Chicago Teachers Strike, Win

Against the Current, No. 205, March/April 2020

Robert Bartlett

CTU and SEIU march through downtown Chicago in 2019. (Photo by Chris Baehrend, via Wikimedia Commons)

THE 2012 CHICAGO Teachers Union (CTU) strike was a defining moment that changed the narrative and direction of teacher unionism. The community supported the strike because they saw the teachers’ demands as fighting for what schools should be.

The union leadership, forged out of a caucus that supported parents when they struggled for better schools, described this process as “bargaining for the common good.” After years of attacks on public teachers, the victory against a neoliberal mayor laid the groundwork not only for schools that Chicago children deserve, but opened a path for teachers’ unions across the country.

In 2019, the stakes were just as high for the CTU and again they came away with a clear victory. The strike settlement contains improvements for educators and students with no givebacks.

However, there are significant differences from 2012. This contract fight was not defensive, but offensive. It clearly demanded changes to provide equity in education. The teachers also highlighted social demands beyond the classroom and outlined where the resources existed that could correct them.

The second difference was in the political leadership of the city. The election of Lori Lightfoot as mayor in April 2019 was a repudiation of the policies of former mayor Rahm Emanuel. The CTU forced the new mayor to bargain on a range of issues that the union has no legal right to strike over. This reflected the union’s work at explaining what education means over the last nine years.

This fight also marked a real step forward in the two unions representing teachers and staff, who carried out a joint strike against austerity — no small step in Chicago. The fact that not all the goals were achieved takes nothing away from the strike. In fact given the powerful forces that confront unions like the CTU that should not be surprising.

What is surprising is to see how the landscape of education has changed since the 2012 strike. When the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) won election in 2010 it confronted the wreckage of “educational reform” that blamed teachers and their unions for all the shortcomings that resulted from inadequate funding and rampant inequality.

With teacher unions scapegoated as the culprits, the solution was the implementation of a multifaceted privatization campaign that promoted vouchers, school performance metrices based on high stakes testing, and the establishment of privately run, publicly funded and non-union charter industry. Many of these were for-profit enterprises.

Strike Preparation

Several factors had to be considered in preparing for the 2019 strike. First, in the year following the 2012 strike — and despite opposition by the CTU and parents — Mayor Emanuel forced the closure of 50 Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Ninety percent of them were in Black and brown neighborhoods. Hundreds of teachers, disproportionately African American teachers, unable to follow their students to the schools they were assigned to, lost their jobs in this process.

Second, student-based budgeting — an allotment of money to schools based a per student basis, not the needs of the school — led to a diminishment of educational resources in poorer areas. But schools in more affluent neighborhoods were able to raise supplemental funds to provide for smaller class sizes and a richer and more diverse curriculum.

Third, since 2000 the dual track policy of starving neighborhood schools of resources and encouraging gentrification had pushed almost 200,000 Black people out of the city. Public housing was torn down and rents skyrocketed. The increasing school starvation also drove students into charter schools.

Fourth, teachers have been under pressure from the threat of losing their jobs. Along with the decline in school enrollment, they have been saddled with a punitive evaluation process which ranks schools and teachers’ “effectiveness” based on their students standardized test scores. Of course these scores highly correlate with family income. Added to the oppressive evaluation procedures, the school system developed a policy of training what teachers call “bully principals.” Fear of being targeted undercut teacher confidence gained during the strike.

As a result of these relentless attacks, some CTU teachers felt that “social movement unionism” left them unprotected. This led to a contested CTU election in May 2019 by a conservative group of teachers called “Members First.” Their appeal to the membership was based on opposition to the inclusion of social justice issues affecting the majority of students of color as a union priority.

Their strongest support came in whiter areas of the city where police and firefighters live. (Chicago has a residency policy for all public workers, including teachers.) This conservative layer of educators were aggravated by the CTU leadership’s support of groups like Black Lives Matter and restorative justice practices in schools.

After the roughly two-to-one leadership victory by CORE, the union could focus on building the legally required support necessary to approve a strike vote. (Illinois designed a law applicable only to Chicago teachers; 75% of all teachers, not just a majority of those voting, have to vote yes.)

Another element that influenced the course of the 2019 strike is the payoff resulting from the CTU’s organizing the charter school sector. After winning office, CORE developed a two-pronged strategy: to stop charter school expansion and to organize the teachers by their charter school networks.

By 2018, CTU and AFT had managed to organize about 30% of the Chicago charter teachers into IFT Local 4343. They then discussed and carried out a merger between Local 4343 and CTU. It was approved in CTU by a 70% to 30% vote, with those voting against merger partly motivated by a displaced anger at public school closings and the loss of jobs due to charter expansion.

