Understanding the Chicago School Strike … and Why it’s Different

by Paul Elitzik, published on Considered Sources, October 25, 2019

You have to go beyond the news media coverage of the school strike to understand its significance. The reporting reduces the strike to a conflict over particular demands, a power struggle between an “interest group” and the city. But this gets it very wrong. Teachers are not just another interest group — and in this respect, they have a unique place in the work force.

It’s true that unions typically will bargain and strike for better pay and working conditions on their jobs. But teachers are unlike most of the labor force, because their personal needs go beyond their personal interests. Chicago teachers need better working conditions, but as their signs say, their working conditions are their students’ learning conditions. In the wave of mass teachers strikes inspired by the Chicago strike of 2012, teachers have made demands for their students’ welfare the core of their bargaining and their message — a strategy called “bargaining for the common good.”

The public knows the schools have been underfunded and starved of funds for decades. They know about the shortages of teachers and other essential staff. Newspaper reporting has exposed the lack of teaching resources and the filth, rats and roaches in the classrooms. So the public has been sympathetic to the contract demands of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the Service Employees Union  (SEIU 73): manageable class sizes; hiring of needed and missing wraparound staff — nurses, social workers, psychologists, librarians, special education classroom assistants, security officers and custodians; and raising the poverty wages of the mostly minority service employees.

Strange and inexplicable … and totally normal

We’re not supposed to use common sense about these demands. It’s quite normal for even wealthy cities to impoverish the schools. But really, if we think about it, isn’t it strange and even inexplicable that teachers should have to go on strike for these things? Shouldn’t cities meet these needs without anyone having to ask for them, let alone fight for them? After all, no one, not the mayor and not even the anti-union editorial board of the Chicago Tribune, would dare deny the justice of the demands. CTU Vice President Stacy Davis-Gates reminds us, when Mayor Lightfoot was campaigning, her bold, visionary education platform “was largely cutting and pasting from the work we’ve been doing over the last decade.

So naturally, the public likes the strikers demands. The only opinion poll on the strike so far shows that far more voters support the teachers than support the mayor — 49% to 38%.

Now the city is their classroom

Teachers teach … and when they go on strike, the city is their classroom and voters are their students. Their demands draw awkward attention to the city’s excuses for denying them. For example, Mayor Lightfoot says, there just isn’t any more money for reducing class size or hiring nurses. But this focuses our attention on how the city misspends the taxes we pay.

The teachers have been saying for months, if there’s $2.4 billion for luxury developments like Lincoln Yards and the 78, there should be money for the children. In fact, the CTU was campaigning to block those developments long before the union contract expired. They helped make them, and affordable housing, a central issue in the city elections, and they forced candidates who wanted progressive votes to say they opposed them.

When she was running for mayor, Lightfoot opposed the Lincoln Yards development. But then after she became mayor, she sent her lawyers to court to defend it.  The Grassroots Collaborative and Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education sued, saying the city violated state law by agreeing to the subsidy. The mayor could have stayed neutral; the mayor could have called a halt until the matter was decided in court. Or pigs could have taken flight and the mayor or could even have supported the community groups, agreed state law was violated,  and called for an investigation of the way the approval process was rigged.* But it’s easier — and more popular with the financial elites and big donors — to say, sorry, teachers, we just don’t have the money.

Strikers teach in the streets — our tax money goes to megadevelopments like Lincoln Yards and The 78 instead of the kids. From the October 17 march.

If the strike goes on, the teachers will keep on teaching — more and more people will learn the meaning of terms like “austerity” and “neoliberalism,” more will focus on the mismanagement and systemic corruption.Ten years ago you could probably fit all the voters who knew what a TIF was into a few classrooms. But thanks to the CTU, the progressive community groups (and the obsessive muckraking of the Chicago Reader’s political columnist, Ben Joravsky), thousands of voters learned the way Tax Increment Financing (TIF) works and accelerates gentrification and displacement. The Lincoln Yards TIF became a teaching example, showing voters how the city diverts our property taxes away from schools and into luxury developments.

Mass actions are the people’s media

More than 600 teachers, students and parents came to the CTU Art Build and made over 1000 picket signs, parachutes, and banners for the strike.

