“The Schools Students Deserve”: In Defense of the Chicago Teachers Union

 /  April 19, 2022, 11:46 p.m.

teacher protest

On January 4, 2022, two days after Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students returned from winter break, the district canceled classes. The reason behind the abrupt closure: a clash between district officials and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Faced with a citywide surge of Omicron cases, union members criticized the district for neglecting the safety risks of in-person learning. 

Six days later, union delegates voted to suspend the CTU’s labor action. While in-person classes were slotted to resume, the new deal focused on expanding contact tracing, conducting COVID-19 testing, and providing additional KN95 masks for students and staff. CPS students had missed a week of school and, for some, the deal’s gains were not worth the costs. Parents voiced frustrations, suing to end what they called “an illegal work stoppage.”  Several teachers publicly criticized the union for using students as pawns to advance their political agenda. 

January’s labor action is one of several union-driven work stoppages in the past decade. In 2019, the CTU kept students home for 11 days. Another day was lost in 2016 due to a contract dispute. In 2012, the union’s strike lasted for over a full school week, drawing national attention. At a time when union membership in the United States is steadily declining across industries, the CTU has remained one of the most powerful education unions in the country. Emerging literature investigating the impact of unionization on students’ long and short term outcomes suggests that strikes negatively impact test scores and future earnings, raising the question of whether the CTU’s pattern of work stoppages has helped or hurt the district’s students. 

However, few Chicago residents know about the role the CTU has played in shaping Chicago’s education over the past 50 years. Although teachers and public sector employees have been called “the most visible representatives of the modern labor movement,” many never learn about the impact of the CTU. However, the Chicago Teachers Union’s recent strikes are not unprecedented, but rather one chapter in a long history of fights that have improved Chicago’s education system. 

A History of the Chicago Teachers Union

In the early 1930s, the Great Depression brought massive unemployment and poverty to many Americans, and Chicago’s teachers were no exception. Hundreds of teachers were laid off, while others received IOUs in lieu of paychecks. In May 1933, The Nation reported that “some teachers have been driven to panhandling after school hours to get food.” At the same time, Chicago’s leading bankers formed the Citizen Committee on Public Expenditures (CCPE) and cut the Chicago Board of Education off from the financial support of their banks. 

In response, public school teacher John Fewkes organized the Volunteer Emergency Committee (VEC), seeking to restore regular pay for Chicago’s educators. In 1933, thousands of educators stormed the Board of Education and City Council meetings, accusing local bankers of owing taxes that could have supported the district. According to John Lyons, author of Teachers and Reform: Chicago Public Education, teachers threw ink on the walls, tipped over desks, and broke windows, chanting “Pay us! Pay us!” during one demonstration.

Educators were originally divided into eight distinct unions with competing interests, some seeking to maintain pay differentials while others fought for pay parity. In 1936, the Chicago Teachers Union formed, unifying Chicago’s multiple unions in the wake of growing protests. Faced with a unified opposition, CPS rolled back its cuts to music, physical education, and the arts, cut down teachers’ class loads, reinstated dismissed teachers, and restored previously denied paychecks. 

In 1967, the CTU won its first collective bargaining agreement with the Chicago Board of Education. The contract included Christmas vacation pay, salary increases, paid medical insurance, two personal days, a grievance procedure, class size caps, and a duty free lunch period for all teachers. Over the next eighteen years, Chicago teachers staged nine walkouts over issues such as class sizes, preparation time, pay and healthcare.

Many of the walkouts intersected with the interests of civil rights leaders, who protested overcrowding in predominantly Black schools and discrimination in the district’s resource and funding allocation. In May 1969, teachers negotiated a $100 per month raise, the recruitment of new teachers to deal with the problem of overcrowding, the expansion of special education programs, and the development of new classes focused on Black history and literary figures. In 1987, famed labor activist and CTU leader Jacqueline Vaughn led a four-week strike, one of the longest in American history.

While the union managed to achieve a multiyear deal with pay raises and smaller class sizes, Washington quickly capitalized on parents’ deep-rooted frustrations over the 1987 strike. An education summit at the University of Illinois at Chicago followed, and U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett labeled Chicago’s public schools “the worst in the nation.” After 1987, the CTU would not strike again for 25 years. 

