaries are low enough that their children qualify for free and reduced-price meals when they go to school. But the CTU and SEIU are using this strike to demand answers to bigger questions, too: what will it take to achieve education and social justice? And how can unions use the power of picket lines and public pressure to help get there?

This broader vision for labor is often called “bargaining for the common good.” The CTU’s 2012 strike, billed as a fight for “the schools Chicago students deserve,” was an early test case. Since then, some fifty unions and other organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, plus major local unions like the CTU, have formed a network to promote it.

Barbara Ransby, a historian, professor, and activist in Chicago, credits the CTU for helping build “a kind of social justice unionism,” born of union members “demanding of leadership that we can’t have a single-issue labor movement because we don’t live single-issue lives — to paraphrase Audre Lorde — and insisting that the union take up these other issues.”

“If We Don’t Stand up for Our Kids, Then Who Will?”

To new mayor Lori Lightfoot, though, bargaining for the common good is “unreasonable.”

Lightfoot ran as a reformer and promised during her campaign earlier this year that she would make equity in Chicago schools a top priority. Once in office, though, Lightfoot criticized the unions for pushing the issues that she campaigned on but now says aren’t “appropriate” in a union contract.

Roshonda Booker wants to know why it’s unreasonable or inappropriate for a teachers’ union to seek contract caps to shrink the size of her seventh and eighth grade science classes. Every day, she stands in front of thirty-seven and thirty-eight students at a time.

Booker teaches at Arthur A. Libby Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side. She credits her school principal’s fundraising skills for getting her classroom equipped with up-to-date technology, unlike other schools in the area. But it’s hard putting that technology to full use when there are so many students in one room.

Plus, those students are more likely to have other needs to meet before teaching can begin. Nearly every Libby student is African American or Latinx, and 86.5 percent qualify as low income, so the traumas of poverty, homelessness, inadequate health care, and violence are felt in the school every day. But Libby doesn’t have a nurse or a social worker in the building every day — or even most days. So it falls on teachers and other staff to do their untrained best.

Booker says the chronic neglect of schools in impoverished, predominantly African-American and Latinx neighborhoods on the South and West Sides hardens racial divisions in the city and closes off avenues for her students to advance. “When you’re depriving whole neighborhoods of resources like that,” she says, “then you have a pipeline that runs straight to the service industry, to working in Walmart or Target or McDonald’s — or straight to the prisons.”

In the South Loop on the edge of downtown, English teacher David Gilmer pointed at the brand-new building housing Jones College Prep High School as an example of “what we can accomplish when we have services.” Jones is one of the handful of CPS test-in “selective enrollment” high schools, a product of the hierarchy created by a quarter-century of corporate school reform. Though still underfunded compared to suburban school districts, selective enrollment and magnet schools get more resources from CPS, and there are better-off parents and businesses to donate to make up any shortfalls.

“As a Jones teacher, it’s really important that we’re out here,” Gilmer says, “because this is what it should look like all over the city.”

Fellow English teacher Brady Gunnink chimes in, “Which is what unions are for, right? To get us to think outside our own individual experiences and understand where we’re connected in this larger network of people and institutions.”

As for Booker, after eighteen years of seeing conditions get worse at Libby and other schools like it, she has no patience for Lightfoot’s complaints about what the CTU wants to bargain over. “If we don’t stand up for our kids, then who will?” she asks. “If we don’t fight for changes in the school system, then who will? It has to start with somebody, and as teachers, because we’re one of the biggest unions in the city, we’re choosing for it to start with us.”

Education Justice Is Racial Justice

Libby and the neighborhood that surrounds it are represented on Chicago’s city council by Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor, a veteran community activist who has a lot of experience starting fights for change. In 2015, Taylor was a leader of a hunger strike to save Dyett High School, a few miles east of Libby. The hunger strikers defied then-mayor Rahm Emanuel’s school-closing spree to get Dyett reopened as an arts-centered community school.

Taylor sees the CTU and SEIU strike as a new stage in the struggle, with the unions and the community recognizing the aims they have in common. “We want quality schools for our young people,” she says, “and their working conditions are our children’s learning conditions. It’s just common sense. For too long, they’ve been able to play us against each other.”

During the first weekend of the strike, Taylor was a speaker at a forum organized by a people of color–led coalition called Resist Reimagine Rebuild. She joined CTU chief of staff Jen Johnson, SEIU Local 73 executive vice president Jeffrey Howard, and representatives of Black Lives Matter Chicago, Black Youth Project 100, and other groups to discuss the topic “Education Justice Is Racial Justice.”

Johnson was coming straight from hours of frustrating negotiations as CPS officials tried to evade the issues Booker and Taylor want addressed. The union has the law working against it, too: a 1995 Illinois statute that helped kick off the era of corporate school reform gives Chicago’s mayor absolute control over CPS, including the right to handpick the school board, and restricts the CTU’s ability to negotiate anything other than pay, benefits, and the length of the school day. Chicago “is the only school district in Illinois with an appointed school board,” Taylor reminded the audience. “Why? Because a majority of the people that they serve are black and Latino.”

Still, the law can’t restrict the CTU’s determination to keep talking about class size, health care and social support for students, homelessness, and the rights of immigrants until CPS relents.

Johnson said that the union’s persistence in bargaining for the common good was showing results — but only after teachers and school workers took to the picket lines.

“We didn’t take no for an answer,” she said, “and miraculously, on the first day of the strike, we received a proposal for full-time school staff dedicated to working with students who are homeless.” CPS addressed class size and staffing for the first time, too. “They’ve had our proposals since January,” Johnson said, “and they didn’t bother to start responding until day one and day two of a strike. So, what does that tell you?”

The progress Johnson reported over that first weekend came to a halt as Lightfoot dug in her heels, even calling for teachers to return to work without a new contract. The following morning, CTU and SEIU members made their answer plain by skipping the picket lines in front of more than five hundred schools and gathering for a massive morning demonstration that jammed the downtown streets.

Back on the Kenwood Academy picket line the following day, Charity Freeman had a lesson planned. Freeman and her fellow teachers were working with Black Lives Matter Chicago and the Chicago Torture Justice Center to hold a “freedom school” — inspired by the example of the Civil Rights Movement half a century ago — on the sidewalk outside Kenwood.

Freeman says the Chicago strike is setting an example itself. She says she’s received messages of support from fellow educators in every corner of the country. “Everyone is watching the Chicago Teachers Union,” she says, “and the fight that we’re bringing to our mayor’s doorstep about what it means to actually have equity in our classrooms.”