Unpacking the Chicago Teachers Strike

 /  Jan. 14, 2020, 5:21 p.m.

teachers strike

For eleven days this October, over 300,000 students in the third largest school district in the country waited as Chicago’s public school teachers and staff went on their longest strike since 1987. The return to classes came with a long awaited and fiercely contested contract between the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) that still seemed to leave many unsatisfied. Nevertheless, the strike and the resulting contract are indicative of a historic level of influence for teachers nationwide. To fully evaluate how teachers’ unions will continue to shape public education in Chicago and beyond, we must look at the strike itself, the benefits it has brought to teachers, and to similar movements around the country. Though administrators have not been keen on giving into all demands that teachers have made—whether in the case of Chicago or other cities—the gains that teachers have achieved show their increasing power as public opinion becomes more favorable to their aspirations. 

Chicago’s Strike

Following Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s sweeping victory last year, the CTU that had fought bitterly with former Mayor Rahm Emanuel hoped for a new era in relations with the city. Emanuel had favored closing poorly performing schools and offering parents the choice to send their children to largely non-union charter schools, which are privately run but publicly funded. However, teachers tend to prefer that money flow toward the neighborhood schools where they work, which already suffer from low enrollment. 

Lightfoot ran to replace Emanuel on a progressive platform that encompassed support for public schools and revitalization of struggling neighborhoods. She signaled support for more social workers, counselors, nurses, and librarians in schools, and advocated for hiring a more diverse teaching staff.

It is in this context that teachers made their ambitious demands. In addition to traditional issues—higher pay, smaller class sizes, more support staff, and longer prep time—the CTU asked for affordable housing across the city for both teachers and students. Though it was unclear how such a provision could be included in a teaching contract, teachers insisted that it is necessary to address the context in which students receive their education, not just the schools themselves. This demand reflects the CTU’s broader social justice agenda, which it adopted following the 2010 election of President Karen Lewis from the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), a progressive wing of the union. Since then, former vice president Jesse Sharkey has replaced Lewis as president, but the goals of the organization have remained similar.

The final form of the contract offered teachers substantial concessions but ultimately did not wade into the realm of housing policy. According to CPS, $380 million will go toward teacher and staff compensation to fund a 16 percent salary increase over the next five years. An additional $70 million will be spent to hire a full-time nurse and social worker for every school, as well as some new staff charged with supporting homeless and ESL students. A final $50 million is allocated to reduce class sizes by hiring new teachers aides and to support athletics programs.

Though the CTU voted to approve the contract, it saw a split among its members. Some wanted a reduction in the official cap on class sizes, a mandated increase in class preparation time, and a three-year contract rather than a five-year one. Others felt cheated by the loss of pay for the duration of the strike, which will only be partially accounted for by five make-up days. Many teachers, however, were optimistic about the effect of the new contract in their schools. And even those who were not completely satisfied were likely reluctant to vote against it after eleven days without classes.

Regardless of any future gains from the strike, students may have suffered the most during it. Over 300,000 students were affected, often leaving their parents scrambling to find a place for them to spend the day. Though school buildings remained open and serving food—about 76 percent of students are low-income—bus service was suspended. Many parents were also uncomfortable leaving their children at schools, which had only minimal supervision. These parents stayed home, hired babysitters, or even organized “strike camps” in local public spaces. 

A City Divided

According to a Chicago Sun-Times poll conducted on the eve of the strike, 58 percent of parents of public school students somewhat or strongly approved of the planned strike, compared to 29 percent in opposition. Many parents and their children showed their support during the strike by joining teachers outside schools or in rallies downtown.

The city at large also appeared to approve of the strike, though to a lesser degree: 49 percent of respondents were in favor and 38 percent against. Figures like these likely emboldened the CTU to stand their ground for as long as they did.

Opponents of the strike nevertheless made themselves heard. The editorial board of the Sun-Times cited a $838 million gap in the city budget, and contended that meeting all of the CTU’s demands would cost $2.5 billion. They urged teachers to accept the pay raises the city had offered and not strike for more, predicting that any generous contract could inspire the city’s other workers to demand the same, costing the city even more money. Chicago currently has a “junk” credit rating due to billions of dollars in unfunded pension liabilities, making it difficult for the city to borrow money. Chicago schools have a similarly abysmal rating.

