About 25,000 Chicago teachers are officially going on strike, the union announced Wednesday evening, after months of failed negotiations with the city and district.
The district is the third-largest in the country and serves about 300,000 students. Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson canceled school hours in advance of the announcement, though buildings will stay open to provide meals and safe places for students. The district has developed a contingency plan in which students will be supervised by non-unionized staff, although there will be no academic instruction or after-school programming. The district’s over 100 charter schools will continue to operate as scheduled.
The strike is the latest in a wave of teacher protests that have been sweeping the nation since 2018. But in many ways, this strike is a continuation of what Chicago teachers started in 2012, when they went on strike for seven days after making a range of demands that pushed back on education reform efforts and sought to improve conditions for vulnerable students.
This time, Chicago teachers are primarily pushing for lower class sizes and increases in the numbers of special education teachers, nurses and social workers. By Wednesday, the two sides had not been able to reach an agreement.
The city’s latest proposal involved investing $1 million to decrease classroom overcrowding, but union leaders said the amount fell far too short. The city’s offer also failed to include language on enforcing class size caps ― a sticking point for CTU.
The city offered $2 million over five years to expand the pipeline of support staff, such as nurses and social workers. CTU referred to the amount offered in the proposal as “laughable.”
On the issue of pay, the city has offered a 16% raise over five years. Union leaders said they want a raise over three years.
But the union is also fighting to improve broader conditions outside the classroom. Affordable housing has become a sticking point, with teachers fighting for city funding for more affordable housing units and support for new teachers. They are also pushing for new in-school support staff to work with homeless families and those who are in danger of losing housing, with the union estimating that 17,000 district students are homeless.
The city’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, has pushed back on such demands, saying the teachers’ contract “is not the appropriate place for the city to legislate its affordable housing policy,” according to the Chicago Tribune. She has also questioned whether the union was bargaining in good faith, suggesting that they seemed to be putting more effort into preparing for a strike than in negotiating.
Teachers’ demands are simply too expensive, Lightfoot has said, especially for a city facing a budget shortfall.
“I also must be responsible for the taxpayers who pay for everything that goes on,” said Lightfoot, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
CTU leaders have framed the fight as one of social and racial justice for their students and larger communities, building on their tactics from 2012.
“It should be expected to have a social worker and nurse in a school community. [Lightfoot] mocked us when we talked about the 20,000 homeless students in the system,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates told HuffPost. “The CPS has a history of segregation, and it has a history of inequity.”
A point of particular frustration, according to union leaders, is that Lightfoot ― who was inaugurated in March, campaigned on promises that align with the teachers’ demands.
“I just don’t know why we’re fighting over something we agree on. It defies logic and good sense,” Davis Gates said.
Teachers came close to striking with park workers who belong to Service Employees International Union Local 73. However, at the last minute, the union reached a deal with the city. This same union also represents more than 7,000 school support staff employees, who also plan to go on strike.
The Chicago Teachers Union has been cited as an inspiration for the recent wave of teacher protests since its strike in 2012, which framed negotiations as a matter of social and racial justice. Since then, teachers striking in other places, like West Virginia and Los Angeles, have applied the same model.
“I think you’re seeing the movement building here that at its core is a fight for justice. Because teachers want what students need,” Randi Weingarten, president of the national American Federation of Teachers, told HuffPost on Wednesday.