CHICAGO – Chicago Public Schools have canceled regular classes for Thursday because more than 32,000 public workers plan to go on strike in the nation's third-largest city, affecting about 400,000 students and their families.
Members of the Chicago Teachers Union are set to strike after a failure to agree on a contract with Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Adding to the intensity: Members of the union that represents school support staff plan to walk out the same day – leaving the schools without many of the adults who could care for kids while teachers picket.
While about 2,500 Chicago Park District workers initially planned to join the strike, the bargaining unit reached an agreement with City Hall on Tuesday night. The union did not immediately offer specifics of the deal, but said its greatest wins were for wages and benefits for underpaid workers, many of whom are female, part-time workers or people of color.
The Chicago strike would follow a wave of teacher protests around the country since early 2018. Here’s what you need to know.
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CPS-CTU NEGOTIATIONS: Mayor Lightfoot and CPS CEO Dr. Jackson holding a brief media availability on CPS/CTU negotiations. https://t.co/3D9X8cdTnp— Mayor Lori Lightfoot (@chicagosmayor) October 16, 2019
Why did Chicago teachers vote to strike?
The union, which represents educators in the nation's third-largest school district, wants CPS and the mayor’s office to commit to hiring more support staff – social workers, nurses, librarians. The union also wants enforceable limits on class sizes, which have swelled to the high 30s and mid-40s in some schools, teachers said. It's pushing for higher salaries for lower-wage workers such as school secretaries and classroom aides.
Teachers want all of that in writing in their contract, not in the verbal commitments they've already gotten from the district.
Yvonne McNutt, 62, a social sciences teacher of 16 years, said people who aren't "in the trenches" may not understand the severity of understaffing and overcrowding in Chicago schools.
"I've had class sizes as large as 43 in my time teaching. That's not an easy struggle when you have to meet the needs of every child," said McNutt, who teaches at New Sullivan Elementary School in the South Chicago neighborhood. "I'm standing up for my kids."
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The youngest of five children raised by a single parent, McNutt said CPS gave her the tools to attain several degrees.
"Don't my children deserve the same thing that I was given?" McNutt asked, tearing up. "That's my question to the mayor, to any mayor in any city. Don't kids deserve the basics? I'm waiting for that answer, and I don't believe that they're hearing us."
What is the district offering the teachers?
The CPS offer includes a 16% raise for teachers over five years, which officials said would bring the average Chicago teacher’s salary to nearly $100,000. The teachers' union has contested that math, arguing that in five years, the average teacher would actually make closer to $85,000.
The city's offer includes raises for support staff such as classroom aides, but not as high as the unions want. It would require a bump in the contribution that teachers would make toward their benefits – but an increase that's less than what was recommended by an independent reviewer. The district promised not to privatize certain support staff positions and to provide relief for overcrowded classrooms.
Will the two sides come to an agreement before Thursday?
Probably not. On Wednesday evening, the CTU's bargaining team announced the union would go forward with the strike.
“While our pressure has worked to move the board in our direction, they simply have not moved far enough fast enough,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said earlier in the week.
In anticipation of the strike, CPS leaders on Wednesday announced they would cancel classes Thursday.
Lightfoot said accepting CTU’s demands would be “completely irresponsible.” They would add another $2.5 billion per year to CPS’s annual budget, doubling the cost of the CTU contract, according to Lightfoot.
The union, she said, has signaled its intent to strike for a long time, and it's "not a surprise that this day has come."
Why are Chicago teachers striking over support staff and class sizes?
Union members have been pressing this point for weeks, including at a rally and march Monday afternoon.
Tyrone Hayes, 49, a security officer at John Marshall High School, has worked for CPS for 19 years. He said he hopes to see higher pay for bus aides, janitors and security officers, but the strike is driven by concern for students.
"It's not for the money – it's more for the kids," Hayes said.
Jesse McAdoo, 32, teaches a split first and second grade classroom. He said two of his students are supposed to have one-on-one assistants but do not.
"When I have 30 kids in the classroom, a lot of them 6- or 7-year-olds, 14 with IEPs (individual education plans to address their disabilities), it's very hard to give them my best when I'm playing whack-a-mole with trying to keep their attention," McAdoo said. "Anybody that babysits kids, try babysitting five kids. I have multiples of that right now. It's a struggle."
