In Striking, Chicago Teachers Went on the Offense for Public Schools 

Chicago public school teachers and staff didn't get everything they wanted in their recent strike. But they managed to both win the battle and break new ground in the teachers' strike wave throughout the United States.

Milwaukee Teachers Education Association / Flickr

Last month’s strike by Chicago teachers and school workers was business as usual. Because business as usual for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) over the past decade has meant shaking the city’s political and business establishment, challenging assumptions about what a union can fight for, and setting an example for labor of a union committed to rank-and-file power and social justice.

In 2012, the CTU struck the first real blow against the corporate school reform crusade in the laboratory where it was cooked up, with a seven-day strike that forced one of the most powerful politicians in the country, Rahm Emanuel, to back down. In 2016, the teachers led a coalition of unions and community organizations in a one-day public-sector general strike to confront a Republican governor’s austerity drive to starve the schools and public services — a glimpse of the future statewide teachers’ revolts that started in West Virginia two years later.

This fall, the CTU went on offense. The two-week-long strike at the end of October ended last week with a tentative agreement that “pushed the boundaries of traditional contract negotiations … far beyond fighting to increase salaries,” in the words not of some pro-labor rag but the mainstream US News and World Report.

“I don’t know if they didn’t think we were willing to walk out over classroom conditions and fight for what we wanted, or if they just didn’t understand how passionate we were about what we were fighting for,” says Makenzie Verdone, a third-grade teacher at McClellan Elementary School on the city’s Southwest Side. “But nothing happened at the bargaining table until there was a strike.”

None of the CTU’s previous battles ended in a clear-cut triumph. In 2012, then-president Karen Lewis described the celebrated outcome of the strike as “the deal we could get,” refusing to sugarcoat where the union lost ground. This year is no exception.

The tentative agreement contains enforceable caps on class size for the first time in a CTU contract, but the limits to be enforced instead of just recommended are still high. The union didn’t get badly needed additional prep time for elementary school teachers. The agreement has a commitment to put a nurse and a social worker in every school, remedying a critical need, but the hiring phase-in will take five years.

Teachers will weigh these issues as they decide whether to vote for ratifying the tentative agreement next week. But on the other side of the scales is pride in what they achieved over the spiteful opposition of Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the anti-union slanders of Chicago’s mainstream press.

The CTU was joined on the picket lines for the first time by the other main union in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73. Solidarity produced a big union win on wages, including extra increases for the lowest-paid members of both unions that will lift their poverty-level income by as much as 40 percent over five years.

But the most notable accomplishments vindicate educators’ determination to fight not only for themselves but their students and the community. The advances range from the explicit provisions on class size and staffing to support for homeless students and protections for the rights of immigrants to live and learn in Chicago.

To win these concessions, the CTU had to break through a legal barrier: a state law meant to stop it from bargaining over anything beyond wages and benefits. That law is still on the books, but the CTU used the power of picket lines and public opinion to revoke it in reality.


Refusing to Take No for an Answer

The CTU’s commitment to fight for all of Chicago goes back to the effort begun years ago by rank-and-file educators to empower members and revive a tradition of militant trade unionism based on strikes, solidarity, and social justice.

The union is led today by members of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), a reform group founded in 2008 among a small group of teachers who had fought together against Renaissance 2010, the pet project of then-CPS boss Arne Duncan to impose the school privatization project he later took national as Barack Obama’s education secretary.

The teachers of CORE made common cause with community organizations in the predominantly black and Latino South and West Sides of Chicago. It was a natural alliance against the Duncan agenda of charter-school promotion and public-school closures.

Thus, CORE’s reputation for linking the struggle of teachers to the fight against racism and injustice was present from the start. It followed them when CORE surprised the union’s old guard and swept into office in 2010. The new CTU leaders would compile a report to project their vision of education justice, with a title that became a slogan beyond their city: “The Schools Chicago Children Deserve.”

For most of CORE’s first two three-year terms in office, however, the CTU was locked in defensive struggles — to stop Emanuel’s attempts to permanently hobble the union and Republican governor Bruce Rauner’s savage austerity.