The Chicago Tribune took the same position, though they emphasized moral imperatives rather than economic realities. They placed the blame for students’ missed classes, games, and college application preparation squarely on the shoulders of the teachers, who they said were more focused on showing off their political might than securing a fair contract.

At the national level, several current and former contenders for the Democratic nomination expressed their support for the teachers union. Senator Kamala Harris, Julian Castro, and Joe Biden posted their encouragement online; Senator Bernie Sanders attended a pre-strike rally with the teachers; Senator Cory Booker met with union members; and Senator Elizabeth Warren visited strikers outside a school. Each was or is courting teachers’ favor in the primary, but the party as a whole is also seeking to solidify the labor vote ahead of the general election.

Though no survey has been conducted following the strike, the same Chicago Sun-Times poll from beforehand suggests more Chicagoans blame the city for the strike rather than the union. Thirty-five percent of respondents said they would hold CPS and city officials most responsible for the strike, compared to 19 percent saying the same of the CTU. Little of that blame however, extends to Lightfoot: only 12 percent indicated that they would hold her personally responsible, while 16 percent indicated the same for Sharkey. Lightfoot still enjoyed a 54 percent approval rating at the time of the poll, far outstripping her 15 percent disapproval. No data is yet available to see whether these numbers have been altered by the strike.

A National Movement

Teachers’ mobilizing for better working conditions is not unique to Chicago. In February 2018, teachers across West Virginia went on strike for nine days. They were responding to continual decreases in state education funding, largely due to corporate tax cuts, which left West Virginia teachers with the third-lowest average salary in the nation. State lawmakers eventually capitulated to their demand for a 5 percent raise and a freeze on health care costs. Earlier this year, after an offer that included another 5 percent raise but also allowed the establishment of charter schools, teachers needed only to announce their intention to strike to bring lawmakers to the negotiating table.

Emboldened by this success in West Virginia, teachers across several other traditionally conservative—which often have laws that substantially weaken collective bargaining power —went on strike for similar reasons. Oklahoma, whose teacher salaries ranked second lowest in the country, saw a nine-day strike in April 2018. The teachers’ success, however, was more limited: they received $479 million in school funding and raises, only a fraction of the $3.3 billion they demanded.

Still, the wave persisted, united under the label #RedforEd. Teachers in Arizona followed suit later that month with a six-day strike, having suffered funding cuts similar to those in West Virginia. They were able to secure a 20 percent raise over three years, as well as an increase in general public education funding. 

Not every teachers union claimed as large a victory. Teachers in Kentucky protested at the state capital over proposed pension reforms. Though they lost that particular battle, they received a new budget with increased state funding for local school districts. Colorado teachers protested at their capital as well, but ultimately failed to increase education funding. North Carolina teachers secured a raise but lost out on on their demands for greater support staff and school infrastructure improvements.

Unsurprisingly, these movements drew fierce backlash from mostly Republican state legislators. Teachers in Arizona were accused of being socialist political operatives, and lawmakers attempted to prepare a class action lawsuit against them. In Colorado, several legislators attempted to make striking illegal.

In 2019, strikes spread to several large, generally liberal cities, of which Chicago is only the latest. In these cities—including Los Angeles, Denver, and Oakland—negotiations were slightly different, reflecting the unique problems faced by urban public schools. Homelessness, housing costs, and class sizes were much more likely to be contentious issues, and teachers were more likely to obtain the majority of their basic demands. Chicago was the first city, however, to advance affordable housing as a specific demand; high housing costs elsewhere served mainly as an argument for salary increases.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, is in many ways similar to Chicago, with 85 percent of students living below the poverty line and housing costs that are infeasible for many teachers and students. Even in some wealthy neighborhoods of Los Angeles, where parents raise supplemental funding for their local schools, class sizes have breached fifty students. Teachers commonly commute hours to work to avoid expensive housing. Like Chicago, however, the money needed to address these issues is not not available for that purpose; pension liabilities dominate the city’s spending.