CPS social worker Mary Difino, 27, who works at two schools on the city's west side, said her students desperately need more support staff. Several people have been shot near Difino's school in Lawndale.
"Those kids cannot come to school after seeing shootings and only have a nurse or social worker once a week,” she said. “Those schools need a social worker five days a week."
Difino said she had no reservations about going on strike, but some teachers are more hesitant – even if they think it's the right step to take.
“I don’t want to strike, because I’m really afraid of a break in instruction for our students,” said Winnie Williams Hall, an eighth-grade special education teacher who works at a school of almost 500 students in Englewood, a high-poverty neighborhood. She said she lost her classroom aide this year.
What do Chicago Public Schools leaders say?
That the offer is generous. And that they have met the union half-way.
"The deal that we put on the table is the best in the Chicago Teachers Union’s history," Lightfoot said Wednesday. "Since Friday, we’ve discussed a framework that puts enforceable targets on class sizes in high-poverty schools and staffing level supports for personnel in the contract. The union said that these were its two most important issues. They wanted us to put it in writing, and that’s exactly what we did."
"All-in-all, our 72-page counteroffer provides more than 80 proposed changes to the collective bargaining agreement on issues requested by the CTU. Everything we've put on the table is grounded in our fundamental respect for the dignity of teachers and school staff," Lightfoot said in a video message Monday morning.
What's at stake as Chicago teachers weigh a strike?
Sharkey said this is the best opportunity the union has had in a generation to improve the quality of schools.
Unlike many recent teacher strikes around the country, which have mainly brought renewed attention to low teacher pay, the potential Chicago teachers’ strike is not centrally focused on educator salaries.
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Union leaders are using this moment to press for more resources for underserved Chicago children – such as more wraparound services and even more affordable housing, considering about 17,000 CPS students are homeless, according to the teachers union. Historically, labor law confines unions to bargaining over pay and benefits.
The tactic of "bargaining for the public good" is gaining steam nationwide. It was on display this year when teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District went on strike. Teachers accepted the wage increase that had been negotiated before the walkout – a 6% raise – but they got management to agree to add nurses and librarians and to lower class sizes.
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CPS and mayor's office leaders have signaled they are sympathetic to the cause of teachers and the students they serve. Lightfoot campaigned on improving education in Chicago, a school system that predominantly serves low-income children who are black and brown. She endorsed some of the same issues that CTU has pushed for years. CEO Jackson has worked for years as a teacher and leader in Chicago's schools.
If Chicago teachers strike, where will students go?
CPS leaders said that if a strike happens, all buildings will remain open and students can attend their normal school or any other school that's age-appropriate. They said administrators, principals and non-union staff will watch the students. District transportation will not be available. Regular instruction will not occur, but breakfast, lunch and supper will be served in the school buildings, CPS CEO Janice Jackson said Wednesday.
CPS will also make contract nurses available to students, as needed, Jackson said.
Will a strike get teachers what they want?
To be determined.
Around the country, some teacher strikes have "won" by pressuring state legislatures to put more money into schools and, by extension, teacher pay. In others, the show of force and unity brought more resources to classrooms.
There could be other tangential benefits. In Los Angeles this year, the strike boosted morale in the union, and it helped to unify and publicize the union's pushback against charter schools.
Will the public support a teachers strike in Chicago?
According to a Chicago Sun-Times/ABC7 Chicago poll conducted by phone Friday and Saturday, 49% of voters either strongly or somewhat support a walkout, and 38% are opposed. About 35% say they would hold CPS or city officials responsible if a strike happens, and 12% say they would blame Lightfoot.
When did Chicago teachers last strike?
In 2012. The mayor was Rahm Emanuel, who was combative with the union's leader, Karen Lewis. Teachers were upset over a new evaluation system. The district's budget was precarious. School closings were part of the discussion. The conditions now are much different.
CTU almost went on strike in 2016, during negotiations on the mostly expired contract, but it agreed to a deal hours before the strike was to take place.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: CPS strike 2019 update: Teacher union strike cancels school Thursday