Charter contracts were lined up to expire in most charter networks at the same time so that maximum pressure could be applied to the different operators. With the contracts expiring and the merger behind them, CTU prepared for the first charter school strike in the United States.

One big goal was to raise the charter teacher wages up to the level of the those in the Chicago Public Schools. They were also intent on winning a reduction of class size. Because they were not hampered by a state law over what they could bargain and strike over, issues like class size and student supports set the table for CTU’s strike. Teachers struck three separate charter networks — Acero, Chicago International Charter Schools, and the Instituto Health Sciences and Justice Leadership Academies — affecting 21 charter schools in total. Strikes ranged between five and nine days. Caps on class size, raises of up to 35% over four years bringing charter teachers close to parity with CPS, sanctuary school status for immigrant students, and language mandating staffing in special ed and kindergarden classes were all won.

This win advanced the conditions of the charter school teachers while opening up a window for CTU. As a result, the victory was strategic not only in strengthening CTU’s power in the charter sector but in establishing a common narrative about the needs of all schools.

Along with these internal preparations for the CTU strike were a series of external factors. Key was the election of a new mayor. On top of his unpopular decision to close neighborhood schools, Rahm Emanuel got caught in a cover up of the police execution of Laquan McDonald. As a result, he decided not to run for a third term.

Both Lori Lightfoot and her opponent ran on education platforms that were hard to distinguish from that advocated by the CTU, calling for “equity” in education. After winning, she appointed the most progressive school board in the era of mayoral control. Board members include Miguel del Valle, a political progressive; Elizabeth Todd-Breland who wrote a well-regarded book, A Political Education, about Black politics and education reform in Chicago; and Dwayne Truss, a west side activist in the fight against school closings.

However, despite Lightfoot’s campaign promise to support an elected school board (Chicago has the only appointed school board in Illinois), she stopped a bill establishing it in the legislature. She also kept the same CPS bargaining team that Rahm had used in 2012 and 2016, effectively maintaining the same policy as previous school boards.

Additionally, as a result of the defeat in 2018 of the rabidly anti-union governor Bruce Rauner by billionaire Democrat J. B. Pritzker, the finances of Chicago Public Schools improved. Under public pressure, the Illinois Legislature changed the state school funding formula. This resulted in CPS receiving almost a billion more dollars a year. It became harder to claim that there was no money to reduce class size or the wraparound services CTU was demanding.

The last piece of the puzzle was the alliance forged between the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73 — who represent special education, classroom assistants and other non-teaching staff — and CTU. A new leadership in Local 73 sought a united struggle with teachers to raise the wages of the lowest-paid workers and to support the social justice demands both unions shared.

The Mayor’s Strategy

While the former mayor had prepared for the 2012 strike by cancelling the last raise teachers won in their previous contract, and coerced school staff into signing contract waivers in exchange for $125,000 extra money for their school, Lightfoot was willing to concede to the unions’ demands on wages. But given the state law that limited contract negotiations to wages and benefits, she did not want any language in the contract to be binding on “permissive” subjects that define the everyday conditions of schools. The law states that these can be bargained, but only with the consent of both parties.

Lightfoot didn’t come with the baggage that Rahm had acquired, particularly given the deals he made with other unions in order to isolate CTU. She was willing to talk about equity in education but planned to keep a range of issues, from class size to the wraparound services the unions were demanding, limited to promises she might make.

The Strike

The issues that SEIU 73 and CTU were fighting for have striking similarities. With many of the lowest-paid union members qualified to receive  food stamps, both wanted to lift poorest members out of poverty wages. For the lowest-paid public school employees the strike was definitely about money, but it didn’t end there.

Both unions highlighted issues where staffing inadequacies deprive students of the services they need. This was particularly true for Teaching Assistants and Special Education Classroom Assistants, who  were often pulled out of their classroom assignments to cover for absent staff.

Students in Chicago are faced with challenges such as the level of trauma in their neighborhoods due to lack of health insurance, levels of violence, challenges of being criminalized in cases of school discipline rather than using restorative justice practices and poor environmental conditions. The need for a nurse in every school, every day seems obvious, but social workers and counselors are equally necessary for the mental and physical health of students.

Those demands resonate beyond the most needy neighborhood schools. Staffing ratios of counselors and special ed case managers have been far beyond levels recommended by professional associations. Teaching in all its facets is dependent on the amount of attention adults can pay to students, which is why shortchanging students by cramming them into classrooms or pulling counselors and other staff from their regularly assigned duties to fill vacant positions is an educational justice issue.

Given the number of undocumented and mixed status families, teachers and staff felt strongly that their students needed to feel secure at school; they raised the demand for sanctuary schools. And given that there are 16,000 students who are attending school while homeless, addressing homelessness became an important issue.

