An overwhelming majority of the Chicago Teachers Union, 88 percent, voted on Monday to allow union leaders to call for a strike.
It will be several months before the union decides whether to actually begin a strike. First, they’re going on a “fact-finding mission” in one last effort to resolve the negotiations. But if they do decide to walk out of their classrooms, it will be the second time the union — which has 27,000 members and serves the nation’s third largest school district in the nation — has gone on strike in just a few years.
How did the CTU and mayor’s office get here? It’s complicated.
The last time teachers went on strike
Back in 2012, there was a massive teachers strike over maintaining the schedule for career advancement, putting less emphasis on standardized testing in teacher evaluations, and providing compensation for longer school years. It was the first time that Chicago teachers had gone on strike in a quarter of a century.
During the strike, which began on September 10 of that year, CPS opened sites at libraries, churches, and nonprofits to provide children a place to go. One week later, Mayor Rahm Emanuel went to court, seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the strike.
The 2012 strike officially ended on September 18, after the teachers union won annual raises and negotiated a provision that helps strongly rated laid-off teachers find more job opportunities in Chicago schools. They conceded, though, that standardized test results would still be factored into teachers’ evaluations.
This time around, many of the same issues are at play in contract negotiations. The CTU 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 asks that the school address larger economic problems by providing translation services, restorative justice programs, and school counselors.
How the teachers union and the mayor got to this point
The relationship between the mayor and the CTU did not improve after reaching a deal in 2012. In fact, it became so contentious that the president of the teachers union, Karen Lewis, considered jumping into the mayor’s race herself. Though she ultimately decided not to run due to medical issues, education loomed large in the most recent mayoral race. Emanuel’s opponent, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, was recruited by Lewis to run and received a substantial portion of his campaign money from teachers unions, including $200,000 from the American Federation of Teachers.
After failing to win more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary, Emanuel had to run against Garcia in a run-off election, during which Emanuel won with 55 percent of the vote.
Although Emanuel was able to carry every majority black ward in the city the last time he was elected, winning 58 percent of the vote in six wards that were majority black, the support from the same wards this year ranged from 42 to 45 percent, according to the Chicago Tribune. The change in support from black voters may have been tied to the closure of schools in predominantly black neighborhoods, a practice that many education equity advocates called racist and classist, as well as a lack of response to violent crime, according to political journalists and analysts.
Anger over the city closing schools that primarily serve low-income black students has been brewing for some time — long before Emanuel took over the mayor’s office.
The practice of shuttering low-performing schools, based on the idea that students would be better served in new schools, was pioneered during Arne Duncan’s leadership as CEO of Chicago Public Schools in the early 2000s. Duncan’s ambitions didn’t quite pan out. Many of the new schools replacing the low-performing schools weren’t actually high-performing.
It got worse in 2013, when Chicago Public Schools released a list of 129 schools being considered for closure. “This city cannot destroy that many schools. It will send our district into chaos,” Lewis said in response. “These actions will put our students’ safety and academics at risk and will further destabilize our neighborhoods.”
That anger over the school closures bubbled up again recently when a group of around 12 parents and community activists began a hunger strike to protest the closure of their neighborhood school, Dyett High School. Their hunger strike lasted for a month and gained national attention, which once again highlighted the political fallout from the 2013 school closures. After discussions with the mayor and CPS, the city eventually agreed to keep the school open.
The current strike that’s brewing couldn’t come at a worse time for Emanuel, who is now being criticized for his handling of the death of a black male teenager, Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times by a white police officer. Emanuel released the video 13 months after the shooting — only after a judge forced its release — and initially fought a civil rights investigation into the case by the U.S. Department of Justice. As Emanuel visited the Urban Prep campus this week, students protested his visit by shouting “16 shots” at the mayor.
How financial woes compound the problem
All of these elements — anger over school closures, a history of tension between the mayor and president of the teachers union, and the shooting of Laquan McDonald — have contributed to the political powder keg in which a strike could take place. In conjunction with all of these concerns over racial and educational inequities, there’s also a major financial crisis within CPS.
The Chicago Public School system is having a budget crisis and may need to lay off 5,000 teachers to fill a $480 million gap. As a result, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool has asked teachers to pay more into their pensions, effectively loaning $500 million from the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund, and said there will be deep central office cuts to prevent cuts affecting the classroom itself.
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 CTU questioned whether the union could trust CPS after it rescinded a fourth year raise in 2011 due to a budget deficit.
“The mayor’s hand-picked Board continues to force a no-win choice on educators: Accept deep cuts to our salaries and health benefits now or choose massive layoffs and larger class sizes in the weeks to come,” the union said in a statement this week.