This year, the union’s offense finally made it on the field. Pointing to more than $1 billion in additional state money coming to CPS annually thanks to a 2017 state law — plus the commitment of SEIU Local 73 to unite in struggle with the teachers — CTU leaders like president Jesse Sharkey stressed the “historic opportunity” for unions to “improve our schools” with their next contracts.

Inspiration for the new agenda came from the rank and file in many cases. For example, the demand for a nurse in every school — one of the ever-present slogans of last month’s strike — emerged among nurses themselves, says Dennis Kosuth, who this year cares for students in three North Side schools each week, down from six last year.

After suffering years of deteriorating conditions, “in the fall of 2017, we started meeting on a regular basis, talking about how the shortage was affecting us,” Kosuth says. “Last year, we met with parent organizations like Raise Your Hand and student advocacy groups and collaborated about the issue of nursing in our schools. So it’s been a years-long process of raising our own confidence as nurses in the schools to demand better conditions for our students.”

But like other such demands, the call to hire more nurses ran up against a 1995 state law meant to hamstring the CTU by restricting the “mandatory” issues of bargaining to wages, benefits, and the length of the school day and year — a law that only applies to Chicago Public Schools.

In contrast to her predecessors Emanuel and Daley, Lightfoot claimed she supported many of the proposals advocated by the CTU on so-called “permissive” issues like staffing. But that didn’t stop her from exploiting the union’s legal shackling. In the spring, the Illinois House passed a bill that would overturn the bargaining restrictions. Shortly after taking office, Lightfoot asked the state senate president to stall the legislation, effectively killing it until next year.

Still, laws can’t prevent the CTU from raising its voice about the issues it isn’t supposed to bargain over. The union figured out a way around the rules — essentially by refusing to come to terms over salaries and benefits until CPS relented.

The strategy worked, but only when teachers and school workers went on strike. After weeks of stonewalling, CPS negotiators made their first substantive proposal on class size on the first day of the strike. Staffing levels followed on the second day.

A few days before, when the CTU had spotlighted housing justice for students, staff, and the community, the mayor and the media reacted with outrage. A union contract is “not the appropriate place for the city to legislate its affordable housing policy,” scoffed Lightfoot. The union demanded to know why not, and swayed public opinion with the gut-wrenching statistic that more than 17,000 CPS students are homeless.

By refusing to take no for an answer, the CTU won a very “appropriate” concession: a commitment in the contract for CPS to hire full-time coordinators in every school where more than 70 students are homeless, plus increased stipends across the system and greater access to city housing services, free transportation, and free clothing for students and their families.

Contract Wins and Losses

On the final day of the strike, as a freak Halloween snow fell on one last march of teachers and school workers around City Hall, Jackson Potter, a former CTU chief of staff now back teaching at Back of the Yards College Prep High School, reflected on the advances in this contract. “I don’t think it’s sunk in yet for people where we were at and how far we’ve come now,” he said.

Potter pointed to the enforceable class size caps. Class size is explicitly excluded from the issues the CTU can strike over. But the union won caps anyway. The new language is complicated and might not look effective to teachers at first glance, Potter said. But the union’s negotiating team fought hard for that language to prevent CPS from avoiding or delaying actions such as splitting up classes or providing a teachers’ assistant.

Potter hopes that discussions among teachers this week will reveal more of these hard-won gains. “This is the most substantial evidence we’ve seen since we’ve started this work that our vision is not just a plan written on a piece of paper but something that we’re starting to implement,” he said. “This contract really represents a breakthrough in that regard. There are explicit references to the very things we were demanding years ago. In that way, it’s not unlike other social movements, where you fight for a decade before you see the fruits of your labor.”

Nevertheless, Potter says he understands that the enforceable caps won’t seem like enough to teachers whose classrooms are overcrowded but under the too-high limits — ranging from thirty-two for kindergarten to thirty-eight for high school — that carry over from the last contract.

Whether the CTU had won as much as it could on class size was one of the big issues at the Wednesday night House of Delegates meeting that voted to suspend the strike. The vote was close: 364 to 242. Delegates say they were swayed back and forth all night as some teachers spoke passionately that the union should fight for more, and others argued just as passionately that it had won as much as it could this time around.

