School & District Management

Chicago Strike: Why Teachers Are on the Picket Lines Once Again

By Madeline Will — October 18, 2019 6 min read
Thousands of teachers, teachers’ union members, and supporters gather near the Chicago public schools’ headquarters and march on the streets in downtown Chicago Oct. 17.

About 25,000 Chicago educators are on the picket lines this week, waving signs with slogans like, “On strike for my students” and “Stop the cuts.”

Teachers in the nation’s third-largest school system are fighting for salary increases, enforceable caps on class sizes, and a written commitment for more nurses, social workers, and librarians. They are also demanding investments in affordable housing, which some say falls outside the scope of collective bargaining. Teachers are joined by 7,500 support staff, like bus aides and special education assistants, who also went on strike Oct. 17, in a separate contract dispute.

“We want to be in our schools, but sometimes you have to take a hard step in order to get what’s right,” said Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey in a press conference announcing the strike was indeed taking place.

District officials said schools will remain open for the duration of the strike so the 300,000 students affected—many of whom are from low-income families—have a safe place to go and access to meals. Even so, all instruction will be canceled. On the first day of the strike, just 7,500 students came to school, according to district reports.

See Also: Teacher Strikes: 4 Common Questions

Chicago teachers staged a one-day walkout in 2016, but the last time they went on a strike was in 2012. That strike lasted a week. It remains to be seen how long teachers will stand on the picket lines this time—but so far, the two sides seem far apart on several key issues.

“We want to make this a short strike,” Sharkey said, but “we’ve got a ways to go.”

A ‘Historic’ Offer?

The day before teachers took to the picket lines, district leaders maintained the school system cannot afford all the union’s demands.

“At every turn, we bent over backwards to meet the union’s needs,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who oversees bargaining for the district, told reporters, expressing her frustration that the union is not “satisfied” with what she calls a “historic offer.”

CTU is asking for a 15 percent teacher raise over three years and for paraprofessionals, who are represented by the union, to receive a significant raise as well. The union has demanded a nurse in every school and for the district to hire more social workers, counselors, and librarians. CTU also wants enforceable class-size limitations but has said it would be open to phasing in lower class sizes, starting with the neediest schools.

In return, the district has offered a 16 percent raise for teachers over five years and an average raise of about 8 percent for paraprofessionals this school year. The district has agreed to put $9 million toward reducing class sizes. Lightfoot and district leadership also pledged to put a full-time nurse in every school by 2024 and add 200 more social workers over five years. They recently promised an additional $400,000 a year to recruit, hire, and develop nurses, social workers, and special education case managers.

District leaders say they agree with many of the union’s demands. But bargaining has been complicated by a state law that says the Chicago district does not have to bargain over class sizes and staffing levels—the issues that the union contends are the most critical. Teachers have demanded that the district put its promises in writing, but the district has wanted to maintain flexibility with its spending.

Fighting for Students

Days before the strike, however, Lightfoot switched gears and said she would be willing to put some commitments on class sizes and staffing directly into the contract. The union said it received a written proposal on class size from the district on the strike’s first day, but it didn’t go far enough.

“That would be a game-changer in the relationship between the parties,” said Robert Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. However, he said, a lot has yet to be figured out: “What would be a level of staffing that the mayor would be willing to put in the contract? What can the city afford?”

Also, “What language exactly would be used so these provisions could be enforced under the law?” Bruno continued. “That’s not easy to do, particularly in a short window, and unfortunately, this breakthrough came late.”

On the first day of the strike, educators clad in red marched through the streets of Chicago, chanting, cheering, and ringing bells.

“What we’re trying to do with this contract right now is to right a lot of historical wrongs,” said Kenzo Shibata, a high school civics teacher who’s on the CTU’s executive board and bargaining team.

The union is also asking for the city to invest in affordable housing for educators and students. More than 16,000 students in the district experienced homelessness last school year.

“If a student doesn’t feel safe, they can’t learn,” Shibata said.

Lightfoot has said affordable housing falls outside the scope of what should be included in collective bargaining, but the district’s latest offer included some supports for students in temporary living situations.

This strike is about changing policies that hurt the city’s “most vulnerable students,” said Dustin Voss, a social-science teacher at Christian Fenger Academy High School on Chicago’s South Side. The school is in a neighborhood plagued by gun violence, he said—several students have been killed in recent years.

“We try to spend on social workers and security and deans to keep our students safe,” he said. “But that might mean less teachers.”

Because of budgetary tradeoffs, for instance, Voss said students take Spanish classes online, without a teacher. There is no art teacher. There’s only one science teacher for about 300 students. And some teachers in the school have class sizes of 38 students, he said.

The Chicago Teachers Union has been fighting over these issues—which go beyond the bread-and-butter concerns of most labor contracts—for years, and teachers are hopeful that this strike could be their chance to score some significant victories.

"[Lightfoot] keeps saying it’s the best offer they’ve ever gotten, and the teachers are offended by it,” Bruno said. “Their argument is, ‘You’re telling us to just take the money and not worry about anything else, and that would be a betrayal of our professional ethics; it would be a betrayal to our students and to the parents.’”

Across the country, in both red states and blue cities, teachers have walked out of their classrooms en masse more than a dozen times over the last two years to demand better pay and more money for schools. The public largely got behind teachers, in part because they put student-learning conditions in the spotlight.

In fact, the Chicago teacher strike in 2012 “paved the way in showing [a major strike] could be done and in a way that would keep public support and also have substantial wins” for the union, said Katharine Strunk, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University.

Then, teachers won salary increases and new teaching and counseling positions, and they also prevented the city from implementing a controversial merit-pay system.

A Chicago Sun-Times/ABC7 poll that was conducted about a week before the current strike began found that nearly half of voters surveyed supported a work stoppage. District parents were more likely to support the strike, the poll found.

Still, there’s always a risk that public support will wane the longer the strike continues, Strunk said.

“No question, strikes can be very hard for parents and kids,” she said. “It’s the working-class parents who can’t miss work: What do they do when their kindergartner is home from school for a week?”

A version of this article appeared in the October 23, 2019 edition of Education Week as Chicago Teachers on the Picket Lines Once Again

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