In 1995, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed the Amendatory Act, giving control of CPS schools to mayor Richard M. Daley. The Act gave Daley control over local school board selections and limited the number of subjects the union could bargain over in response to a growing drought of support for union efforts across the country. The pendulum had swung in favor of anti-union proponents, and lawmakers ignored union input when writing legislation. Instead, many formerly pro-union Democrats remained committed to linking teacher pay to performance standards and test scores.

From 2001-2009, Arne Duncan, former CEO of Chicago schools, closed 44 CPS schools, converting some to non-union charter schools and military academies in hopes of boosting CPS’s academic outcomes. Opponents argued that such closures caused stress on students forced to transition between schools and cross gang boundaries. According to a 2009 report published by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research, students’ achievement in core subjects and on-track graduation rates did not improve significantly after they transitioned schools. In fact, their reading and math achievement worsened in the few months before their school closed, and they were also less likely to enroll in summer school programs after the closure. 

Despite Duncan’s school closings, Daley authorized generous contracts throughout his time as mayor, ensuring steady teacher pay raises. His successor, Rahm Emanuel, was not as generous. Upon his election, Emanuel rescinded the 4 percent annual pay raises from Daley’s final contract, arguing that students were the ones who got ”the shaft.” He lengthened the school day and continued Duncan’s mission to expand charter schools and close “failing” schools in an attempt to improve test scores. Frustrated with Emanuel’s decisions, the CTU, led by newly elected leader Karen Lewis, labeled Emanuel the “murder mayor.” Unable to compromise over pay, teacher evaluations, health benefits and job security, the CTU returned to the picket line on September 10th, 2012. 

Over the course of seven school days, the 2012 CTU strike caught national attention. Under the slogan “The Schools Students Deserve,” Chicago teachers forwarded a list of demands addressing Emanuel’s recent changes and the past decade’s education measures: better compensation, a de-emphasis on standardized test scores, smaller class sizes, and fewer school closings. By the end of the strike, the union had won a 16 percent raise over four years, the elimination of a merit pay program tying teacher performance to student test scores, and a provision allowing laid-off teachers prioritized access to new job openings. 

The 2012 CTU strike did not only result in material gains for Chicago’s teachers but propelled a resurgence of the education labor movement. Teacher strikes followed from unions in California, Arizona, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Oakland, and Denver. In West Virginia, teachers even started a book club focused on the 2012 strike. While many unions across the country took what Vox reporter Dylan Scott calls a “defensive crouch” before 2012, the CTU’s strike opened the floodgates to a wave of education labor efforts. 

CTU Controversy

Many believe the 2012 strike served as a catalyst for a movement that ultimately harmed CPS students. According to the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI), CPS already underperforms state achievement benchmarks, and expert consensus finds that strikes have a negative impact on student testing outcomes. The study IPI cited was conducted by Michael Baker from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and found that teacher strikes have a negative effect on test scores “at the late primary level (grade 6 scores).” Baker’s findings have been confirmed in subsequent studies. A 2018 study published by researchers Michael Lovenheim and Alexander Willén also found long-term earnings decreased for male students who attended elementary and secondary schools in districts with duty-to-bargain laws. 

While these findings provide a compelling case for the linkage between teacher strikes and student outcomes, Baker also acknowledges that “what we actually know about the impact of strikes on student achievement is very little. The few studies available offer conflicting results.” 

While several research studies do find negative effects of unionization on students, the effects are far from universal. Baker finds a moderate decrease in test scores only at the grade 6 level for schools in Ontario, despite testing for negative impacts on younger grades. Lovenheim and Willén also find a 3.93 percent decrease in earnings for men exposed to duty-to-bargain laws but little effect on women, suggesting the possibility of confounding factors. Harris Zwerling’s 2008 study on Pennsylvania’s teacher strikes found no negative effects on academic performance if strike days were made up. 

No studies have analyzed Chicago specifically. As education reporter Valerie Strauss wrote in 2012 for The Washington Post, the reforms that teachers were fighting against may have had more harmful effects in the long-term than the strike itself. Emanuel’s proposed teacher evaluation system and classroom size expansions could have decreased the quality of learning, as teachers would have been driven to teach to the test and spend less time one-on-one with students. In March 2012, professors and researchers from 16 universities in the Chicago metropolitan area signed an open letter to Emanuel warning against his planned implementation of a teacher evaluation system based on standardized test scores. In the letter, researchers not only noted that the evaluation system would not improve student achievement or fairly measure teacher performance, but that teachers would also be forced to prioritize test scores over students’ mental and emotional well-being. 

