The Chicago Teachers Union Has Defeated a Key Anti-Union State Law

A 1995 Illinois state law massively restricted the Chicago Teachers Union’s ability to bargain over anything but pay and benefits. The union has finally succeeded in rolling the law back — opening the door to bargaining over key issues like reversing privatization and the outsourcing of school services, capping class sizes, and more.

Chicago Teachers Union president Jesse Sharkey speaks at a gathering where teachers and supporters demanded a safe and equitable return to in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic in Chicago, IL on December 12, 2020. (Max Herman / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

One of the most harmful legislative weapons in the corporate school “reform” arsenal has been deactivated. Last week, Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker signed a law ending drastic restrictions on collective bargaining rights for teachers in a single school district out of 859 in the state: Chicago, home of the free-market education reformers’ hated enemy, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

For the CTU, this is a precious victory, one championed for years by Karen Lewis, the union’s late president emerita. The new law overturns portions of the 1995 Chicago School Reform Amendatory Act that barred Chicago teachers from negotiating over anything other than pay and benefits in their contract. Everything else — class size, school staffing, outsourcing, testing, educational equity — was off the table by legislative fiat.

The new law will give the CTU more leverage in its ongoing battle with Chicago’s spiteful mayor Lori Lightfoot over the reopening of high schools. Back in January, as the State Senate took up House Bill 2275, Lightfoot begged legislators to put off overturning the bargaining restrictions until 2024. Senators passed the bill anyway, and now Pritzker has signed it into law.

But Pritzker did delay signing the legislation until now, leaving the restrictions in place during the CTU’s battle over K-8 reopening in January and February, when the union threatened to strike in defiance of Lightfoot’s threats to lock them out of their virtual classrooms. Images of Chicago educators teaching outside in the snow spread around the national media, illustrating the teachers’ determination to oppose a reckless reopening plan.

The agreement on reopening, narrowly ratified by CTU members in mid-February, won some improvements in the CPS plan. But it was a disappointment to many teachers — including some who voted yes because they didn’t think the union could win more. “Let me be clear,” wrote CTU President Jesse Sharkey after the ratification vote. “This plan is not what any of us deserve. Not us. Not our students. Not their families.”

Lightfoot had repeatedly claimed that CPS was under no obligation to negotiate with the CTU over reopening, so Pritzker’s delay clearly had an impact. Now, though, after a quarter-century, the playing field between the union and its employer has finally been leveled.

The Anti-Union Grab Bag

The 1995 Chicago School Reform Amendatory Act was a milestone achievement in the early days before corporate school reform hit the big time.

The law cemented the Chicago mayor’s control over a handpicked (rather than democratically elected) school board, curbed the powers of elected Local School Councils, banned Chicago teachers from striking for eighteen months, and established a CEO position at the top of the CPS administration. Several national figures of the reform crusade, including Barack Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan, first rose to prominence in this job. Like Duncan, very few have had any background in education, much less classroom experience.

One of the nastiest provisions in the anti-union grab bag prohibited contract negotiations over anything other than bread-and-butter issues like pay and benefits. Unlike every other school district in Illinois, the CTU couldn’t bargain over class size, adequate support staff, outsourcing of school services, and more.

“The things that are a given in well-funded school districts, like lower class sizes, were viewed in Chicago as a burden and something that black and brown kids weren’t supposed to have,” said CTU political director Kurt Hilgendorf. “I think the fact that those issues were explicitly outlawed from being subjects of bargaining in Chicago speaks volumes about what corporate America thinks about black and brown kids.”

At the time, veteran State Senator Miguel del Valle called the law the worst piece of education legislation he had ever seen. That earlier assessment didn’t stop del Valle from, years later, accepting his current position: president of the Chicago school board, handpicked by Lightfoot under the 1995 law he once decried.

Other Chicago Democrats had even quicker changes of heart. Chicago’s mayor in 1995, Richard M. Daley, claimed to oppose the law when it passed, but he immediately used its powers to pack the school board with business leaders dedicated to the privatization agenda.

Likewise, when she campaigned for mayor, Lori Lightfoot promised to support bills for an elected school board and lifting the bargaining restrictions. As soon as she took office, however, she tried to block both pieces of legislation. She ultimately failed to stop the CTU’s bargaining powers from being restored. Legislation giving Chicago the right to elect its school board passed the House but didn’t come to a vote in the Senate in the last session.

