Teaching Profession

Chicago Teachers Are On Strike: 3 Things to Know

By Madeline Will — October 16, 2019 4 min read
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Chicago teachers will be on the picket lines Thursday morning after a monthslong, divisive bargaining process over salaries, class sizes, and staffing levels.

“We came into these negotiations asking for a lot, because we give a lot—because our hearts hurt for what we do every day; because the conditions that we work in are difficult and hard,” said Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey in a press conference on Tuesday night. “We have not achieved enough in these negotiations to say that we are done fighting. We need more.”

CTU delegates voted Wednesday evening to officially start the strike. This was expected: Sharkey said Tuesday he was “overwhelmingly certain” that the delegates would follow the recommendation of the union’s rank-and-file bargaining team to strike, and Chicago Public Schools has already canceled school on Thursday in anticipation.

Still, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a press conference that she was “disappointed” a deal could not be reached to avoid a strike.

See: Strike Date Set for Chicago Teachers. Fight With the District Is About More Than Pay

At a press conference on Wednesday morning, officials in the nation’s third-largest school system had accused the union of not bargaining in good faith.

“We’ve tried to provide the best deal that’s fiscally responsible, that’s fair to teachers and fair to taxpayers,” Lightfoot said, adding that the city has “bent over backwards” to try to meet the union’s demands.

But “they continue to bring up additional bargaining issues that they say must be resolved before we have a contract,” Lightfoot said, and they’re “not satisfied” with the “historic” raises on the table.

The union is asking for teachers to receive a 15 percent pay raise over three years, and for paraprofessionals 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 and counselors. CTU also wants enforceable class size caps, but over the course of bargaining, has said it would be open to phasing in the lower class sizes, starting with the neediest schools in the system.

In return, the district has offered a 16 percent pay raise for teachers and staff over five years. Support staff, like paraprofessionals, would receive an average pay raise of more than 8 percent this school year under the district’s offer. The district has agreed to put $1 million toward reducing class sizes in grades 4-12, and to hire more teacher assistants. And Lightfoot and district leadership pledged to put a full-time nurse in every school by 2024 and hire more social workers and special education case managers—and last week, the district offered an additional $400,000 a year to recruit, hire, and develop nurses, social workers, and case managers.

“CPS’ finances are still recovering from the brink of insolvency, and we do not have unlimited funds,” Lightfoot said at the press conference, adding that the district could not afford to meet many of the union’s demands.

The district’s finances are better than they were in years past, due in part to Illinois’ new school funding formula and a property tax hike. School board officials approved a record $7.7 billion budget this year. Even so, the district still has a junk status credit rating.

Here’s what else you need to know as the Windy City braces for its second teacher strike in a decade.

1. A historic triple strike was narrowly avoided. The Chicago Teachers Union had joined forces with the Service Employees International Local 73, which represents both CPS support staff members, including bus aides and classroom assistants, and park workers across the city, who oversee many programs for children. All three groups of workers were ready to walk off the job together on Thursday—but the park workers reached a deal with the city late Tuesday.

During the last teacher strike in 2012, park workers oversaw alternative programming for children, and Lightfoot said the parks will be open to house students during this strike, too. The district serves more than 360,000 students, most of whom are low-income.

2. Schools will stay open, but there won’t be any classes. During the 2012 teacher strike, most schools were closed. The district kept about 150 schools open as a contingency plan for parents who couldn’t find other alternatives.

This time, the district will keep all of its 600 schools open to make sure students have access to warm meals and a safe space to go, but classes will be canceled. Instead of instruction, CPS CEO Janice Jackson said in a press conference that there will be “productive activities” for the students who attend.

(In Los Angeles, the district kept instruction going during the teacher strike earlier this year. Principals and district leaders taught lessons to large groups of students, but some said the added workload was overwhelming.)

3. In theory, the district and the union 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. Union members have demanded the district put its promises in writing in an enforceable contract—but the district wants to maintain flexibility with its dollars.

Still, Lightfoot and Jackson said in a joint statement this week that during bargaining, they had “expressed a willingness to find solutions on [staffing and class size issues] that would be written directly into the contract.”

Post updated 10/16, 8:45 pm with news of the CTU delegates’ vote

Image: A Chicago Police officer watches as members of the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Local 73 and their supporters march downtown after a rally Oct. 14. —Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.