Chicago teachers and support staff are officially on strike. More than 30,000 education workers hit picket lines at hundreds of schools across the city beginning Thursday morning at 6:30am with tens of thousands converging for a rally and march through the Loop in the afternoon.
“Now is a time for us to do better. Now is the time for our demands to be heard,” Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey told workers before dawn on a picket line outside Peirce Elementary on Chicago’s North Side. “This is a time for our voices to be listened to and we insist on that. It’s up to the mayor to get a fast contract settlement. She has the power to do that. But we are gonna hold fast to a just contract settlement.”
The Chicago Public Schools is the nation’s third largest school district, with more than 300,000 students. The CTU represents some 25,000 teachers while the Service Employees International Union Local 73 represents around 7,000 school support staff including custodians, security officers, bus aides, and special education assistants. Both unions are striking for smaller class sizes, more resources in the classroom, better staffing, and better wages.
“These are achievable demands. These are things we’re gonna win,” said Sharkey. “We shouldn’t have to put up with a beautiful school people love to work at and every kindergarten has 30 or more students or workers who’ve worked here for 25 years that haven’t seen a real raise in 10 years. This is at the heart of our resolve.”
According to the CTU more than 1,300 classrooms in the District are overcrowded, with nearly 25 percent of students in overcrowded classrooms.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and officials from CPS have argued that the City can’t afford to meet the demands of the union and that there aren’t enough available workers in the right fields to shore up staffing.
“The fact is there is no more money, period,” Lightfoot told reporters at a press conference Friday morning. “It’s a question of how do we in light of the fact that we’re not producing that many nurses in schools in Chicago, not producing the number of librarians and counselors across the state. My information is that last year alone we only had 100 nurses that graduated from nursing schools in the state. We have to make a concerted effort to build a pipeline.”
That’s little comfort for workers like Andre, a special education classroom assistant at Christopher Elementary on Chicago’s south side. “The bottom line is we provide an important personal service for these students,” he said as day broke Thursday morning. “It seems as though the Board doesn’t understand or respect that.”
“Mayor Lightfoot, if you’re supposed to be such a progressive, put your money where your mouth is and invest in our students and the people who work for them,” he added.
Both bargaining talks and picketing continued Friday morning, with both the mayor and board officials accusing the union of lacking a “sense of urgency.” Board officials were angry union leadership marched in a rally that drew more than 10,000 people in the afternoon downtown, while Lightfoot took to television Thursday night to question the union’s resolve to come to an agreement.
“I’m concerned that there’s not a sense of urgency to get a deal done,” Lightfoot said in an interview on WTTW. “My sense of what’s happened in previous circumstances is that the teams bargained from morning to night, seven days of week, with a total sense of urgency to get something done, even though there’s disagreements. We’re not seeing that this time.”
The union however, has said it’s the Lightfoot administration that’s drug its feet on negotiations.
“We waited patiently for the schools to start negotiating with us and they took a pass on that for months,” Sharkey said at a press conference on Wednesday. “Then a new mayor got elected and still we waited months. As late as July we only got the board’s first comprehensive set of proposals. It’s simply not true that we’re not willing to talk about these things. We want to talk about these issues because we want solutions. We don’t want to be out of our schools tomorrow but sometimes you have to take a hard step in order to get what’s right.”
The union took to Twitter Friday morning to double down on that. “Facts are facts, and the fact is that we presented proposals to the Board in January, then sat on our hands and watched the district stall while the mayor campaigned, won, celebrated, was inaugurated, *then* turned attention to our schools,” the union wrote in a lengthy thread.
As negotiations continued through Friday, thousands rallied and marched again in the Loop. After negotiations wrapped for the day, the union said movement had been made, but it wasn’t enough to end the strike.
“At last, CPS shows willingness to bargain on key equity demands on class size, staffing needs, – but not enough to end the strike for educational justice,” the CTU wrote in a Saturday morning press release. The union says that while the most recent counter-proposals from CPS address some key bargaining issues – staffing shortages and homeless students – the scenario proposed by the District would “essentially ask schools to choose among bringing on board a librarian, a counselor, or a restorative justice coordinator – but only one of these positions, not all three.” The union says the most recent proposals fall short of school and student needs.
Bargaining between the union and the District will continue all weekend.