Classes for more than 300,000 students across the city of Chicago were canceled Thursday as thousands of teachers went on strike over working and student learning conditions.
The Chicago Teachers Union’s 25,000 members took to the picket lines starting at 6:30 a.m. after failing to negotiate a final contract offer with Chicago Public Schools during a meeting on Wednesday, NBC Chicago reported.
CTU President Jesse Sharkey said the decision to strike came because union members did not think the city’s offers regarding pay and benefits, class size, and teacher preparation time were up to par.
“The mayor wants a five-year contract,” he said at a news conference, referring to Mayor Lori Lightfoot. “Many marriages don’t last five years and I don’t like this contract enough to marry it … We want this to be a short strike with an agreement that will benefit our schools and our teachers.”
Classes in the nation’s third-largest school district were preemptively canceled on Wednesday night, though CPS said school buildings would still be open, with principals and non-unionized support staff on hand to greet students and “ensure they have access to engaging activities.”
In a press conference of her own, Lightfoot said the city had offered the union a “historic package” that included a 16 percent pay raise over a five-year contract, according to ABC News.
She said the contract also included language that focused on the union’s core targets of class size and increased staff for positions like nurses, librarians, and social workers.
“We’re not moving any further on money because we can’t,” Lightfoot said at a press conference, where she reportedly noted that the union’s demands would cost an “unaffordable” $2.5 billion per year. “CPS is just on the other side of a pretty significant crisis, and we don’t have unlimited resources. But having said that, we put very generous offers on the table both for teachers and support personnel, and I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to bring them back to the table and resolve the other issues.”
The Democrat, who was inaugurated in May, also expressed disappointment in the union’s decision to strike, saying that CPS had offered “more than 80 proposed changes to the contract on issues requested by the union” during negotiations to no avail, NBC Chicago reported.
“So why don’t we have a deal?” Lightfoot asked. “The union has told the public repeatedly that the two issues we need to resolve are class size and staffing and we have met their needs. But behind the scenes, they’ve continued to bring up additional bargaining issues that they say must be resolved before they can have a contract.”
As an example, she said the union demanded that instructional time be shortened by 30 minutes in the morning.
Meanwhile, CTU Vice President Stacy Davis-Gates gave a press conference of her own, arguing that Lightfoot’s strategy was to “take back everything that we’ve already won in previous contracts and offer it back to us with percentages.”
“One of the things that under-girds this process is integrity, and to say you have offered a proposal that respects what we are asking for, to say that you’ve bent over backwards and it’s the same proposal — not even, less than what’s in there now — it’s absolutely ridiculous,” she said, according to NBC Chicago.
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The teacher’s strike received support from famous figures like Sen. Bernie Sanders and actress Susan Sarandon, who both offered messages of praise on Twitter.
“We’re not fighting for paychecks and health care. It’s the kids,” John Houlihan, an art teacher on strike, told the Associated Press. “It’s ridiculous to say that you can put these kids who are dealing with profound poverty and profound homelessness in classes of 30-40 kids. That’s not manageable and it is not an environment for learning.”
Chicago teachers last went on strike in 2012 for more than a week, and came away with a deal that called for an average raise of 17.6 percent over four years, according to CNN.