On Friday, the Chicago Teachers Union staged a strike. Union members picketed schools, held rallies at City Hall, the Cook County Jail and Chicago State University, and protested for higher wages for fast food workers. The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, who has been closely involved in Chicago labor politics, joined in on some of the events.
CTU has been preparing for this possibility for a few months. In December of last year, 88 percent of the CTU voted to allow union leaders to call for a strike. A couple weeks ago, the CTU officially voted 486–124 in favor of authorizing a strike on April 1.
There are complicated fights over education policy brewing in Chicago that led up to this protest. Here’s what you need to know about the conflict:
Why teachers held a strike
The CTU is raising issues with what they’re calling unfair labor practices on the part of Chicago Public Schools, such as changes in pension contributions and in deciding raises based on experience, called “step and lane,” as well as unpaid furlough days. Although both the CTU and CPS are frustrated with the budget impasse, the CTU said it has doubts that the state legislature and governor are completely to blame for its not being able to make progress in negotiations.
In February, the CTU rejected the Board of Education’s contract proposal, claiming in a press release that it did not “address the difficult conditions in the schools, the lack of services to our neediest students or address the long-term fiscal crisis that threatens to gut public education in the city.”
The CTU said it wants to reduce standardized testing, give teachers more autonomy on issues like grades and smaller class sizes, and provide for more school nurses and librarians. The union also wants the school to address larger economic problems by providing translation services and bilingual programs, restorative justice programs, and school counselors to students in Chicago.
Teachers are also frustrated that the district’s economic woes are affecting their benefits. After CPS said it would stop paying most of teacher pension contributions, CTU President Karen Lewis called the decision, along with cuts in the school budget, “an act of war.” The union said it has sacrificed enough to assist the city throughout its years of financial struggles, citing the fact that teachers had their 4 percent raises rescinded in 2011.
Right now, CPS is arguing that the CTU can’t legally strike by state law. The CTU argues this is not the case, referencing a 1956 U.S. Supreme Court decision that deals with private sector workers, and told the Chicago Tribune that timing requirements don’t apply if an employer is responsible for unfair labor practices.
“The union’s view is that if it’s not striking over the contract, but is instead striking over an unfair labor practice under that Supreme Court decision, it need not fulfill all those statutory requirements for a strike before engaging in an unfair labor practice strike,” CTU attorney Robert Block told the Chicago Tribune. On Friday afternoon, CPS filed a complaint against he CTU with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, claiming the strike was illegal.
The CTU hopes the strike will get the attention of state lawmakers and Gov. Bruce Rauner (R), effectively putting public pressure on them to provide more funding for the school system and more support for agencies that provide social services support to students from low-income families.
This isn’t the first time teachers have walked out
Of course, this one-day strike pales in comparison to the strike that began in the fall of 2012. It was not nearly as disruptive, but the CTU may not have needed a very disruptive action precisely because the last strike is not yet a distant memory for Chicagoans and state leaders.
Once the strike began on September 10, CPS used libraries, churches, and nonprofits to provide students a place to go during the day. (CPS made the same decision during this year’s strike.) Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel eventually sought a preliminary injunction to stop it. CTU delegates voted to end the strike on September 18 and students returned to school on September 19. Although the teachers union secured annual raises, lowered how much test scores count for teacher evaluations, and received a provision allowing strongly rated teachers who were laid off to find opportunities elsewhere in the CPS system, they also had to concede quite a few important things, such as allowing standardized test results to be factored into teacher evaluations to begin with.
This time around, although some of the same issues are at play, the union is framing the conflict as centered on broader economic issues that affect educational quality and career trajectories for students. The union also says it wants schools to provide things such as restorative justice programs and more school counselors.
The decision to stand in solidarity with fast food workers advocating for a $15 wage demonstrates what CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey told The Chicago Tribune: “I guess the important thing to say is we’re just very conscious of the fact that we’re part of a broader movement that needs to figure out how to fund social services — and we’re trying to ask people to see April 1 in that broader context.”
Chicago schools are running out of money
Meanwhile, CPS has been placed in the category of “financial watch” by the Illinois State Board of Education and has a $1.1 billion budget deficit. CPS has pressured state lawmakers to close a $480 million budget gap for this school year, but to no avail.
