Chicago Teachers Show Again How to Fight and Win

The Chicago Teachers Union’s two-week strike ended yesterday. Like their 2012 walkout, this strike fought for a broader range of demands for Chicago students and won major victories on pay and benefits — and it did so against a mayor, Lori Lightfoot, who campaigned on progressive promises only to abandon them immediately after taking office.

Braving snow and cold temperatures, thousands marched through the streets near City Hall during the eleventh day of an ongoing teachers' strike on October 31, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Heins / Getty

On Thursday, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) ended its eleven-day strike after reaching a tentative agreement with the city’s school board on a five-year contract. The contract includes class size reductions, staffing increases, and improved compensation. But the scope of what the teachers fought for, and what they accomplished, goes beyond the terms enshrined in the contract. They used the strike to take aim at some of the city’s most inequitable policies and worst actors, and asked Chicagoans to consider what kind of city they want to live in.

The longest teacher strike in Chicago since 1987, it built on the 2012 strike — and the nationwide educator-led strike wave it helped initiate — in both length and latitude. The legal and logistical obstacles they faced included a 2011 state bill championed by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel that requires 75 percent of CTU all of membership’s approval to strike, widely considered at the time to be prohibitive; the 1995 GOP-passed Chicago School Reform Act, which narrowed the areas in which the CTU could legally negotiate, excluding even issues like class size; and whether the public would support the teachers’ third strike threat in seven years.

The new obstacle was a mayor who campaigned on a progressive platform and deviated sharply from it during bargaining. Unlike Emanuel, who swept into office and followed through on pledges to “reform” Chicago’s flailing school system through privatization and austerity (for which he belatedly and cravenly apologized), Lori Lightfoot the candidate explicitly pledged to invest money and resources back into public education. In many areas, such as ensuring sufficient staffing, improving mental health services, and implementing an elected school board, her promises aligned with the demands teachers were making. While her background serving on Emanuel’s police accountability board and working to advance Republican legislative goals gave many doubts about her convictions (including the CTU, which endorsed her opponent, Toni Preckwinkle, in the runoff election), many Chicagoans hoped she would be a force for progress in CPS. “I’m not Rahm,” she herself stated.

The strike became an early and potentially lasting referendum on the mayor’s leadership, through a combination of the teachers’ militancy and broad social vision, and Lightfoot’s evasiveness and antagonism. Lightfoot, who previously vowed there would be no teachers’ strike on her watch, tried various strategies to undermine the union: undercutting bargaining by preemptively canceling school on Monday in the middle of weekend negotiations, and releasing a letter requesting teachers return to school without a contract, in what was either a fundamental misunderstanding of or complete indifference to how labor negotiations work. As the strike continued, the mayor and her team repeatedly insisted there was “no more money” for the contract while unveiling a budget with additional funding for police, and finally threatened to stop paying for teachers’ health insurance should the strike stretch into November. By lashing out at the teachers and impugning their demands, Lightfoot gave the impression of being more invested in her public image than in improving the lives of the city’s underserved children.

In contrast to the mayor, the CTU lifted up demands for the city’s working class. Led by the militant Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE), the union organized its members on hundreds of picket lines, regardless of weather, and on social media, where they kept the community updated and clapped back at condescending attacks by the city’s reactionary editorial writers. At every turn, the educators emphasized that they were fighting not just for fair compensation, but for holistic improvements in every aspect of the school system.

A significant contributing factor to the CTU’s broad focus was its partnership with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73, which represents 7,500 CPS special education classroom assistants, nurses, bus aides, and other essential school personnel. From the outset, the unions acted together, going on strike the same day and holding joint town halls and other events, showing interunion solidarity to an extent rarely seen in the labor movement. That continued even after SEIU Local 73 reached a tentative agreement with CPS but then voted unanimously to continue striking with the teachers. The solidarity between these two unions aided each other’s negotiations, and better positions them to work collectively to ensure the city adheres to their contracts.

As the strike continued and the city struggled with multiple flimsy defenses, the unions escalated their tactics and took to the streets (and learned the choreography to “Thriller.”) On the strike’s fifth day, they led 30,000 community members to surround City Hall while the mayor was unveiling her budget, echoing chants of “Lori Lightfoot, get on the right foot” through downtown. While community support — including from the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Jobs with Justice’s Bread for Ed program, which raised nearly $50,000 to feed hungry staff and students — was sustained throughout the strike, the downtown rally was the site of its ugliest incident, in which several teachers reported being spit on by someone in the Board of Trade building. That someone in the literal epicenter of capitalist dominance would spit on striking teachers from high up in their towers is appalling — but it also indicates the effectiveness of the unions’ challenge to the city’s seats of power.

The unions were unafraid to target capitalist enemies by name, in this case the real-estate developers and their massive city subsidies. Like the six DSA members who now sit on the city council (and denounced the mayor in a Chicago Sun-Times op-ed), the teachers drew connections between austerity in schools and the lavish grants bestowed on developers with little discussion or debate. On consecutive days, the unions converged at the planned sites for Lincoln Yards and the 78, two luxury residential developments due to receive $2 billion in public money. It feels odd to see protestors convening at what are mostly vacant lots and abandoned buildings, but it’s a reminder that the city has repeatedly placed the prospective future of the wealthy above the present needs of its most marginalized residents.

Following the Lincoln Yards rally, the CTU protested outside the offices of its developer, Sterling Bay. Chicago police arrested nine union members. Activists have alleged that Sterling Bay gamed the definitions of “blight” in order to secure its mammoth funding, and Lincoln Yards was a top priority for Emanuel that Lightfoot seems intent on protecting. By calling out real-estate developers and the government that serves them, the CTU is driving the debate over affordable housing and how the city spends its money. In response, Lightfoot leaned on assertions that the funding can’t be reallocated without significant legal hurdles, but as CTU spokeswoman Chris Geovanis said, “This is a dispute about priorities.” While Lightfoot referred to funding public education as a “bailout” and repeatedly criticized the scope of the CTU’s demands, the union maintained that fostering good schools for every student and employee requires addressing a spectrum of interconnected priorities.

Many of the CTU’s top priorities are now included in its tentative agreement with CPS. The city will invest $35 million to reduce classroom sizes and a pledge to put a nurse and social worker in every school. Class size limits will be enforceable, and there will be additional support for homeless and immigrant students. And while the contract made significant gains, many CTU members believed that the union could have come away with more, a fact reflected in the 40 percent who voted against accepting the tentative agreement.

Some of the agreements, particularly in staffing, give CPS leeway to avoid fulfilling them until toward the end of the contract’s five years. Others are couched in more aspirational language, meaning that the teachers will have to continue fighting to see the contract fulfilled. There are more steps to go toward a truly equitable school system, including an elected school board, which the CTU also fought for during the strike. And although she finally reached an agreement, Lightfoot remained hostile to the end, prolonging the strike an additional day by refusing to add make-up days to the school year, all while insisting that she prioritized children’s education. (They eventually agreed to add five days, officially ending the strike — a victory for the mayor.) But while the contract may not have achieved the full extent of the demands CTU originally laid out, it won tangible improvements in a number of key areas, and provided scaffolding for future gains in line with the union’s vision of a more just school system for all.

Throughout the strike, the mayor made clear that she does not hold the progressive beliefs on which she campaigned. In contrast, the CTU stood by their wide-ranging demands and achieved significant benefits for their students and schools. They showed the city who was actually committed to fighting for progress, and who is just standing in its way.