More than 25,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and about 7,500 support staffers represented by Service Employees International Union Local 73 are walking out of schools in the nation’s third-largest school district today, joining a wave of teacher strikes across the country that began in early 2018.
The strike comes on the heels of other teacher strikes in Oakland, Los Angeles, Colorado and Virginia earlier this year, and is CTU’s first since its eight-day strike in 2012, when teachers sought higher wages, fair teacher assessment and job security, among other issues. Community support is once again strong in the city today as the union seeks higher pay and benefits, fully staffed schools and smaller class sizes.
But the strike isn’t limited to contract issues that the union has explicit negotiating power over. Like the United Teachers of Los Angeles who struck in January, CTU is bargaining for the common good, negotiating on a wide range of issues that go far beyond those typically required to be addressed through collective bargaining. They’re also calling for affordable housing for teachers, students and support staff; an expansion of sanctuary and community schools that provide social services for students; and an extension of the city’s moratorium on new charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated.
“All students should have the right to the same opportunities and resources, and that’s really what this contract fight is about,” says Kenzo Shibata, a member of CTU’s executive board and a founding member of the left-wing Caucus for Rank-and-File Educators, which took over the union’s leadership in 2010, promising to take CTU beyond the politics of bread-and-butter unionism and fight for the city’s broader working class. He is on the rank-and-file bargaining team, and currently teaches civics and Chicago history to juniors and seniors at Ogden International High School.
Shibata says CPS has “dragged their feet” throughout the negotiation process and didn’t offer the union a “serious” proposal he says, until 94 percent of CTU members voted to authorize a strike in late September.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who succeeded former Mayor Rahm Emanuel earlier this year, has offered the union a 16 percent pay raise over the course of a five-year contract, but the union is not expected to come to an agreement until CPS adds binding language that would lower class sizes and add additional support staff such as counselors, librarians and school nurses. On October 15, CTU President Jesse Sharkey warned Chicago parents to prepare for what he called a “short-term” strike only hours after Mayor Lightfoot announced she was ready to write staffing and class size promises into the union contract.
The union said not enough progress has been made on the class size and support staffing disputes, noting that the city’s current proposal would force schools to choose between certain staffers — such as having either a librarian or a counselor. Other sticking issues include special education and pay for support staffers and veteran teachers.
The union is also demanding that health care costs remain frozen for the duration of the new contract. “The mayor could promise any kind of raise, but if health care costs skyrocket, which is what we expect, then that takes away any kind of raise that we might be getting,” Shibata says. If CPS simply offered the union a shorter-term contract, he says, it would eliminate the need for the district to try to anticipate rising medical costs. The union wants to see a three-year contract that would end before Mayor Lightfoot’s first term in order to keep her accountable if she runs for re-election.
Shibata is “extremely disappointed” with Lightfoot’s performance amid the ongoing negotiations, given her campaign promise to provide additional support services and resources for students. “That was something we were hoping she would be willing to put in writing and start the school year off with, and we would have none of these issues. Candidate Lightfoot and Mayor Lightfoot are showing to be very different people,” he says.
For contract negotiations, Lightfoot has retained the same legal counsel as former mayors Emanuel and Richard Daley. “What’s happening at the bargaining table on the management side is not really any different than what we had under Rahm,” Shibata says. “The press releases are nicer. Mayor Lightfoot is a much more likable person, and so that poses a challenge. But at the same time, if she’s not willing to negotiate a contract that’s fair to our students, we’re going to have to push back the same way we always do.”
The shifting political landscape in the city since the union’s last major strike in 2012 has empowered the union to push forward on broader issues like affordable housing with support from an increasingly energized left, as groups like the Democratic Socialists of America have actively built support for today’s strike.
CTU wants language added to the contract that would direct CPS to provide housing assistance to new teachers, and hire staffers to help students and their families who are in danger of becoming homeless. The union also wants to ensure housing for the city’s homeless student population by 2020 through Section 8 voucher programs and use tax increment financing funds for affordable housing units.
Mayor Lightfoot has blasted these demands as unreasonable, saying the collective bargaining agreement “is not the appropriate place for the city to legislate its affordable housing policy.” In response, CTU tweeted that the city has “nearly 17,000 homeless students in CPS.”
