Chicago Teachers and Staff Won With Strikes What Months of Bargaining Could Not

Chicago Teachers and Staff Won With Strikes What Months of Bargaining Could Not

On Friday, Chicago teachers returned to school triumphant, after an 11-day walkout that became a showdown between their union and the proclaimed progressive new Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

If you’re looking for an example of the power of the strike, look no further. The strikers accomplished what months of bargaining could not.

The mayor and her appointed school board had made all but no movement in the 10 months of bargaining that led up to the strike. (Lightfoot has only been mayor for five months, but she kept the previous bargaining team from former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.)

Days before the strike, the district presented what it said was its best offer. Once the strike started, the union bargaining team reported that the district was finally moving on its bargaining demands. On day three, the mayor said there was no more money and sent a letter asking the union to end the strike.

But the mayor must have found more money. On day 10, CTU brought a tentative agreement to its House of Delegates that the mayor said costs $500 million. Where the money will come from is not clear. Delegates voted it up by 60 percent, pending the back-to-work agreement.

One sticking point remained: CTU wanted the district to make up the lost days, both for the sake of their own paychecks and for the sake of students’ instructional time. The mayor was still saying no to that.

So teachers spent yesterday, day 11, rallying in the snow outside city hall for a final deal, including the union’s terms of return. Meanwhile school employees in SEIU Local 73 stayed out in solidarity, even though they had already voted up their own settlement.

Ultimately the mayor agreed to make up five of the 11 instructional days lost to the strike. School resumed today; CTU has 10 days for members to ratify the tentative agreement.

What’s in the T.A.?

Teachers and school employees struck for 11 days—four days longer than CTU’s 2012 strike.

Like Los Angeles and Oakland teachers earlier this year, Chicago’s educators tried to pack into their union contract solutions to decades of underfunding public education and social issues like homelessness, lack of access to health care, attacks on immigrant communities, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

“We activated people’s understanding of how much was taken from our schools, the money diverted from our schools,” said elementary teacher Karen Soto. “It’s nice to hear a chorus of people understanding that we should have more.”

Chicago teachers came in with big demands to improve class size, add more nurses, social workers, and librarians, and raise pay for veteran teachers and for CTU school employees who were making poverty wages. They also set out to get more support, including housing, for homeless students. Here’s some of what they won:

  • New enforcement language for existing class-size caps. If a class exceeds the cap, a new committee will visit the school within two weeks to address the issue—before, it was a long drawn-out process. And it’s grievable.
  • A nurse and social worker in every school, every day, by year five of the contract (adding 209 social workers and 200 nurses).
  • Step raises for veteran teachers between years 14 and 20 (costing the district $5 million more).
  • No additional charter school schools during the life of the contract.
  • “Community representatives” at schools with high homeless populations to help students and parents.
  • Special education wins, including a pool of specially trained substitutes and protections that special educators, clinicians, and counselors will not be pulled from their jobs to write special-ed students’ Individualized Education Programs, which will be written by a separate case management team.
  • Teachers can bank sick days from year to year, lifting the cap from 40 to 244 days.
  • Reversal of health care increases that were imposed on CTU members last year. Health care costs frozen until 2022.
  • 25 percent wage increases for the union’s lowest-paid workers, the paraprofessionals, with lanes for education and experience.
  • Naps for pre-kindergarteners.
  • Sanctuary schools policy that adds protections for immigrant students and families.

By day 10, the stakes of the strike were increasing. While there were holdout issues, including teacher prep time and the demand to shrink class sizes, teachers and school employees weighed the threat that they would lose their health insurance if the strike lasted beyond November 1.

“We Won a Battle, We Haven’t Won the War”

Strike days had the same rhythm as in 2012: morning picket lines, afternoon rallies. Some afternoons the strikers poured into downtown; other days they went to targeted sites. On day 10, teachers rallied at the $1.3 billion development site Sterling Bay, funded through tax increment financing—property tax dollars that are diverted from schools to boost development. The TIF program is meant for blighted areas but has become a slush fund for the mayor. Nine teachers were arrested in civil disobedience.

There was an incredible outpouring of support for the strike. School employees in SEIU Local 73 settled three days before CTU, winning up to 40 percent wage increases, but committed to honoring the teachers’ picket lines. UPS drivers from Teamsters Local 705 refused to cross the picket lines, too. Community supporters set up a Bread for Ed fundraiser, bringing in $45,000 for food for strikers, parents, and students.

The strikers also won a commitment from the governor and statehouse leaders that they will support an elected school board, a demand that CTU also brought to the negotiating table but dropped in the final deal.

However, the strike ended without the union forcing Lightfoot to add a new tax on pricey real estate sales (a real estate transfer tax) or dedicate funds to add affordable housing and address homelessness. The teachers also accepted the mayor’s demand for a five-year contract term, a long deal that pushes their next potential strike out past the next mayoral election. And the union didn’t win prep time for elementary teachers, a big issue.

“The strike is just a battle,” Soto said. “We won a battle; we haven’t won the war. People understood that the fight was about the kids and not about us.”