Last week, I opened my work email to find further evidence that the mayor of Chicago and the Board of Education simply do not care about the well-being of teachers, students, and school staff. Months ago, I applied to work remotely to avoid catching COVID-19 and bringing it home. My wife has stage-4 breast cancer, so we have been living especially carefully. But I learned that the board wanted me back in a room with thirty students, few of whom would be eligible for the vaccine.
If it weren’t for my union, the Chicago Teachers Union, I would feel little hope. Last week, we voted to continue working remotely regardless of the Board of Education’s directives. Yesterday, we followed through on that threat, staying at home to teach despite blustering from the school district about an “illegal strike” and threats of retaliation. This was my union, made up of teachers, paraprofessionals, and clinicians, taking ownership of our schools and supporting the wishes of the families we serve.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a crisis for workers, putting the heartlessness of capitalism on full display for nearly a year now. The Trump administration nationally and state and municipal governments in our backyard have been pushing workers to deal with the massive losses of life and continue working as the wealthy take vacations on islands that are staffed by more working people.
In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has tried twice to open up schools to in-person learning. The first time, in the fall, the CTU immediately called for a meeting of union representatives to vote on a strike. The mayor and her handpicked Board of Education blinked. Students were able to learn safely via distance learning.
The mayor, however, is now ordering all prekindergarten through eighth grade teachers to report back to work. Keep in mind, this is weeks before the vaccine has been made available to teachers, and before there is any vaccine for children. If Lightfoot and the board refuse to relent, they’ll have a big fight on their hands — one that could look like the 2019 CTU strike that lasted fifteen days.
The CTU has organized dozens of meetings of parents, educators, students, and other concerned members of the community to discuss the Chicago Public Schools’ lack of plans and resources to ensure a safe return to in-person education. This is not a typical contract campaign. We are fighting for our lives and our neighborhoods. We are often the hubs of the communities we serve. And we are now in a position to stand up to a mayor who has the ultimate authority to make the call on what’s right.
Unfortunately, our national president, Randi Weingarten, hasn’t been helping our efforts. On Monday, Weingarten published a coauthored op-ed in USA Today calling for schools to be reopened. To her credit, Weingarten proposed an ambitious testing regime. But ultimately, she, too, wants a solution that will force teachers back into schools, which could easily become vectors of infection.
In Chicago, we are ready to fight tooth and nail to keep our communities safe. The CTU is full of rank-and-file leaders with years of classroom experience and years of service to students. This is a fighting, democratic union that stands up — and isn’t afraid to strike — for a socially just city.
My hope is that our actions this past week will be enough to push the mayor to return the system to distance learning. I don’t expect her to have a change of heart morally. But solidarity has been the only thing that has pushed her in the past — and it’s the strongest weapon we have right now.