Chicago Teachers Strike for Better Conditions for Students and to Protest Decades of Anti-CTU Policies

After 94 percent of its members voted in late September to authorize a strike, and now, after two more weeks of intense contract negotiations, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went on strike yesterday.  WBEZ’s Sarah Karp reports that differences remain over manageable class size and teacher assistants’ salaries, along with chronic shortages of support staff needed to serve Chicago’s children—school nurses, librarians, counselors, and social workers.

Chicago’s teachers are striking for the second time in a decade—fighting to turn back a quarter century of school policy that has demonized teachers and their unions and substituted corporate-style governance reforms, school closures, and the expansion of charter schools at the expense of the traditional public schools where they teach.

In his 2014 book, Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity, Micah Uetricht describes Stand for Children’s executive director, Jonah Edelman bragging (in a videotaped interview) at the Aspen Ideas Festival about how, in 2011, his Oregon-based, astroturf organization hired lobbyists in Springfield, Illinois to ensure passage of a law crippling the Chicago Teacher’s Union by requiring a 75 percent vote by a union’s membership to authorize a strike: “‘In effect, they wouldn’t have the ability to strike,’ Edelman says matter-of-factly in the tape. ‘They will never be able to muster the 75 percent threshold.'” (Strike for America, p. 61)  Edelman’s taunt only challenged CTU’s membership, which authorized the 2012 Chicago Teachers’ Strike by 90 percent of the union’s members.

Edelman’s effort was the second time in recent decades when corporate reformers in Springfield lashed out specifically at Chicago’s teachers union. In a 2016 book, A Fight for the Soul of Public Education: The Story of the Chicago Teachers Strike, University of Illinois professors Bob Bruno and Steven Ashby describe the state’s 1995 intervention in Chicago’s public schools by imposing mayoral governance: “As 1995 opened, the new legislative session created a frenzy of anti-Chicago teacher ideas. Republicans offered draconian proposals to ban teachers strikes, eliminate tenure, and inaugurate periodic teacher testing in the Chicago public schools.”  With the support of Chicago’s corporate-reformer mayor, Richard M. Daley, the legislature enacted mayoral control of the city’s public school district: “The plan gave the mayor a large measure of control over the system, which he had long sought, while also containing ‘significant anti-union elements.’  The new law did away with the School Board Nominating Commission, permitting Daley to handpick his own five-person school board. The position of superintendent was also eliminated, and Daley now had the sole power to appoint a school ‘chief executive officer.’ Further weakening the influence of the CTU and its role in reform, at the mayor’s insistence the law also amended the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act… by banning teachers strikes for eighteen months; prohibiting bargaining over class size, layoffs, staffing, and teacher assignments, eliminating seniority as a factor in filling teacher vacancies; and limiting teacher rights to file grievances.” (A Fight for the Soul of Public Education, pp. 28-29)  The law applied to Chicago alone, without affecting other school districts in the state of Illinois.

Richard M. Daley was Chicago’s mayor from 1989 to 2011, followed by Rahm Emanuel.  Both pursued a corporate agenda.  In 2004, there was the glittery new promise of Renaissance 2010, by which the district would close so-called ‘failing’ public schools and replace them with a hundred new schools—many of them charter schools. Arne Duncan headed up Renaissance 2010, and then became the school district’s CEO. School choice and competition have been at the center of Chicago’s school reform, a process that has left traditional public schools in the poorest neighborhoods increasingly vulnerable and that ultimately closed 50 schools in May of 2013. In her history of the 2013 school closures, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing explains what happened: “Of the students who would be affected by the closures, 88 percent were black; 90 percent of the schools were majority black, and 71 percent had mostly black teachers—a big deal in a country where 84 percent of public school teachers are white.”  (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 5)

Writing about the pending strike last week in a Chicago Tribune commentary, two law professors—Sumi Cho of DePaul University College of Law, and Erica Meiners of Northeastern Illinois University, summarize the meaning of the strike which began yesterday: “(T)eachers are the front line of resisting this bipartisan austerity agenda. Chicago teachers won a historic 2012 strike that laid the foundation for the wave of successful teacher strikes that followed in red states such as West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and in blue cities such as Denver, Los Angeles and Oakland, California.” This year, “the CTU’s unity with working people and marginalized communities led it to reject the city’s offer that focuses on teacher pay and health benefits.  Instead, the CTU is also demanding vital services and staffing that its members know Chicago’s most disadvantaged students need to thrive—such as a librarian in every school, more nurses, and health care professionals, and an expansion of sanctuary and community schools.”

Cho and Meiners add that, with this strike, leaders in the Chicago Teachers Union are also pushing back against the constraints on teacher organizing put in place along with mayoral governance in 1995. That law included language directed at the Chicago Teachers Union specifically to prevent CTU from negotiating as part of the union contract the conditions in their schools such as class size and presence of support staff. These negotiating conditions were not set in Springfield for any other teachers union in the state of Illinois.

Cho and Meiners explain that CTU’s members are angry that Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, recently made a move to delay a new state law that would have repealed some of the anti-union provisions in the 1995 law that set up mayoral-control: “More disturbingly, after the Illinois House passed two bills last term to create an elected school board and to repeal the discriminatory provision restricting only Chicago teachers from striking over their working conditions, Mayor Lightfoot asked Senate President John Cullerton to stall these bills. As a result, Illinois’ legislative session ended last May with these bills sidelined in the Senate, just prior to contract negotiations between CTU and the city.”

Decades of tough, anti-public school teacher, anti-union policies—at both the state and local level—are underneath the current teachers strike in Chicago. Chicago teachers, like their counterparts in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Oakland and Los Angeles, are on strike to protect their students from inequitable school funding along with corporate school reform programs, which have featured competition and thereby denied staffing and small classes most particularly in the schools serving Chicago’s poorest children.