Anti-racism, Labor

Chicago teachers are fighting for social justice

On October 17 more than 25,000 Chicago Public School teachers in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), along with 7,000 special education classroom assistants and other support staff from Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73, started to strike, demanding the newly elected Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot fund their schools. As we finish out the first week of the strike, Kim Rabuck reports on what’s at stake.

Chicago Public Schools is the largest district in the country after New York and Los Angeles and is comprised of 360,000 children, 90% of whom are children of color. Half of all CPS students live below the poverty line and over 17,000 students are homeless. There are more than 30 children packed into 3,000 classrooms across the city, with some rooms holding more than 45 students. These children are suffering from a starved out budget in one of the richest states in the world’s richest country.

Fighting for the schools we deserve

CTU and SEIU Local 73 demands reflect exactly what their children deserve: appropriate student to teacher ratios, full time school nurses in every building, libraries and librarians in every school, social workers staffed at nationally recognized rates, school engineers for clean safe buildings, more Special Education teachers and classroom assistants, additional English as a second language teachers and additional support personnel for English language learners, real sanctuary schools, and more.

Additionally, strikers want all of those who provide educational services, from bus drivers to special education case managers to classroom teachers, to earn descent wages. Most people in the CTU and SEIU 73 work two jobs or more driving Uber and Lyft, tutoring, cleaning houses and office buildings, doing childcare, cashiering at retail establishments, doing warehouse work, and a myriad of other jobs. Many have children eligible for free or reduced lunch and some families are barely able to keep the lights on. CPS’s insanely low waged bus-drivers work split shifts so second jobs are nearly impossible to juggle. Some are homeless, literally sleeping in their cars.

32,000 school employees are striking for all of Chicago’s families and feeling powerful doing it. Chicago’s educators and school staff were inspired by teachers from West Virginia to Denver to Los Angeles, nurses from Burlington, Vermont to San Francisco, and 49,000 United Auto Workers at General Motors and many more — to strike for better conditions for their schools and hospitals and better monetary packages for their own families.

Put it in writing

Teachers and staff felt compelled to strike so they could get their demands in writing — in a legally binding contract. Lori Lightfoot, the newly elected Democratic Mayor of Chicago, who ran on a platform promising she would provide children with the high quality education their deserve, has instead put the financial interests of wealthy developers on the north side of the city ahead of the needs of the children suffering in severely understaffed under-maintained schools on the south side.

She said she has to take tax payers interests seriously, and therefore can’t put reduced class size specifics in the contract, but at the same time she dangles significant wage increases in front of teachers faces. Lightfoot can’t have it both ways. There either is enough money for proper schools or there isn’t.

As is often the case during public sector strikes, Lightfoot is trying to make it all about teacher salaries, because actually reducing class sizes would mean the district would have to find classrooms to put those students in.

State legislation from 1995 only allows unions in districts of more than 500,000 residents to negotiate wages and benefits, as supposedly those are the only things that directly impact them in their relationship to the CPS. This strike has revealed just how much of a lie this is. Children’s learning conditions are teachers and staff’s working conditions, as Jesse Sharkey, President of the CTU puts it, and Chicago families know it. The union want class sizes that allow them address the needs of every student and they won’t be satisfied until this is written into their formal contract.

Community support

The strike is gathering huge community backing thanks largely to the work teacher unionists have been engaged in for years getting the community involved in the flight for quality education. Back in 2010 when the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) with Karen Lewis and Jesse Sharkey at the helm, the union started raising questions that could no longer go unanswered: when and how were black and brown children living in unimaginable poverty going to get their needs met at school when they already had so much to deal with in their day to day lives?

Children living in communities wracked by racism that have been devastated by under-employment, unemployment, lacking access to nutritious food, quality health care, and on top of that, disastrously underfunded schools were never going to see their lives improve. The school to prison pipeline was real for CPS students and the teachers’ union knew it.

The wins of the historic 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike win was short lived, partly because as soon as the ink dried on the contract, the district shuttered 50 schools in mostly Black and Latinx neighborhoods, forcing children into fewer remaining schools and pushing class sizes beyond capacity. This time teachers and staff are not compromising. This is why the contract campaign is so crucial. It will make student to staff ratios capped and enforceable and the district will be compelled to build the schools we need.

Lightfoot is offering 15% raises over the next five years to get the teachers to accept a deal, but educators and staff aren’t falling for it. Teachers don’t become teachers to get rich. They become teachers to enrich the lives of others, and they deserve to make a descent living in the process.

Kim Rabuck

Support Chicago education workers on strike

  • Wear red and share a photo of yourself (and your co-workers!) on social media with the hashtags #PutItInWriting and #RedForEd
  • Support the official union strike fund here
  • Donate to help feed students who would ordinarily get lunch at school here
  • Read and share this article around your networks