Striking Chicago teachers refused to give in, condemn mayor’s austerity budget

The strike by teachers and support staff of Chicago Public Schools entered its second week. While the city administration has made certain concessions, it has been unwilling to accept key demands, especially on hiring more support staff

October 25, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch
chicago teacher strike
Over 25,000 teachers and 8,000 support staff are taking part in the strike in Chicago.

The indefinite strike by teachers and support staff of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system has entered its second week. On Wednesday, October 23, between 20,000 and 30,000 teachers marched to the city hall while mayor Lori Lightfoot was delivering her maiden budget address. Later, union representatives condemned the austerity-heavy budget speech by the mayor.

The strike by teachers and support staff demanding better pay and support to education in the city began on October 17. The strike is being organized by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), along with the Chicago chapter of Service Employees International Union (SEIU or Local 73). Over 25,000 teachers and close to 8,000 support staff are taking part. The strike has led to the shutting down of classes in more than 600 schools catering to nearly 350,000 students.

The teachers have called for a radical overhaul of the city public education system, which would require an infusion of nearly USD 1 billion. In recent negotiations, the CPS has made some concessions, including a 16% wage hike for teachers, bringing down co-pays in medical insurances and a moratorium on privately-run schools or charter schools. The city also offered a five-year plan to invest USD 500 million, which was deemed insufficient by the CTU.

However, the city has made little to no commitment or offers on some of the key demands, including a wage hike for support staff and their formalization, bringing down class sizes, increasing the number of full-time support staff, like nurses and counsellors, and expanding resources in schools like libraries and health centers.

Mayor Lightfoot and the city administration has argued that neither the CPS nor the city government has enough money to deliver on all the demands. The mayor, in her speech, emphasized on bridging the fiscal “gap”, making it clear that no new investments would be possible anytime soon into social infrastructure.

Chicago teachers' strike
The teachers are demanding an overhaul of the city’s education system that would require an investment of USD 1 billion.

Reacting to the mayor’s address, Stacy Davis-Gates, vice-president of CTU, said, “Today, the mayor delivered an address of austerity, of ‘wait’, of shift-blame to Springfield (a reference to the state government), while surplusing a record TIF (tax-increment financing, which allows school districts to raise funds) that the city promptly took back from.”

Davis-Gates pointed out that while the mayor celebrated the biggest TIF surplus in the history of the CPS, which stands at USD 163 million in this budget, she has rerouted most of funds to bridge the city’s budget deficit. The CTU asserted over the social media that it was not the city’s budget that was “broke”, but the priorities of the officials.

Negotiations between the CTU and the CPS are yet to yield any results. In a joint statement put out earlier this week, CTU and Local 73 hinted at the intensification of the strike.

“The rank-and-file members of the bargaining team will not return to the table. They won’t waste their time trying to talk to a brick wall. Instead, they will head back to the picket lines to report to their coworkers and build the kind of solidarity that has already led to progress toward a fair contract,” read the statement.

City officials and the mainstream news channels have been assigning the blame for the deadlock on the strikers, implicating that they are being unbending despite offers. Local 73 hit back at such accusations in another statement released yesterday after another round of negotiations failed. “It was the mayor and CPS’ committee that walked out today after twelve minutes with no proposals, no ideas, and no solutions,” the statement pointed out.

Media organizations have also taken to writing extensively on individual disgruntled parents, completely overlooking the fact that close to half the city’s residents, surveyed the night before the strike began, were in favor of it, according to an ABC-7/Chicago Sun-Times poll. The strike has also received national attention.

Democratic presidential front-runner and senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, was the first national leader to extend his support for the CTU’s struggle even before the union decided to go for the strike. Sanders had attended a CTU rally sharing stage with the teachers and asking the CPS and the city administration to sit down and negotiate with the teachers. CTU had reciprocated Sanders by extending their solidarity when he had a heart attack earlier this month.

Sanders was followed by other Democratic hopefuls, like Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, extending their support to the teachers. Sanders has reiterated his support for the teachers strike, thanking them for setting an example and fighting not just for their rights as workers.

The city of Chicago is the third-largest “school district” in the United States, and caters to one of the poorest student populations in the country. While teachers in CPS are paid higher than certain school districts in the region, they also deal with the highest cost of living in any city in the country.

Because of a specific rule, CPS teachers and staff are expected to be residents of Chicago, preventing them from moving into cheaper suburbs. Consequently, many end up barely making ends meet, with a large section of teachers and staff having to take up additional jobs to support themselves and their families.

CTU and SEIU have been bargaining for over 10 months with the CPS. The call for a strike was given after the discussions failed, despite the election of the new mayor who promised change in May 2019. The union voted near-unanimously for a strike in September and began their strike on October 17.