By Karyn Pomerantz
November 14, 2019
Chicago teachers struck for 2 weeks in October 2019, adding to the 373,000 teachers who walked out in six states in 2018 to demand better wages and conditions and improved education for their approximately 400,000 students. The strike of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and SEIU Local 73 of school staff raised the bar for the labor movement. This article covers its demands, significant support, and lessons learned.
Racist Public School System
Ninety percent (90%) of Chicago public school students are black or Latinx and attend segregated schools with large classes, deteriorating physical conditions, police surveillance, and inadequate support resources, such as social workers, who can address living conditions. In Still Separate, Still Unequal, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) documented that black and Latinx students go to schools with less experienced teachers, a greater likelihood of being closed and no arts programs. Students live in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty and violence. The predominantly black teachers in highly segregated schools risk losing their jobs due to school closures. The authors concluded, “we must create an integrated public school system, where poor students of color are not systematically relegated to economically disinvested and isolated learning environments.”
The teachers and support workers made equity and anti-racism a core component of their strike demands.
In 1995, the Illinois legislature passed the Chicago School Reform Amendatory Act that ruled that Chicago teachers could only negotiate economic issues, such as wages and working conditions and the impact of social problems, while it prohibited fighting for social changes. It gave the mayor more control of the schools. In 2013, Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 50 schools.
Chicago teachers’ strike demands included economic issues but also raised social and political demands.
While asking for increased pay (above the starting salaries of $50,000), teaching resources, and preparation time, they also demanded:
- housing support for the 17,000 homeless students in Chicago Public Schools,
- affordable housing for teachers,
- a nurse and a social worker in every school; now 850 students are assigned to one social worker vs. the recommended ratio of 250 to one,
- librarians; only 22% of the schools have one,
- smaller class sizes; Chicago schools have an average of six more students per class than the state average, and in some schools and grade levels, there are 40 students per class,
- more mental health support,
- bilingual education, and
- sanctuary for undocumented students.
The CTU also included restorative justice as a contract issue to address the violence of police officers in the schools and aggressive disciplinary measures meted out to students. Nationally, 1.6 million students attend schools where there are police officers but no guidance counselors. Of these students, 20-40% are black or Latinx. The Union called for replacing police with restorative justice coordinators who would de-escalate conflicts and support students. Meanwhile, in August, the School Board approved $33 million for school-based police officers.
A poll indicated that 49% of Chicago residents supported the strike while 38% opposed it. Ninety-four percent (94%) of the teachers voted to strike. Parents, students, unions, and many community organizations actively supported the strike, joining rallies and picket lines, raising money, bringing food to the strikers, and organizing meals for the students who rely on schools to provide them. The Chicago Teachers and Staff Solidarity Campaign (CTSSC) coordinated community participation in rallies, petition drives, calls to politicians, and fundraising.
To the delight of many liberals, Lori Lightfoot was elected Mayor of Chicago, succeeding Rahm Emanuel’s neoliberal administration. She is the first black lesbian to hold this office. Many voters acclaimed her victory, expecting her to make a real difference in Chicago politics and to improve its rotten educational system. To specify her goals for education, she published a plan to transform the school system to achieve greater equity, more resources, and support for children’s social needs. The CTU compiled a list of her campaign promises and her responses to the union demands (see reference below for a complete list). When confronted with CTU demands for social improvements, such as housing, she opposed them, claiming a lack of funding and ordering teachers to narrow their demands to wages and working conditions. However, she also opposed improving working conditions by cutting paid preparation time. Yet before Lightfoot’s election, the city had appropriated money to develop new luxury developments, such as Lincoln Yards and the South Loop, and to hire more police in the schools. The Union pushed back, and teachers refused to curtail their demands. They held two massive rallies, picket lines along with their students, and demonstrations at places sucking up public funds and serving high income residents, such as the Lincoln Yards site.
On November 14, teachers will vote to accept or reject the contract. As it stands now, the contract offers these changes:
Kindergarten: 28 students
1st to 3rd grade: 28 students
4th to 8th grade: 31 students
High school: 28 students
Social workers and nurses in each school over five years, the length of the contract, up from three years for the current one.
Salaries for teachers will rise by 16% over five years, averaging about a measly 3% each year.
The Mayor refused to consider housing.
This strike, as well as the UAW and other teacher strikes, show the power of solidarity and disruption of business as usual. Rather than place their faith in politicians and elected officials, workers shut down production and services to gain improvements in their lives and the people they serve. Imagine transportation and communication workers striking for health care, open borders, or climate reform.
Despite victories won in strikes, capitalists still maintain control over workers’ lives and take back most contract gains via inflation, social service cuts, or simply failing to implement many promises made. Only when there is a threat of general strikes or even revolution, as happened during the 1930s and resulting in the New Deal, can we win more stable reforms. Regardless of their campaign pledges and desires, politicians owe their position to highly influential lobbyists with deep pockets. Whether liberal or conservative, they lie to secure our trust.
Union officials, themselves highly paid, often collude with employers to reduce workers’ militancy and accept weaker contracts. In the UAW strike, union leaders actually sent cops to arrest picketers in Tennessee who organized workers to reject the contract agreement.
Workers require rank and file organizations and leadership that includes all types of workers, multi-racial solidarity, and massive public support to secure their demands. With grass-roots militant leadership, union members could organize general strikes, break laws against striking, and fight for social programs, such as housing. Strikes of teachers and auto workers and rebellions against inequality around the world show the potential we have to fight capitalism and its exploitation. We cannot rely on militancy alone. We need plans and organization to organize a new system and secure the education, housing, and healthy environments we need to survive.
Lightfoot Lori. A Plan to Transform Chicago Schools. 2019.https://lightfootforchicago.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/2019_LEL_Education_Policy.pdf
Chicago Teachers Union. Contract Fight. https://www.ctulocal1.org/movement/contract-campaigns/
Chicago Teachers Union. Still Separate, Still Unequal. 2018. https://www.ctulocal1.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/SegregationFinal.pdf