As a result of these financial difficulties, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool has asked teachers to pay more into their pensions, which would loan the district $500 million from the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund. And last year, CPS floated the possibility of laying off 5,000 teachers, which CTU claimed was a scare tactic to prevent union members from participating in a strike. So far, only 62 workers, 17 of whom are teachers, have been laid off this year. There are over 37,000 people employed employed by CPS.
Earlier this year, Claypool said there would be raises in the third and fourth year of the contract to cover the costs of contributing to the pension, but the CTU said it is unsure whether to trust CPS, given the fact that it rescinded a fourth year raise in 2011 due to a budget deficit.
Gov. Rauner has not indicated that he will support efforts to provide financial assistance to the struggling school district. Instead, he puts blame on the district for being financially irresponsible, and has proposed a state law that would allow the district to declare bankruptcy.
Rather than acknowledging the students who will be bearing the brunt of his “tough love” approach, the governor has pointed to the “working families” who will be hurt by the kind of tax hike that would help pull the district out of its financial hole. “When I look at the numbers, I don’t see an option. I either see bankruptcy or massive, massive property tax hikes on the people of Chicago … It’ll be crushing for working families. Those tax hikes will be crushing for small business owners in this city. It will be devastating,” Rauner told the media last Monday.
Rauner’s statements may seem harsh to Chicagoans, but those living in the suburbs seem to agree with him. ABC7, a local Chicago-area television station spoke to residents in the suburbs who described the teachers’ benefits as “lavish” and “Chicago has gotten itself into its own pickle.”
There are mounting political tensions between the mayor and the union
Emanuel opposed the one-day strike, which is not surprising, given his contentious relationship with the CTU since he first became mayor in 2011. His goals were at odds with the union from the start.
In his first year in office, Emanuel proposed a longer school day. In order to make that policy into a reality, teachers would have had to waive union contract provisions to accept bonus pay — an idea which, unsurprisingly, union leaders opposed. At the time, union officials said that Emanuel’s actions were particularly disconcerting given the wave of actions to chip away at the strength of teachers unions across the U.S., but especially in Wisconsin.
“You expect this stuff out of Republicans,” CTU President Karen Lewis told the New York Times in 2011 in response to the mayor’s move to lengthen the school day.
The clash between Emanuel and Lewis was inevitable, given Emanuel’s embrace of other education policies that usually aren’t very popular among teachers unions. Emanuel has embraced education reform in the style of former CPS CEO and former education secretary Arne Duncan, including an emphasis on expanding charter schools and closing down low-performing schools.
Throughout Duncan’s leadership in the early 2000s, CPS shuttered low-performing schools with the hope that students would be better off in Duncan’s “turnaround” schools. Some of these schools have since been closed by CPS, and all of this change — the closing of old schools and opening of other schools — was concentrated in predominantly black neighborhoods. Community members argued that these policies brought instability to their neighborhoods and reflected an indifference to black residents of Chicago.
In 2013, CPS released a preliminary list of 129 schools that would be considered for closure — further stoking outrage over these closures and contributing to concerns that Emanuel and CPS officials didn’t care about black communities in Chicago. Lewis called the plan for school closures “racist” and “classist.” The CTU, students, activists, and other community members protested. Though the list was eventually brought down to just over 50 schools, critics were still unhappy.
The fury over those closures hasn’t died down. And claims about the mayor’s lack of attention toward the black community’s concerns were only bolstered after the death of Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times by a white police officer. Emanuel only released the video of McDonald’s shooting after more than a year had passed since his death. The mayor’s decision to fight the civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice did not help ease this already frayed relationship.
The CTU has close relationships with influential activists and community leaders who are active on issues of racial justice, which is why Emanuel’s decision to underestimate the CTU cost him so dearly. After Emanuel failed to win more than 50 percent of the vote in the 2015 mayoral primary, he had to run against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who received a lot of support from the CTU after Lewis decided not to run, in a historic run-off election. Emanuel ended up winning with 55 percent of the vote — but the fact that there had to be a run-off at all indicated faltering support from voters, especially black voters.
When asked whether the CTU or or the mayor has better ideas to improve public schools, three times as many Chicago residents chose the teachers union, according to a Chicago Tribune poll.