POLITICS

Chicago Teachers Are On Day Five Of A Tense Strike

About 25,000 teachers are on strike in the Windy City — and negotiations are fraught.

Chicago teachers were still out of the classroom on Wednesday as their strike raged into its fifth day.

They’re largely fighting for lower class sizes and commitments from the district to hire more support staff, like nurses and counselors. But the mayor’s office has said that the price tag for these demands is untenable, especially in a city facing a severe budget gap. 

“Beyond what we put on the table, there is no more money,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday, per CBS Chicago. “There needs to be an increased sense of urgency on the part of [the Chicago Teachers Union] so we can get the job done, we can reach resolution, we can get our kids back in school.”

Teachers have made gains since going on strike last Thursday, but mostly on peripheral issues. The city has tentatively agreed to add 24 new positions designed to serve homeless students, place a moratorium on new charter schools and provide increased protections for counselors, insulating them from having to perform teaching duties, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. But discussions about the issues of pay, class size and support staff numbers are still in flux. 

“There are resources the city can provide, there are choices the city can make in order to meet our demands,” Jennifer Johnson, chief of staff for the Chicago Teachers Union, said at a press conference Tuesday evening. “We’re reasonable, but we’re looking for a just contract in a district that serves 90% students of color.” 

Thousands of demonstrators circle Chicago City Hall in a show of support for the ongoing teachers strike on Oct. 23, 2019. Un
Thousands of demonstrators circle Chicago City Hall in a show of support for the ongoing teachers strike on Oct. 23, 2019. Unionized teachers and staff are demanding more funding from the city to lower class sizes, hire more support staff and build new affordable housing for the 16,000 students whose families are homeless. 

Around 25,000 teachers are striking, along with over 7,000 support staff members on strike through a separate union. The work stoppage has gained national attention. At the press conference Tuesday, CTU President Jesse Sharkey described receiving a supportive phone call from presidential candidate Joe Biden. Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren also rallied with teachers on Tuesday afternoon, telling them, “the eyes of this nation are upon you.” 

“They have turned to Chicago for you to lead the way, for you to show how the power of standing together is the power of making real change in this country,” Warren said. 

About 300,000 students are affected by the strike ― and very few have decided to attend school in the past five days, though the buildings are open and schools are providing supervision. On Monday, 507 schools reported that around 6,000 students were in attendance, Chicago Public Schools spokesperson Emily Bolton told HuffPost.  

In the meantime, not only have classes been canceled, but extracurricular activities have been suspended as well. Student-athletes have not been able to participate in state playoffs.

Jessica Contreras is the mother of a student who had to sacrifice playoff games as a result of the strike. 

“We didn’t sleep last night, staying up crying,” Contreras told HuffPost on Tuesday. “A lot of these kids depended on these games for a scholarship, for some of these kids, it was their ticket ... out of the neighborhoods they live in.”

Contreras says she doesn’t blame teachers for her family’s pain, noting “the teachers deserve the best.” But she doesn’t see why all sides couldn’t come together to make sure students get their chance to shine. 

“It’s very shameful because it’s nothing but politics and it’s all about money,” she said.

At the bargaining table, CTU has been fighting for increased support for school sports teams, including money for equipment and facilities.  

“This is a point of real heartache for our families, for us; we do not take this lightly,” Johnson said at Tuesday’s press conference.  

Mayor of Chicago Lori Lightfoot speaks during her inauguration ceremony in Chicago. 
Mayor of Chicago Lori Lightfoot speaks during her inauguration ceremony in Chicago. 

A poll from the Chicago Sun-Times and ABC7 found that residents were more likely to blame the city for the strike than teachers, making it a high-stakes event for Lightfoot, whose tenure is still in its infancy. It has also strained the new mayor’s relationship with teachers. 

Teacher Shayna Boyd told HuffPost she voted for Lightfoot in part because the mayor made promises of improving student equity and pouring increased resources into schools. Indeed, throughout the strike, CTU leaders have accused Lightfoot of breaking campaign promises. (CTU previously endorsed Lightfoot’s opponent.) 

Boyd had faith that with Lightfoot at the helm of the city, the union’s contract issues would resolve swiftly. Instead, the process has been drawn out and contentious.

But Boyd has not yet given up hope that her vote was for naught. 

“I’m still optimistic that she said what she said when she was running because she meant it, and that she’s going to try to reconcile this in a way that is economically feasible for all parties involved,” said Boyd, a teacher at Ashburn Elementary. “I know other teachers who have changed their opinion.”

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