More teaching in the streets: Another lesson is the power of direct action, like the strike and the massive marches that shut down traffic downtown. Disruption focuses people’s attention, and massive disruption draws massive attention. Mass action is the people’s media — the mass strike becomes a city-wide spectacle, forcing corporate media to relay the strikers’ messaging. You can see how it works against the anti-union editorializing in the dailies.

The Tribune and Crains Chicago Business frame the strike as the project of “strike-hungry” union leaders, separating the union from its members in order to divide the teachers from their public support. Or they say the union is in a grudge match or power struggle, an attempt to regain leverage after their mayoral candidate lost to Lori Lightfoot.

This anti-union framing, familiar from decades of media messaging, appeals to the public’s distrust of institutions and leaders, unions included. But painting teachers as passive or brainwashed followers of a few power-hungry leaders no longer works so well, and not just because 94% of the union’s members voted to strike. The teachers give the lie to those insulting caricatures when they tie up the streets with 30,000 marchers, as they did last Thursday. Or every morning since, when you can’t drive down a Chicago street without seeing strikers with their picket signs, and without hearing cars, trucks and buses honking in support as they drive past. It’s a safe guess that more people read their signs, on the streets and reproduced in social media, than read the Tribune or Crains.

News reporting on labor struggles, as well as editorials, usually gives little or no space to the voices of strikers. They quote management and maybe a union leader, but don’t talk to the strikers themselves. (See my article on the Lyric Opera strike for comments on bias in labor reporting.) But unlike the opinion writers, some reporters have been more professional in their coverage of the school strike. Again, this is partly due to the unique place teachers occupy because of the nature of their work. It’s not easy to represent teachers as alien; after all, reporters know and have known teachers throughout their lives. They went to public school, know teachers among their families and friends.

But there is also this, the CTU and SEIU know how to wage a mass strike. Mass action can be powerful, and spectacle sells. Photos of the marches lead on the front pages and on the website home pages of the same newspapers whose editorial boards vilify the union. Most of the coverage quotes the city and union leaders, but when the reporters cover the marches, they speak to the strikers.  These articles, unlike the editorials, began to tell the strikers’ stories, from the class sizes and the need for nurses.  counselors, and special ed staffing, to the filthy and under-resourced classrooms.

More than wages and benefits

This is an early success of the strikers. The city wanted to confine the negotiations and the media coverage to wages and benefits. But the unions, by putting masses of strikers into the streets, forced their message into the media and changed the conversation from wages to conditions — even in the negotiations. The mayor’s team was refusing to write into the contract Lightfoot’s promises about class size or hiring nurses (“don’t worry, it’s in the budget”).  But they now agree to add staffing and class sizes in the contract, seeing the popularity of the strikers and the success of their messaging.

If today’s teachers’ unions don’t look like “special interests,” like the bankers and developers, it’s because they look more like social movements. They don’t just demand better schools, they present their struggle as part of broader efforts to bring about fundamental change. These unions are militant, take direct action, ally with community groups and join their protests, go door-knocking with their strike message, and even do movement-style civil disobedience training.

Young artists paint a parachute for strikers to carry in a march. The Art Build Workers came from Milwaukee to organize a weekend of art making in the CTU union hall. Over 600 teachers, children, parents, supporters came, making thousands of signs, banners, painted parachutes.

Their rallies and marches also make them look less like a union and more like a movement. At union actions, members are typically handed printed signs with a few slogans, the union controlling the messaging. But the CTU members bring their own signs, some artfully drawn and painted, many with the members’ own text. The weekend before the strike, a Milwaukee collective of artists and activists, the Art Build Workers, came to the CTU hall and set up silk screens, stencils, paints, markers, materials for picket signs and posters, even parachutes to paint. The design of some of the posters left room for demonstrators to write or paint their own words or images.

The CTU presents as part of emerging and broadly-based progressive movements for social changes. Progressive social movements have been on the rise since the financial crisis of 2008.  Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Resistance after the 2016 election, the Women’s March and #MeToo, Immigration rights, Standing Rock pipeline protests, March for Our Lives, Climate Strike are a few of the dramatic faces of this new upsurge of popular power. In this wave of movements, teachers on strike are the new face of a revived labor movement. You can hear the chants of movement activists when you go to the CTU strike’s massive rallies and marches — “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “This is what democracy looks like.” This is not the language of conventional trade unionism.