One point of contention was the amount of time to consider the tentative agreement. The CTU is rightly proud of the House of Delegates’ decision in 2012 to put off a vote on suspending the strike so members could discuss the terms on the picket line. That morning, teachers at many schools, though not all, left the picket line after an hour, prompting the education website Chalkbeat to wonder “where the teachers are.” They were “in churches, public buildings, private homes, and coffee shops … to talk through the city’s latest contract offer to their union.”

Still, the decision by the CTU leadership that afternoon to convene a House of Delegates meeting for a vote on a similar deal was too fast for some. For their part, members of the negotiating team say they faced complex dynamics: a judgement that Lightfoot and CPS had drawn a line after giving up major concessions; signs of increased frustration among parents who had overwhelmingly supported the strike; deteriorating weather.

Most teachers say the biggest drawback about the contract is its five-year length. Lightfoot was adamant on that, and union negotiators acknowledge that they agreed to five years in return for movement on other issues.

Makenzie Verdone of McClellan Elementary wonders about that give and take. “We gave them what they wanted,” she says, “but did we get what we wanted?” Verdone says she and other teachers were willing to stay on strike for additional prep time and other demands. But she’s realistic that more days on the picket line may not have won more.

Trinity Haynes, a seventh- and eighth-grade language arts teacher at Burroughs Elementary School, is also bothered by the contract length. “A lot can happen in five years,” she says, and the union won’t have the leverage of contract negotiations to respond.

Haynes at least hopes “the fire” the union stoked continues to burn. She points out how the CTU brought greater awareness to the twisted priorities of Chicago’s TIF system, a slush fund controlled by the mayor consisting of property tax revenue diverted from schools and other needs. TIF money is supposed to go to developing “blighted” neighborhoods, but it more often ends up in the pockets of wealthy real estate barons with connections in City Hall.

“We have these beautiful new buildings going up,” Haynes says, “and at my school, our chimney fell down. Luckily nobody was hurt. But it’s the story of Chicago: more for the rich, less for our students.”

Haynes is bitter about the mayor herself. “I voted for Lightfoot,” she says. “I had faith in her. I was looking forward to seeing some change, and I didn’t see the change that I thought I voted for.”

Teachers and school workers will not remember Lightfoot fondly after this strike, especially her scornful attitude toward the unions. The last of many straws came when CTU officers met with the mayor for a last compromise on makeup days — and Lightfoot had police bar Stacy Davis Gates, the union’s vice president, from attending.

The battle against the city’s upside-down priorities will go on, and the strike will have inspired teachers and school workers to join in where they can.

The struggle goes beyond Chicago, too. CPS may be getting additional money from the state at long last, but the district is still underfunded. By Illinois’s own measure, Chicago schools would need billions more to reach funding “adequacy.” That symptom of systematic inequality raises the bigger question of wealth redistribution in the United States — and where and how workers can fight for it, from the political arena to the many social struggles of the Trump era.

In the meanwhile, there is the day-to-day battle in the schools to enforce the CTU’s contract, to make the union’s gains at the negotiating table meaningful in the classroom. In an article earlier this year reflecting on the 2012 strike, Kirstin Roberts, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Brentano Elementary School and member of the union’s bargaining team, pointed out how returning to the grinding conditions of work “after you shut down a city” can cause demoralization.

In contrast to the media’s caricature of pampered teachers, working in the Chicago Public Schools is tough. Funding has been cut to the bone, the hours are long, and as a result, burnout is high. Close to half of CTU members who walked the picket lines last month weren’t around for the 2012 strike.

They now have an education in struggle alongside veteran teachers who learned from them. Returning to work means being prepared to fight the day-to-day battles on the shop floor. “Go back into your workplace consciously thinking about how to build upon what you just won,” Roberts advised. “Talk to the people you’re closest with and figure out what you’re going to do to carry that unity … back to work with you.”

Dennis Kosuth says the walkout inspired that sentiment among fellow nurses. “The strike is ending, but that doesn’t mean our work is going to end,” he said. “CPS has agreed to hire nurses for the next five years, but we’re going to have to stay vigilant and organizes so that it happens. We want to make sure that all the promises they’ve made are carried out. After so many years of suffering in silence, people feel like we’re standing up collectively.”