Perhaps the greatest irony of the debate over student outcomes is that policy analysts and district officials continue to use short-term test scores to then measure the “failure” of union tactics, despite the reliance on testing metrics being one of the CTU’s central complaints. No doubt, disruptions in schools may cause students to fall behind on important content, yet critics often disregard the counterfactual world in which the reforms the union contested were fully enacted. A district that incentivizes teachers to rush through content to artificially inflate student scores may be just as bad, if not worse, for student’s long-term outcomes and earnings. 

The same logic applies to January’s work stoppage. A little over a quarter of the PCR tests that were mailed to CPS students during winter break were returned to the district, many producing invalid results. In comparison, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), said that New York and Los Angeles’s school districts had been able to successfully set up testing programs. The CTU’s backlash following winter break stemmed from a fear of a world in which students would face massive outbreaks, putting families at risk and forcing teachers to continually adjust their teaching to a never ending cycle of COVID outbreaks. Perhaps a five-day work stoppage was worth the fight to prevent classroom environments characterized by the constant interruptions of student and teacher quarantines.  

Others criticize the union as more focused on politics than education, even if the gains won in past strikes have benefited CPS students. Policy analyst Ann Miller noted that the CTU strikes’ negative effects stretched far beyond the classroom. The 2019 contract cost residents an additional $80 a year in higher property taxes. In 2012, CPS closed 50 schools and laid off thousands of teachers due to the 2012 contract. Miller characterizes union leaders as possessing a “political agenda…bent on power plays.” Ted Dabrowski and John Klingner, analysts for the Illinois Policy Institute, agreed with Miller, characterizing the CTU’s walkout threats as “an excuse for the union’s latest powerplay.” Shortly after the January stoppage, Dabrowski and Klingner wrote that CPS teachers are already some of the highest paid in the nation, and the union is willing to trample the district’s children in order to further increase their paychecks and pensions. The union also collects millions in member dues spent on lobbying, legal issues and political campaigns. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the union spent $1.5 million on lobbying and other political activities in the 15 months before the 2019 strike. 

However, the charges forwarded by Miller are ill-founded. CPS school closings and teacher layoffs were not due to the 2012 strike. The district decided to close forty-nine schools at the end of the 2012-13 school year due to under-enrollment and subsequent underperformance, because the city had been experiencing changing youth demographics since the turn of the century. The number of children between the ages of 0 to 19 dropped by 145,000 between 2000 and 2010. The closures were a consequence of a decades-long trend of declining enrollment, long before the September strike. 

Adam Schuster, director of budget and tax research at the Illinois Policy Institute, also points out that, while expensive contracts do carry a “significant cost to taxpayers,” it is hard to quantify whether the benefits gained from the contract outweigh an extra $80 in property taxes for Chicagoans. While Miller frames the property tax increase as a payment right into teachers’ pockets, the 2019 strike was fighting for much more: smaller class sizes, additional school nurses, librarians and social workers, and decreased student testing. Katie Osgood, a special education teacher and a rank-and-file member of the union’s contract negotiating team, noted that the union’s negotiations are not simply about their own pay, as Dabrowski and Klingner claimed. Critiquing the district’s 2019 raise proposal, Osgood told NBC news that “they [the district] want to use that to decrease the public support that we have, to say: ‘C’mon greedy teachers. Take the deal…[but] we’re actually asking for real demands. Real demands that will change things.” 

Furthermore, the union was able to translate their demands into tangible victories: additional staffing concessions, including the direct employment of school nurses and restorative justice coordinators, and the creation of a joint union-district class size committee to reduce overcrowding. The extra pots of money in the 2019 contract were not simply funding teachers’ pay, but addressing school inequities across the city. 