There is one respect in which the CTU is unlike some of the other movements — it is multi-racial in its leadership and membership. Half of the teachers are people of color. The CTU has brought Chicago’s history of racism into their narrative, saying you can’t understand the generations of neglect and defunding of the schools, unless you understand their transformation from a system that serves mostly white to overwhelmingly Black and Latinx students. The students they teach now are 90% students of color, 76% economically disadvantaged. It is not surprising then that the union has refused to go back to work without guarantees for hiring nurses, social workers and psychologists, or that they are demanding housing for their 17,000 homeless students. They have demanded  enforceable protections for undocumented students (expanded sanctuary schools“) in bargaining. The CTU is also striking together with SEIU 73, which represents the support staff, many of whom are minority workers paid poverty wages. This alliance is singularly important in Chicago, where Black and Latinx relations are key to city politics as well as to movement building.

“We are in a fight against white supremacy,” Davis Gates said. “White supremacy in CPS manifests with 40 black kindergartners in one classroom; it manifests when they close 50 black schools; it manifests when we are begging for school nurses to be in schools every day, but instead taxpayers are subsidizing wealthy playgrounds in Lincoln Park.”
Stacy Davis Gates, Vice President, CTU.

The two school unions, CTU and SEIU 73, went on the march together October 17, solidarity between the teachers and the support workers.

While the school unions are part of this social movement upsurge, they are still trade unions. As in any union, the members demand attention to their immediate needs on the job before broader social goals, even when those goals are widely shared.How committed is the membership is to the transformational vision of the leadership, many of whom are veteran activists? It’s hard for an outsider to get a sense of this. Maybe hard even for the leadership to know how far the members will go — how long they are willing to go without pay and work the picket lines. This strike, which as I write is beginning to look like a long one, may become a harsh test of commitment and identity for both union and members.

As I write, the negotiations seem at an impasse, progress but not on the core non-compensation issues, with both sides locked into their positions to the point that concessions on contract demands would seem a defeat and loss of power. The crux is the union demands on class sizes, nurses and support staff. They are also stuck on the length of the contract — the union wants a three-year contract, the mayor insists on five years. It might seem a small matter to outsiders, and it’s not just about compensation. Lightfoot doesn’t want to risk another strike before the next mayoral election, and this gives the union leverage in bargaining.

The mayor claims they have made the commitment on the other issues, even allowing for them in the budget. But budget lines aren’t binding, and the union wants the promises written into the contract with language that makes them enforceable. It’s as if the mayor and the editorialists are telling the union, “Trust us!” (On what planet? Ain’t this Chicago?)

It would be easier for the union if they were facing off  Mayor Daley or Mayor Rahm, each with a biography of deceit and betrayal. But Lightfoot has no history in the job and remains popular, with a 54% approval rating. We are often reminded that she won every ward with 74% of the total votes just months ago with a progressive platform. But maybe we should remind the reminders that her mandate” is thin, 74% of only 31% of registered voters, and that’s just 24%. In the city election and the midterm, progressives defeated powerful party bosses, and in the next election, after a few more years of progressive organizing, Lightfoot can expect even more energy in the streets. That raises the stakes for today’s confrontation between the mayor and CTU/SEIU, key forces in the movement.

Everyone agrees the city’s 2019 election was a vote for change, that voters are fed up and won’t be happy with small differences. The CTU is appealing to those voters, but also to the majority who didn’t vote, in a Democratic city when the Democratic base is moving decidedly left. “This is the best-in-a-generation opportunity to do some important things,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said. “We’re going to hold firm for the resources we need. We’re going to hold firm as a city and as a union.

More is at stake than a contract. The success or failure of a strike is not only measured by the demands won or lost. The deeper calculus is whether the union is stronger or weaker afterwards, whether it has won more allies and support, whether it has educated its community and strengthened the progressive movements for change. Chicago teachers set a wave of teacher activism in motion nationwide when they struck in 2012 — an inspiration not just to teachers unions, but to the labor movement. We can expect that now, again, their strike will have far-reaching consequences.

*Featured Image: Chicago’s teachers and staff march, 30,000 strong:  “For the schools we need, not LaSalle Street Greed.” Oct. 17. All photos: Considered Sources (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).


Paul Elitzik has been teaching journalism and media at The School of the Art Institute for over thirty years.

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