We All Got Schooled When Chicago’s Teachers Struck

Last week at a meeting packed with parents who wanted to support the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) during their strike, a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teacher who had been on the strike line with his CPS teacher wife and their three kids for days said “We haven’t closed the classroom to our kids by going on strike, we’ve expanded it.”

After walking the picket line with my 10-year-old daughter every day for the duration of the strike, I have to agree. From hanging out with her teachers every day on the strike line, talking with other parents and me, and reading the clever signs at the daily rallies, she and her fellow students have a pretty sophisticated understanding of the issues at hand. Actually, it seemed as though the general public in Chicago and parents of CPS students in particular also “got it” – with 55.5 % of the general pubic and 66 % of CPS parents supporting the strike. And indeed, the eyes of the nation were focused on our strike as a bellwether of labor and public education fights in the national arena.

Most people and the students understood that the teachers were fighting for many things that went beyond the narrow confines of SB 7, a bill that meant teachers could only legally strike over compensation. They understood that the teachers were fighting for conditions that benefit students, teachers and our society.

The CTU delegate from our school created a wonderful graphic to explain this to everyone. It was a series of concentric circles – in the center were the issues that could be addressed by the contract and each successive ring had issues that have an impact on education but that will be much larger and longer fights.

For example the center had wages and benefits, teacher evaluations and job security. Next came the things that were definitely raised in the media and that most parents feel strongly about including: less reliance on standardized testing, integration of arts into the curriculum, adequate staffing of school nurses and social workers. Working toward the edge were big, Chicago-specific issues like having an elected school board and redistributing Tax Increment Financing dollars to schools. And at the very edge of the paper were written slogans about the large systemic issues that affect how our children learn, and how we all live — No Segregation, Ending Poverty, We are the 99%. Her point was that the contract was the first fight, but we must keep working together over the long haul on the other issues.

The CTU fight is a reminder to all of us that to have a good education system, we need to invest in our people. In a school system where a third of the students are in poverty and 80% qualify for free lunches, the teachers were fighting for wrap-around services, including nurses and social workers, to support the students; libraries; art, music and language classes, and air conditioning – a basic taken for granted in most suburban schools.

I think many people around the country recognized that our fight was not only a salvo for public education in general, but a shout out for funding of those things that make our communities thrive! We can’t have great schools and services for everyone when we are committing 60% of our federal budget to the military and keep giving tax cuts to the wealthy.

So what did my daughter learn during the strike?

She had music class while writing new lyrics to “Which Side Are You On?” with her friends. She had gym class while pounding the pavement on the strike line. And she had a civics lesson about how democracy works, a social studies lesson that connected local conditions to larger structural issues and most importantly, a history lesson about the exhausting but exhilarating process of nonviolent protest and how powerful it is when a community comes together for change.

Mary Zerkel
Co-coordinator, Wage Peace
American Friends Service Committee