Teaching Profession

Chicago Teachers Have Been on Strike for a Week. Here’s What’s at Stake

By Madeline Will — October 24, 2019 4 min read
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A week ago, Chicago teachers walked out of their classrooms and onto the picket lines. And although the Chicago Teachers Union president initially said he hoped for a short strike, the union and the district are still far apart on several major issues.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat who oversees bargaining for the nation’s third-largest school district, says the city cannot afford all of the union’s demands. But the teachers’ union disputes that claim, saying that the city needs to make an investment in the future.

“It’s day six,” said Stacy Davis Gates, the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, in a press conference on Wednesday evening. “At some point our mayor, or someone who can influence her better than we’ve been able to in the last five days, has to say that it is time to put this to bed, to provide our students with what they deserve.”

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

On Thursday afternoon, the Chicago Teachers Union will hold a civil disobedience training for members who are “ready to step it up a notch.” In a statement, the union said, “The mayor has tried to escalate, but we can escalate, too. We know that without struggle there can be no progress. ... We will learn from the tactics that ended Jim Crow and stopped the Vietnam War.”

The union says it now has 80 tentative agreements with Chicago Public Schools, but none on any of the main sticking points. The big issues remaining include class size limits, support staffing, teacher preparation time, and salaries. Here’s what to know:

  • The union wants enforceable class-size limitations, pointing to classrooms with close to 40 students, but has said it would be open to phasing in lower class sizes, starting with the neediest schools. The district has offered $10 million a year to hire more teacher assistants to support what it calls a “relatively small number of overcrowded classrooms.” The union said this was a move in the right direction, but it doesn’t go far enough.

  • The union wants a full-time nurse in every school, and hundreds more social workers, counselors, and librarians throughout the district. Lightfoot has pledged to hire hundreds of support staff over the next five years, but the district initially didn’t want to put anything in the contract. (Under state law, Chicago Public Schools does not have to bargain over class sizes and staffing.) Now, for the first time, the district has agreed to put these staffing commitments in writing—but the details still have to be worked out.

  • The union wants 30 minutes of teacher-directed prep time before school for elementary teachers, which would mean shortening the school day or lengthening teachers’ work day (which would require a pay increase). CPS withdrew its initial proposal to increase principal-directed professional development in schools, which the union was opposed to, but has said that shortening the school day for students is not an option.

  • The union is asking for a 15 percent teacher pay raise over three years, along with salary increases for paraprofessionals and other support staff. The district has offered a 16 percent salary increase over five years, which it says would “cement CPS teachers as some of the best paid in the country.” (Under the district’s offer, the average teacher would see their salary rise to nearly $100,000 in five years.) The district has also proposed restructuring paraprofessionals’ salary schedule, and said their average raise would be more than 8 percent this school year. Neither side has budged in weeks.

The union has also asked the district to make investments in affordable housing—something that Lightfoot initially said was beyond the scope of negotiations. The district has since agreed to hire support workers in schools with high populations of homeless students.

On Wednesday, as tens of thousands of red-clad educators filled the city’s streets in protest, Lightfoot announced her plan to direct $160 million of a tax increment financing surplus to Chicago Public Schools. But according to WBEZ Chicago, that money is expected to pay for the offers that are already on the table—not any of the union’s outstanding demands.

Chicago teachers last went on strike in 2012. That strike lasted for seven school days. This time, the union that represents support staff, such as bus aides and special education assistants, are also on strike.

There are 300,000 students affected by the strike, and many of them are from low-income families. The district has canceled all instruction but kept schools open, so that those students could receive access to meals and have a safe place to go. Even so, attendance has been weak, with fewer than 10,000 students showing up.

In a statement, district leaders said they remain “committed to working around the clock to reach agreements that respect and honor the hard work of our teachers and support staff while also protecting the historic academic progress our students have made in the past decade.”

Image: Thousands of striking Chicago Teachers Union and their supporters rally after marching at City Hall during Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s first budget address during the monthly Chicago City Council meeting on Oct. 23. —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.