Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot Has Become Rahm Emanuel 2.0

Mayor Lori Lightfoot promised to end business as usual in Chicago. Instead, she’s antagonizing teachers, refusing to fully fund public schools, and giving the rich whatever they want. That agenda didn’t end well for Rahm Emanuel. It won’t for Lightfoot, either.

Striking Chicago public school teachers and their supporters rally in Union Park before marching through the streets of the west side neighborhood on October 21, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Olson / Getty

On the campaign trail for mayor of Chicago late last year, Lori Lightfoot pitched herself as a progressive. “I’m not Rahm,” she repeatedly insisted.

But now that Lightfoot is in office, her actions are looking more and more like those of her anti-union, anti-public education, friend to Wall Street, never-met-a-corporate-giveaway-he-didn’t-like predecessor, “Mayor 1 Percent” Rahm Emanuel.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and school staff represented by SEIU Local 73 have been on strike since October 17. After four days of progress at the bargaining table, Monday was a turning point in the strike. Rather than meet the teachers’ demands for smaller class sizes and more support staff like nurses, social workers, and librarians, and the demand of support staff for a living wage after years of poverty-level earnings, Mayor Lightfoot and her negotiating team abruptly resorted to a slew of strong-arm tactics aiming to discredit the city’s educators and force them back to work.

In a move straight out of Emanuel’s playbook, Lightfoot and Chicago Public School CEO Janice Jackson on Monday morning issued a letter blaming the CTU and SEIU Local 73 for the hardships confronting Chicago’s students and parents and calling on them to immediately return to work before any agreement has been reached. Next, the mayor’s team proceeded to declare that it would not cede a penny more in negotiations with CTU, and her negotiators walked out after only twelve minutes of bargaining with Local 73.

“The mayor,” CTU replied, “has embarked on a dangerous path.”

It’s a path that she had already embarked upon before the strike, antagonizing the union further by taking the unprecedented step of publicly refusing to make up for the strike by adding days to the end of the school year, something no other mayor had ever done.

It’s certainly true that the strike has disrupted life for hundreds of thousands across the city. But Lightfoot is to blame for this, not the educators fighting for CTU’s vision of the schools Chicago’s students deserve.

The mayor could have easily avoided a strike by sticking to her campaign promises. Lightfoot actually ran on many of the Chicago teachers’ longtime demands for public education: an elected representative school board rather than one appointed by the mayor, a freeze on charter-school expansion, strong investments in public schools. She even told the Chicago Sun-Times, “As mayor, I will … provide each school with basic educational support positions like librarians, nurses, and social workers” — the CTU’s own contract demands in this strike.

Like Rahm in 2012, Mayor Lightfoot is now claiming there’s simply no money to give students what they need. In reality, Chicago — like the rest of the country — is facing a priorities crisis, not a funding crisis. Not only is Chicago Public Schools now receiving one billion dollars more yearly from the state, but the city recently decided to move ahead with plans to give over a billion in public funds to build Lincoln Yards, a luxury real-estate development project. As we’ve seen in strike after strike since West Virginia erupted in early 2018, politicians can be forced to find the money — if they are compelled to from below.

CTU and Local 73 are now preparing to escalate. Last night, CTU issued the following call to action:

Because of the mayor’s actions, the strike is heading into a new phase that will require a new set of tactics to get bargaining moving again … Tomorrow, the rank-and-file members of the bargaining team will not return to the table. They won’t waste their time trying to talk to a brick wall. Instead, they will head back to the picket lines to report to their coworkers and build the kind of solidarity that has already led to progress toward a fair contract.

Lightfoot is up against this kind of resolve from one of the country’s most militant, best-organized teachers’ unions, as well as another school staff union that’s striking in solidarity with them. A Chicago Sun-Times poll just before the strike showed that Chicagoans backed the union over Lightfoot and the city’s Board of Education. During the CTU’s 2012 strike, polls found CPS parents backing the union over Mayor Emanuel.

CTU has made the case to the people of Chicago that their unionism and their strike are not just about winning better pay and benefits for themselves, but fighting for a school system that serves the students of Chicago and a city that serves its working-class residents rather than the rich. As long as Chicagoans believe this, Lightfoot can’t win the strike.

The mayor understands this, which is why she wrote a Sun-Times op-ed yesterday entitled, “As mayor of Chicago, I will always be on the side of educational equity.” You have to admire the gall: publicly battling, in front of the whole world, the CTU’s contract demands for exactly that kind of equity, then insisting that she is actually the one fighting for educational justice.

“Voters sent an unmistakable message that they were looking for a departure from ‘business as usual,’” Lightfoot wrote about her election, “the old way where the well-connected and the wealthy came out ahead while entire swaths of our city sat ignored.” It makes for a nice sound-bite. But it’s the exact opposite of what Lightfoot has done since becoming mayor. She clearly has no intention of breaking with business as usual in Chicago.

Mayor Lightfoot is perfectly content to pick up right where Rahm Emanuel left off, fighting educators’ demands for decent schools while continuing to give away billions to whichever corporations come calling. Unlike Emanuel, she understands that such an agenda makes for bad PR. But the substance of her agenda is the same.

That agenda didn’t fare well for Mayor Lightfoot’s predecessor. The CTU was too strong, dealing Emanuel his first major defeat in 2012; the reputation he earned during that strike as a tool of the rich and antagonist of the city’s working class never wore off for the rest of his tenure as mayor. It won’t for Mayor Lightfoot, either.