Another key demand was the suspension of additional charter schools during the life of the contract. Evidence has shown that the proliferation of charter schools has destabilized neighborhood schools in the Black and brown communities while not providing an education that is significantly different from the Chicago public schools they displace.

Non-unionized charter schools also suffer much higher rates of staff turnover than public schools in the same communities. This suspension of charter expansion can lead to more public advocacy for the necessary resources and support in neighborhood schools.

Another win was lifting the cap on sick days that teachers could accumulate from year to year. Accumulating sick days is standard in most teacher contracts. These can then be used as a credit toward their pension or cashed out.

In the 2012 contract CPS had demanded a limit of 40 bankable sick days, which had the entirely predictable result of teachers deciding to use their days rather than lose them. This exacerbated the shortage of substitute teachers and reduced the effectiveness of instruction when teachers used their excess days. Under the new contract teachers can bank up 244 days, thus overturning a stupid and petty rule.

In an example of the coordination between SEIU 73 and CTU, a month before the strike they jointly hosted an Art Build where banners, placards and parachutes (meant to be visible to hovering news helicopters) were made to dramatize the demands.

The Art Build was successful, demonstrating the unity between Local 73 and CTU and setting the tone for the issues both unions were pushing. These cloth banners were so popular that after a day of demonstrating it was hard to retrieve the items from members so they could be used at the next rally.

The tempo of the strike was similar to 2012, where picketing began at every school in the morning. Most afternoons featured mass rallies designed to pressure the mayor or highlight sources of revenue that had been diverted from schools to fund private development schemes. These had the effect of shutting the downtown but also demonstrating the strength of teachers and allies with rallies of up to 30,000 people.

On one multiple march day, three separate marches on the north side converged on the Lincoln Yards development, which had garnered $1.3 billion in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) money. The next day the target was in the South Loop 78 project, slated to receive up to 1.1 billion TIF dollars to develop land adjacent to a rapidly gentrifying area.

As the strike continued, CTU ratcheted up the pressure and demonstrated the commitment of its members by holding a civil disobedience training that attracted 500 teachers who practiced sit-ins blocking traffic in front of union headquarters.

The mobilizations had the effect of forcing the mayor to back down from each line in the sand she tried to draw. She had to back down on bargaining over permissive issues including class size, staffing, and support for homeless students, and the amount of money that she would put into the agreement.

Even when the tentative agreement was reached on the tenth day of the strike, Lightfoot stated that no lost school days would be made up. The next day a rally of over 10,000 encircled city hall and forced her to agree to make up five of the 11 days. The strike blew the lid off the legal restrictions on CTU’s ability to negotiate on subjects other than wages and benefits and has implications for the future.

What Was Won?

Highlights in the five-year agreement included a 40% raise for the lowest-paid paraprofessionals and classroom assistants, paraprofessional salary lanes that reflect experience and training, and a 16% raise for teachers and clinicians. The major victory came on issues over which the union is legally barred from striking but are “permissive,” meaning they could be bargained by consent of both CPS and the union.

Gains won on permissive subjects include enforceable class size caps, money to reduce class size prioritized to the neediest schools, a nurse and social worker in every school every day by 2023, 180 more special education case managers, 120 more staff in highest-need schools, additional bilingual staff and resources, dedicated staff to support homeless students, sanctuary school protections, a moratorium on charter school expansion, and effective in 2020 a ban on the use of subcontracted clinicians. These are groundbreaking gains.

While the only loss was a 0.75% increase in insurance cost in the final years of the contract, some important demands  were not addressed. The main one was no reduction in maximum class size guidelines. Currently these are 28 students in kindergarten through third grade and high school, and 31 in grades 4-8. Instead there is a stronger commitment to  enforceable class size. In reality the only way the resources needed to adequately address the needs of the students of Chicago can be funded is through cutting off tax breaks for developers and instituting stiff taxes on corporations and the wealthy.

Strike Lessons

The strike is a clear victory in that the union forced the city to negotiate and concede on issues that the union was unable to legally strike over. The unions won significant concessions on many demands that addressed “common good” bargaining — on staffing and resources for the betterment of education.

Despite the attempt by the mayor, the major newspapers and business community endeavored to make the negotiations solely about money, the memberships of CTU and SEIU 73 were having none of that.

The strike had a political focus. It revealed how taxpayer money has been diverted from schools and other social services through TIFs, funding development projects of the rich. CTU targets and talking points highlighted revenue sources, such as demanding a financial transactions tax to force the wealthy to pay their fair share. This educated the community on why schools are so underfunded.

As the strike continued the political education of strikers and city residents deepened as CTU emphasized social and economic goals. “Bargaining for the common good” was reinforced within the union and energized a new layer of CTU members hired since the 2012 strike.

