For the third time in less than a decade, more than 20,000 Chicago educators are planning to go on strike if they do not reach a deal with the nation’s third-largest school district.
Chicago Teachers Union members are set to stop work on Oct. 17 to demand a salary increase, smaller class sizes, and more school nurses, librarians, and social workers. Bargaining will continue until then, but the two sides remain far apart on several key issues.
On Oct. 2, CTU delegates unanimously set the deadline to strike if a contract agreement is not reached, a week after 94 percent of teachers, nurses, librarians, and other staff members in the CTU’s bargaining unit.
“We prefer to reach a contract settlement without a strike,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey in a press conference after the delegates’ vote. “But I want no one in the city of Chicago to doubt our resolve. We need to improve the conditions in our schools. We need to achieve a fair contract for dignity and respect for people who do this work.”
Chicago teachers staged a one-day walkout in 2016, but their last strike was in 2012. That work stoppage lasted for a week, and most schools were closed. (The districtas a contingency plan for parents who couldn’t find other alternatives.)
This time around, all school buildings would remain open during a strike to make sure students have access to warm meals and a safe place to spend the day, said Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools CEO Janice Jackson in a joint statement.
However, the unions that represent support staff members, including bus aides and classroom assistants, and parks workers across the city, who oversee many programs for children, could also strike on Oct. 17. During past strikes, the Chicago parks have offered alternative programming for students. A triple strike could make it even more challenging for district and city leaders to ensure the safety of more than 360,000 students, most of whom are low-income.
Even so, district officials say they remain optimistic that a deal can be reached to avert a strike. In their statement, Lightfoot and Jackson said the district “will continue bargaining at an aggressive pace to reach a deal that is fair to our teachers and staff, supports the record-setting progress we’ve made, and promotes the best interests of Chicago families, so that we do not have to open our school buildings without the educators and staff members who are so crucial to our district’s success.”
It’s been a contentious bargaining process between the school system and the teachers’ union, onlookers say—even though, in theory, the two sides agree on several of the issues at stake. But finding common ground has been stymied by a state law that says Chicago Public Schools does not have to bargain over class sizes and staffing levels. The union legally cannot strike over some of the issues it says are the most critical.
“They agree with things like schools are not staffed appropriately, that we don’t have the necessary tools to do our job,” said Katie Osgood, an elementary special education teacher who is on the CTU’s bargaining team. “They’ll say all these things to our face and then refuse to put any of these things in a contract that can actually be enforced.”
Lightfoot has said she has put aside money in the city’s budget to hire more social workers and school nurses. But teachers are wary of trusting the new mayor, Osgood said, especially after their tumultuous history with her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, who once canceled a previously negotiated pay raise for teachers.
“We’ve seen this before,” Osgood said. “We know if it’s not in the contract and it’s not something we can enforce, it’s not going to happen.”
The uniona three-year contract with 5 percent pay raises every year, salary increases based on experience for teachers’ aides, language that guarantees the hiring of more nurses, librarians, and social workers, and hard caps on class sizes.
The school system is instead offering a five-year contract with a 16 percent total pay raise. Lightfoot and district leadership have also developed a budgetary plan to put a full-time nurse in every school by 2024, and hire more social workers and special education case managers.
However, the district wants to maintain flexibility with its dollars. Aon the bargaining process says that adding staffing requirements to the collective bargaining agreement “would require principals to dedicate large portions of their budgets to hiring staff as mandated by the contract, not by the needs and desires of the local community or school.”
“[The union and the district] seem to be really at a point of disagreement, and yet if you were just sort of looking at the commitments that people were speaking to, ... given that there is more money in the system, one would think that there’s still room to do some good bargaining, there’s still room to find an agreement that could satisfy both parties,” said Robert Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “But the truth is, when it comes down to principles, if you’re fighting over principles,... these fights are hard to resolve with just a little more money. They often lead to breakage.”
Not All About Pay
The Windy City’s school system’s finances are better than they were, due in part to Illinois’ new school funding formula and a property tax hike approved a few years ago. School board officials approved a record $7.7 billion budget this year. Even so, the district still has a junk status credit rating.
Lightfoot and Jackson have called the district’s offer to CTU “historic,” saying that in five years, the average teacher will make nearly $100,000. Also under the district’s latest proposal, paraprofessionals and school-related personnel would receive an average raise of about 8 percent this school year.
But union members say the starting salary for teachers’ assistants would still be “poverty wages”—and they’re also concerned with issues beyond pay. Student learning conditions have been the driving force behind many of the successful strikes and labor actions that have taken place across the country over the last 18 months.
In Los Angeles, for example, teachers successfully went on strike earlier this year for more support staff, smaller class sizes, and promises to try to cap the number of charter schools in the city. Increasing teacher pay was a demand—but it, and teachers returned to their classrooms without having scored a complete victory on that front.
Now, in Chicago, the looming strike is about teachers “signaling to the state of Illinois, ‘Even when there’s more money to pay us, our concerns are more about the investments you’re making in the schools and in the classrooms. ... Even when there’s more money on the table, we’re still going to strike, because you need to believe us when we say class size is essential, librarians are essential, social workers are essential,’” Bruno said. “You can’t get an agreement by throwing more dollars at the actual workforce.”
Indeed, teachers say they have witnessed their colleagues leave in droves, and slowing the exodus will require more than just a pay raise.
“In most people’s minds, pay is not the No. 1 thing that is driving people out of this district,” Osgood said. “It’s because of these horrid working conditions, overwhelming workloads, disrespect, a lack of autonomy—and these are things that can be fixed.”
For instance, she said, there’s a nurse in her school only one day a week. If students get sick the other four days, teachers have to put them in a corner of the classroom, where they might nap or even vomit, until their parents can pick them up. If a student has a more serious medical issue, like asthma, diabetes, or food allergies, Osgood said the school’s safety plan is to call 911 and wait for an ambulance.
The district, meanwhile, said that scenario is not standard practice, and that it provides nurses based on the needs of students with 504 plans.
Meanwhile, Alison Eichhorn, a CTU delegate who is on the bargaining team, said her high schoolers have expressed frustration over dysfunctional bathrooms and dirty school buildings thoughout their educational career.
“They didn’t feel valued or respected as children in the system,” she said. “For me, this is a fight for the soul of public education.”
An alternative version of this article appeared in the October 9, 2019 edition of Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the October 09, 2019 edition of Education Week as 20,000 Chicago Teachers Plan to Go on Strike