Schools Postcard from Chicago

Chicago Teachers Union strike. Photo: supplied

From 17–31 October, more than 25,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union, alongside thousands of public service workers, mounted mass actions, civil disobedience and school-based strike actions across Chicago. The strike came on the heels of a decade of austerity, privatisation and neoliberal educational ‘reform’ that has devastated school budgets and cut educational and support services to the bone for our school district’s overwhelmingly low-income black and Latinx students.

We were engaged in a fierce battle to enshrine equity and educational justice in our employment contracts. Chicago’s mayor ran for election – and won – on the union’s equity platform, but had subsequently refused to enshrine those promises in an enforceable deal.

Almost 20% of Chicago public school kids have seriously considered suicide, and more than 12% have actually attempted to take their own lives.

The needs in our school community are dire. Almost 20% of Chicago public school kids have seriously considered suicide, and more than 12% have actually attempted to take their own lives. Yet, desperate shortages of social workers and school counsellors make support for these children at best hit or miss.

Around 35% of high school students attend at least one overcrowded class, and more than 20% of elementary school classrooms are overcrowded – with more than 40 five-year-olds crammed into some kindergarten classes.

CTU members are barred from striking – or even bargaining – without management ‘consent’ over key issues, including staffing and class size. However, in the lead-up to taking strike action, management refused to discuss either of these matters. In short, striking was the only way to bring about the sort of widespread changes we wanted to see in public education.

Photo: supplied

We wanted to address racism and oppression head-on; to call out and pressure the elites who gain financially at the expense of public school students.

Our negotiating strategy was built on the framework of ‘bargaining for the common good’, which looks beyond the traditional issues covered by an agreement to address broader structural inequities currently affecting students and families. We wanted to address racism and oppression head-on; to call out and pressure the elites who gain financially at the expense of public school students; and to focus unions and our community alliances in a commitment to grassroots democracy.

We saw the contract fight as one pressure point among many in the larger organising effort to foster equity and justice for disenfranchised communities.

This campaign strategy forced public school bureaucrats and the mayor to invest an additional half a billion dollars in our school communities over the life of the contract. It also allowed us to ratchet up public awareness and support for a host of critical needs – affordable healthcare and housing, living wages and civic policy that puts the needs of working-class families ahead of the wealthy special interests that have benefitted from clout in City Hall.

Photo: supplied

Despite the disruption it caused, support from parents and residents actually grew over the term of the strike, as families learned more about the issues and embraced the union’s demands for adequate staffing, smaller classes and real justice for families in neighbourhoods plagued by generations of institutional disinvestment and neglect.
When our delegates approved a tentative agreement after 11 days picketing in rain and snow, it was an agreement that enshrined real social change, not simply a pay rise for our members.

As CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gate said, we made it clear that large class sizes, filthy school buildings and special education neglect are unacceptable for our children.

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