I was personally heartened by meeting a former student on the picket line with her partner, and a former colleague who picketed one morning with her son. Both teachers are in their first year of teaching and reflected the engagement of new teachers. In fact younger members were prominent in the large mobilizations across the city, with young Latinx caucus members making up the majority of those arrested during the one civil disobedience action of the strike. Although gains in union consciousness achieved in one strike can be eroded over time, the CTU has worked to incorporate new leaders, especially people of color.

The teacher strikes in both Los Angeles and Chicago show some of the limits that the most visionary unions face today. It will take a movement on a national scale to begin to achieve the far-ranging political and economic demands raised in these strikes, but the terms of what we should be struggling for were advanced. That is no small achievement.

The unity between SEIU 73 and CTU was a watershed moment. Too often unions are willing to take a deal “to benefit their members,” but to the detriment of another union. Local 73 stuck to their alliance with CTU and continued to honor picket lines even after they reached a deal for their members — a principled stance that should be the norm in the labor movement.

Public support of the strike was favorable but harder to judge. At the west side school in the Black community where I picketed, support by passing motorists who honked, was good. CTU members on the picket lines across the city reported consistently strong public support, even when approaching days nine and ten of cancelled classes.

Eleven days of no school is hard on parents, but there were few signs of exasperation with the teachers and staff on picket lines or demonstrations. One measure of public support over the social goals of the strike was the gradual change in news coverage to shift away from pay issues to staffing and student support demands.
Both papers initially demanded that teachers “take the deal.” After the strike was settled, one of the papers that had lambasted CTU for bringing up “extraneous” issues like homelessness ran an article lauding the new services that the homeless students will receive under the new contract.

External support efforts like the Chicago Teachers and Staff Solidarity Campaign were a shadow of their 2012 strength in the numbers of people attending meetings and being able to reach out. Reasons for this include the dissipation of the remnants of the 2011 Occupy movement who were the core of the 2012 committee, and the diminishment of the far left whose cadres had more organizational experience than the new activists of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

Community groups were in support of the strike, but less visible in coalitions than in 2012. Broader union support still reflected the deep divide between the left-wing CTU and traditional trade unions that organized a support rally but didn’t mobilize their members to attend.

The victories of the charter strikes need to be followed up with a continuation of the organizing effort of the last 10 years. So far the largest non-union charter chain, Noble Street, has responded to the strike by raising their pay scales in an attempt to head off internal pressure. Organizing at the charters will still be a difficult task, but one that is crucial.

At a February 12th celebration of the strike victory the CTU officers acknowledged the groups that made the victory possible.  First were the strike captains and coordinators across the city, along with over 40 members of the negotiating team. Second were the teachers from the CTU charter school division, whose strikes in 2018-19 placed the issues of staffing, class size, pay equity and sanctuary schools squarely in the public.

Third were the members and officers of SEIU Local 73 who were so visible at every picket line and demonstration and showed the unity of strikers from both unions. Fourth were members of community groups and supporters who were on picket lines, organized the pre-strike Art Build (the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association sent a dozen or more members to lead this with CPS art teachers).  Fifth was the CTU staff, and finally a special recognition of the nine members of the LatinX caucus who were arrested in a civil disobedience action.

Next Steps

In addition to making sure the provisions on the contract are carried out, CTU needs to take advantage of the union’s power to achieve several legislative changes. The first is to take away mayoral control of the school board, and institute an elected representative school board.

The second is to overturn anti-democratic measures meant to limit the power of unions and working people, as well as denying rights to the majority Chicagoans of color who need to direct the education of their students. This will require a broadening coalition of labor and community organizations.

Despite its limits, the victory in Chicago continues to provide an impetus for other labor activists to broaden the use of common good bargaining and strategic goals. It also shows how crucial a leadership is if unions are to succeed in challenging the power of our opponents. It was impressive to see how that leadership deepened as teachers and staff stepped up to the responsibilities of the strike. It will be a test to see how those new member leaders continue to build CTU’s vision and practices.

Along with the new members who stepped forward in 2020 it should be noted that since the CORE swept office in 2010 with Karen Lewis as its head, nearly a decade later only one of the original candidates, Jesse Sharkey, is still in office. Lewis retired in 2018 after fighting an aggressive form of brain cancer. The loss of the charismatic Lewis was a blow, but the continuity of CORE’s vision as a socially active union survives the changes in leadership.

A common chant in the strike was “when we fight, we win.” There is no guarantee that a strike can always win, but the converse is certainly true — when we don’t fight, we lose. We’ve had plenty of examples of that over the past 40 years, and it is time to continue using aggressive strategies and tactics that can increase chances of winning. That is the real bottom line of teacher and other union struggles.

March-April 2020, ATC 205

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