Additionally, the charge that Chicago’s educators are already some of the highest paid in the nation discounts the fact that teachers as a whole are often underpaid in a profession that is essential, yet undervalued, in American society. Teachers are paid lower wages compared to non-teacher, college-educated workers, even after controlling for education, experience, and other factors known to affect earnings. In 2017, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released its Education at a Glance Report, analyzing education data in its member countries. The report found that American teachers earn, on average, only about 60 percent of what other professionals with similar education levels earn, the lowest across all countries in the data. Perhaps it is not inexcusable that even some of the nation’s highest paying teachers are still looking to increase their pay and benefits; they still work in a profession that continues to be underpaid and undervalued, and they are setting a higher bar for teacher treatment that will hopefully influence other school districts going forward. 

Despite the union’s gains, the day-to-day stress unionization places on parents can also be harmful. During the January work stoppage, CPS Parent Nolberto Casas blamed the CTU for creating uncertainty each day about the status of schools. One of Casas’s children has special needs, and neither he nor his wife had the luxury to work remotely. For his family, the walkout’s “marginal” improvements were not worth the costs his family undertook to adjust to the week of missed school. 

Casas’s criticism reflects a recent wave of frustration among many parents, a far cry from the overwhelming support the union received in 2012. “We stood by you during the strike in 2019 because we…wanted you to be fairly compensated for the wonderful work you do” wrote one CPS parent in a January Sun Times Op-Ed. “Why won’t you do the same for our children now?” Many impacted the hardest by school disruptions are minority, low-income, and special needs families. “Parents can’t just choose a different provider as easily as they could if workers were striking at their preferred grocery store,” Mailee Smith, staff attorney and Director of Labor Policy at the Illinois Policy Institute, wrote last February.

The CTU has attempted to minimize disruptions for parents in the past, and providing alternate childcare options is essential if the CTU strikes again. In 2019, CPS kept all school buildings open during the strike to prevent parents from scrambling for alternative childcare options. In 2012, 150 school buildings were kept open and the Chicago Park District partnered with the district to offer camp-style activities at local parks. CPS also listed 35 Safe Haven locations as student drop-offs, most on the South and West sides of the city. 

While the emotional and financial cost of school disruptions to students and parents should not be dismissed, framing the union’s labor actions as simply “political power plays” is wildly reductive. Throughout the past fifty years, Chicago’s teachers have made material gains in response to concerning policy measures. In January, teachers walked out because the district bungled testing efforts over winter break, winning an increase in both Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and testing consent for students. In 2012, they were fighting against a wave of reforms aimed not simply at their paychecks but at proposed changes to student learning environments and performance evaluations. In 2019, the union won increased staff support, holding Lightfoot to the education promises she made during her campaign. CTU’s actions have never been solely in the interest of the union’s political prominence; the safety and quality of students’ education has always been at the forefront of its calls to action. 

Moving Forward

Where will the CTU go from here? In early February, Jesse Sharkey, long-time president of the CTU, announced that he plans to step down in June. Amongst his accomplishments as president, Sharkey noted that he was most proud of the 2019 contract, which mandates a school nurse and social worker in every school by 2024. Addressing his critics, Sharkey offered “no apologies to leading a fighting union.” “If our students don't have homes, health care or public safety…it is only a matter of time before more of their schools are closed, homes foreclosed, jobs downsized and families displaced,” Sharkey wrote in an Op-Ed originally published by the Chicago Sun Times. 

Sharkey is right. Over the past two years, CPS educators have been placed in a unique position because of the pandemic, making the active presence of a teacher’s union all the more necessary to shape the district’s decisions. As with any unprecedented decision in response to unprecedented circumstances, there will always be criticism of the CTU’s decisions. 

Such criticisms also should not erase the entire history of union victories, which have resulted in not merely economic but also educational gains. The union’s actions have always responded to changing historical circumstances, and the pandemic is no exception. The gains of the CTU over the past year and a half constitute just one chapter in a long history of workers struggling to prioritize the health and well-being of CPS’s students and the livelihoods and comfort of its educators. In a society that already undervalues the work of many educators, the gains CTU has made for teachers, parents, and students are undeniable. Education is only as strong as its educators, and the power and stubbornness of a union is not a sign of a district’s weakness. Instead, it showcases the hard work it takes to genuinely invest in a quality education—for students, district officials, parents, and the educators themselves. 

The image used in this article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license. It has not been altered from the original, which was taken by Charles Edward Miller and can be found here.

Maggie Rivera


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