CTU’s demands for affordable housing and an expansion of sanctuary and community schools that offer comprehensive, “wraparound” social services are part of a larger pushback against bipartisan support for austerity politics that have systematically disinvested in the city’s public schools. Such disinvestment has left some teachers with class sizes exceeding 40 students and caused serious issues for students with disabilities and chronic illnesses that necessitate the regular presence of a school nurse.
The union’s anti-austerity agenda has also attracted charter school teachers, despite the union’s request for an extension of a moratorium on new charter schools as part of its new contract. In March of 2018, the CTU merged with The Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers representing more than 30 charters in the city. In December, the city became home to the first charter strike in the nation in which 15 Acero charter schools represented by CTU’s charter division closed for four days.
Now, teachers at Passages Charter School in the city’s Edgewater area are promising to add fuel to today’s strike, setting their own strike date next week on October 22. They are bargaining with Asian Human Services over wage increases and protections for immigrant and refugee students.
“Right now we have charter school teachers on our side, ready to rally with us. They know that a strong contract for us is only going to help them out, and we also know that their strong contracts help us out,” CTU’s Shibata says.
A United Front
CPS and charter teachers alike are joining in a united front with school staffers represented by SEIU Local 73. Like CTU, support staffers core issues also include increased pay and health insurance costs.
Citlali Soto, a security officer at Amundsen High School who is on SEIU’s bargaining team, told Truthout that support staffers haven’t seen a raise in more than three years. She says job descriptions have been a major issue for workers who are often pulled form their regular duties and placed into unfamiliar roles in schools that are chronically understaffed. For example, she says, support workers get “pulled from their natural job description” to fill in when a schools’ only security officer needs to take time off, even when they’ve had no training for such a role.
“It’s a package deal that we’re looking at across the board for everybody, not just one particular worker or one particular job title. We’re a union of many hats…. We’re just looking for clarity,” Soto says.
She wants to see pay raised for custodians under CPS’s purview who make less than their privatized counterparts. In February 2014, the school board under Mayor Emanuel signed a three-year custodial deal that awarded $340 million in private contracts to Aramark and SodexoMagic — and resulted the firing of hundreds of CPS janitors.
“We’re trying to get [these companies] out of our schools completely,” Soto says. “They are not keeping these schools clean like they’re supposed to — as we’ve known our custodians for CPS to have kept our schools clean in the years before we even got privatized.”
Meanwhile, about 2,500 Chicago Park District employees, who were also poised to strike today, reached a tentative contract agreement with the district yesterday to keep the city’s parks open. Full-time parks workers will receive a 14.25 percent raise over the course of a new four-and-a-half-year contract, and hourly workers will now make $15 an hour and receive paid vacations.
Johanna Leiva, a natatorium instructor at Chicago’s Portage Park Natatorium who is on the parks bargaining team, said many parks workers have had to juggle two or three jobs just to afford to live in the city where they work. She runs an after-school lifeguard apprenticeship program for Prosser Career Academy High School students, and like many Chicago teachers, has struggled to support the students in her program. That’s why parks workers also want to see deeper structural changes to support the city’s working-class communities.
“When teachers go on strike, we’re the fallback plan for the students. They’re allowed to go to the parks, and we usually babysit them and have activities for them while there’s no school going on,” Leiva tells Truthout.
Despite the last-minute agreement, parks workers are still supporting Chicago teachers and staff on the picket lines today. The union is organizing “solidarity camps” for kids utilizing parks while schools are closed.
CTU’s Shibata says he appreciates support staff and parks workers’ solidarity because they are all dealing with the same students. “We can’t work in silos. We’re all working with the same Chicago young people. We all have their best interests at heart,” he says.
For him and many other CTU and SEIU members, the fight is about much more than the unions’ next contracts; it is about the future of education and the fight against neoliberal-driven austerity politics in the city of Chicago.
“We have this big school system, and we neither have equality nor equity,” Shibata says. “The schools that have the most vulnerable students that need the most support aren’t getting it, and that’s something that we really need to be focusing on … tailoring the system to our students and not to the bureaucrats.”