In Los Angeles, Denver, and Oakland alike, teachers succeeded in securing substantial raises. Los Angeles and Oakland teachers received promised reductions in class sizes and increases in the number of non-teacher support staff. Neither city’s union, however, was able to halt the growth of charter schools, which already enjoy a strong presence in most large cities, including Chicago. 

Changing Public Opinion

Not very long ago, the recent and nearly ubiquitous national Democratic support for teachers unions would have been unimaginable. Though Democratic politicians have always hailed teachers as the heroes of the public education system, their unions have often been viewed by these same politicians as obstacles in school reform efforts. President Barack Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan championed many policies aimed at school accountability that were opposed by the teachers unions, including standardized testing and the expansion of charter schools. 

Duncan also praised a court decision that struck down California’s tenure system, claiming it sent the worst teachers to the poorest schools. Unions have been fierce defenders of the tenure system, as it is the main method of job protection for teachers. Critics argue this applies too often to bad teachers as well as good ones.

Americans as a whole seemed for a while to share the frustrations of prominent Democrats. A Gallup poll from 2011 found that just 26 percent of Americans believed teachers unions enhanced the quality of students’ education, while 46 percent believed they hurt it. Democrats were still more likely to back unions than Republicans.

Fast forward five years, and public opinion had almost completely reversed, though the same partisan divide persists. Over half of Americans surveyed in 2016 believed unions improve the quality of teachers and education as a whole. Seventy-five percent believe they have the right to strike, including two-thirds of Republicans and nearly nine in ten Democrats. Perhaps most tellingly for the success of future teachers strikes, 75 percent agreed that teachers were not paid fairly.

What caused such a rapid shift? Likely a combination of factors, including mounting parent frustration with standardized testing and a refutation of many of the popular criticisms of teachers unions. For example, an oft-repeated critique maintained that unionization depressed student achievement; however, research such as this Harvard study seems to support the contrary. Unions also worked to challenge their self-interested public image by expanding their agendas to include more student-centered demands. In this way, the CTU’s affordable housing request reflects a widespread trend in union priorities.

The most important change, however, has been the recovery of the national economy. State austerity measures and tax cuts following the recession hit school funding hard, and the damage in many states was never undone as the economy recovered. As a result, teacher salaries and per-student educational funding, when adjusted for inflation, fell farther behind their pre-recession levels every year. Given this context, teachers’ demands for salary and funding increases may seem more reasonable to many people.

The shift in the political and economic climate left the door wide open for teachers unions to exert their considerable influence. In 2018, teachers nationwide began to do just that.

Chicago in Context

Just as at the nationwide level, there is no easy answer for the problems brought up by the Chicago teachers strike. It is easy to see the legitimacy of teachers’ grievances when looking at the state of Chicago Public Schools: how can students be expected to do homework without the resources of a home? Or to apply for college without the guidance of a school counselor? There are some problems that teachers cannot solve alone.

On the other hand, it is also easy to see the financial worries that plague CPS and city officials. The city’s level of spending is unsustainable, but there are no attractive options to fix it. No one wants to cut vital programs, deny pensions to retirees, or raise taxes in a jurisdiction that already has the highest sales tax in America.

These issues are not unique to Chicago, and neither is the solution of a teachers strike. Comparisons to other recent strikes reveal that Chicago teachers received an above-average deal, even in an age of increasing efficacy for collective bargaining. This is perhaps unsurprising, given Lightfoot’s running platform, but it should comfort the majority of Chicagoans who supported the teachers’ action. The final deal may look far from the initial demands made by the CTU, but the demands were unprecedented in scope. 

The union likely made such broad demands knowing they would not receive all that they asked for. Rather, the move should be a signal to CPS, to the people of Chicago, and to city governments and teachers unions everywhere: teachers have more power than ever, and they are ready to wield it.

The image in the article is licensed under the Creative Commons. The license can be found here. The image was taken by Chris Baehrend. The original photo can be found here, and no changes were made to the original image.

Kaitlyn Van Baalen


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