The “More Pay for Less Say” Trade-Off

For a time, the 1995 law had its desired effect: the Chicago Teachers Union, which had struck nine times in eighteen years in the 1970s and ’80s, was sapped of its strength, as it lost the ability to bargain over teachers’ working conditions and students’ learning conditions. A succession of ineffectual union leaders accepted a “more pay for less say” trade-off, and Chicago suffered all the hallmarks of school reform: punitive measures against poorly performing schools, a charter school invasion, high-stakes testing, mass school closures, and “turnarounds.”

That began to change when a reform group, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, won control of the union in its 2010 internal election. Headed by Karen Lewis, the new CTU leaders projected their vision of education justice with a report whose title became a slogan around the country: “The Schools Chicago’s Children Deserve.”

Central to that vision was confronting CPS over more than pay and benefits — much more, in fact, than even the conditions of teaching and learning in the classroom. CTU made common cause with community and social justice organizations, supporting a broad agenda in the interests of working-class Chicago, especially the black and Latino students who make up the overwhelming majority of CPS students.

Thanks to a partially successful effort to overturn the 1995 anti-union law, bargaining issues such as class size and staffing that had been “prohibited” before became “permissive” subjects of negotiations, at the discretion of CPS.

Maybe city officials thought this was a distinction without a difference, since the board still had the option of not taking up “permissive” issues. But this new law gives the new CTU some leverage during contract negotiations. If members were united in fighting for the schools Chicago students deserve, the union could refuse to come to terms over salaries and benefits until CPS relented and negotiated over other issues.

In each of the last three contract campaigns, the union had to go on strike or come to the verge of one to force “permissive” issues onto the table. As CTU chief of staff Jen Johnson explained in the midst of the October 2019 strike, “We didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, 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 finally addressed class size on the strike’s first day and responded on staffing the next. “They 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?”

To settle the 2019 strike, CPS had to make significant concessions on issues ranging from class size and staffing levels to resources for homeless students and protections for the undocumented. The 1995 law restricting CTU’s bargaining rights was significantly undermined — but only while CTU members were on the picket lines. Lightfoot and CPS could still use the restrictions to justify not negotiating with the union over whether and when in-person learning would resume.

Beating the School Reform Goliath

Getting the 1995 law off the books for good was a top priority for the CTU leadership. The reform leadership that took over a decade ago focused on a new political strategy, one consistent with their commitment to standing with community and social justice struggles.

In 2014, the CTU joined with SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana (HCII), Grassroots Illinois Action, and Action Now to form United Working Families (UWF), a political vehicle to vie for office and power.

The alliance ran CTU and HCII members as candidates for state and local office, along with recognized leaders of community organizations. Candidates put forward by UWF and progressives drawn to the alliance are a bloc in the State House that helped move legislation prioritized by the CTU. More prominently, UWF played a central role in electing six members of the Democratic Socialists of America to the Chicago City Council in 2019.

The CTU and its allies have achieved a high political profile, effectively creating a coherent left pole in Chicago politics that had not previously existed. Underlying this development is the strength of a union representing twenty-five thousand educators that is prepared to stand up for issues that working-class Chicago cares about.

“We represent families across the city,” says Kurt Hilgendorf of CTU. “Well over 80 percent of students in the Chicago Public Schools are Latinx or black, over 80 percent are low-income. The people we serve every day are people who have historically been locked out of access to political power. It was our job to connect with them to make sure that they understood that we were fighting for things that improve their existence — in their school lives and for things that were outside of school.”

The particular bargaining restrictions on the CTU were unique, but teachers’ unions in many states live under laws that limit their rights — some to bargain at all, others to strike, others to advocate for the issues that are most important to their members. The CTU’s success in Illinois offers hope that the school reform Goliath can be beaten back everywhere.

It also marks a sea change in the debate on corporate school reform. In 2015, billionaire hedge fund tycoon Bruce Rauner took office as governor of Illinois, with the stated goal of taming public-sector unions, starting with the teachers. Rauner wanted the bargaining restrictions on the CTU to be extended to every other school district in Illinois.

Six years later, the shoe is on the other foot: Rauner is a disgraced one-term governor whose popularity plunged nonstop from day one in office — and the Chicago Teachers Union has achieved another victory for all of working-class Chicago.