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CHICAGO — During the 2019 run-up to what would become the Chicago Teachers Union’s longest strike in decades, Mayor Lori Lightfoot took stock of the differences between the labor issues she was facing and those that haunted her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel.
There were many distinctions, Lightfoot said, between the situation when teachers walked out in 2012 and what she was confronting seven years later. But to her, one key point stood out.
“I’m not Rahm,” Lightfoot said with conviction.
Nevertheless, like Emanuel, Lightfoot has endured a teachers strike early in her administration. And, like Emanuel, she’s on the brink of a second — this one brought on by a dispute with the CTU over how to reopen public school classrooms amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Chicago, a blue city and famous union town, brawling with the teachers union can be a politically fraught prospect for mayors — and it’s one they mostly have tried to avoid, as much as failing to plow during a snowstorm or putting ketchup on a hot dog in public.
“It would seem to me that every mayor in the city, and Lightfoot is no exception, needs to play to significant educational successes,” University of Illinois professor Robert Bruno, who wrote a book about the 2012 teachers strike, said. “It’s a whole lot easier to do that if you’re not dealing with lockouts, work stoppages, school closings or legal battles with your teachers because regardless of what the mayor may think is the best way to approach running schools during a pandemic or after, she can’t do it successfully without the teachers.”
By the time CTU went on strike in 2012, Emanuel had stripped promised raises from the city’s educators, lengthened the school day against their wishes and launched an F-bomb at their popular leader, Karen Lewis.
Lightfoot, however, campaigned on a progressive platform similar to the one championed by CTU’s chosen candidate, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, in the 2019 mayor’s race. She went out of her way to praise educators, offered a 16% raise and pledged to hire hundreds more social workers, counselors and nurses in hopes of reaching a deal.
The moves reflected Lightfoot’s desire to avoid the labor woes Emanuel experienced, but also were unsuccessful in preventing a strike that canceled classes for 11 school days — the longest since teachers went out for 19 days in 1987.
Lightfoot eventually settled the 2019 strike with a $1.5 billion deal, and afterward said she expected to have labor peace. Then the coronavirus hit.
Now, the first-term mayor finds herself on the verge of eclipsing Emanuel’s record when it comes to conflict with the teachers union.
At times, the mayor has sounded mystified that she’s again facing the possibility of another walkout, saying the 2019 deal was supposed to provide five years of labor peace.
“Here’s what I’m hearing from residents all around the city and from parents in particular: If we don’t have stability in the public school system, why should we stay in Chicago? If we have to worry about lockouts and strikes, particularly after a historic contract where everyone thought we had bought labor peace for five years, people vote with their feet,” Lightfoot recently told the Tribune.
As the union and Lightfoot hold dueling news conferences to spin their version of what’s happening in the closed-door negotiations and host public roundtable discussions featuring CPS parents who side with them in the impasse, Chicagoans are left trying to parse who to believe and where to lay blame.
West Side Alderman Jason Ervin said past standoffs over the years between the union and City Hall have shown that in order to achieve peace, both sides need to stop trying to claim victory.
“This is just bad all the way around,” Ervin said. “The thing that we’re losing here is time, and that means time for kids to be in school. You can’t get back time. You’re only 8 years old once, and you need to be learning what you should be learning at that age.”
Northwest Side Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th, who supported Preckwinkle for mayor and who himself enjoys CTU backing, said Lightfoot has made peace without victory more difficult by perpetuating an adversarial relationship with the teachers union.
“We see Mayor Lightfoot and (Cook County public health Commissioner) Dr. (Allison) Arwady saying, ‘These are obnoxious requests’ when talking about some of the CTU positions,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “If you want to open schools despite disagreements with labor leaders, then that’s not the way to do it. The city has been saying, ‘We will have conversations with you, but it’s our way or the highway.’ That’s not constructive.”
While Emanuel had a well-earned reputation for a take-no-prisoners political style, he also was committed to maintaining relationships and open lines of communication with adversaries, Ramirez-Rosa said. Lightfoot doesn’t seem to have that same focus, he said.
“Certainly the perception was that Rahm Emanuel was strong, powerful and not afraid to use his elbows in a fight. There was truth to that,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “But there was a lot of work behind the scenes that he and his team did to get the lopsided council votes. My perception is that Lori Lightfoot is not as tactful behind the scenes as Rahm Emanuel was.”
But Southwest Side Alderman George Cardenas, whom the mayor recently named deputy floor leader to help shepherd her agenda through the council, said Lightfoot and Emanuel are alike in many important ways.
“Look, she’s tough. Chicago mayors are tough,” Cardenas said. “You have to be tough to run this city.”
Still, Cardenas said he’s convinced the two sides can find a way through.
“I think parents want the schools open, and so I don’t see how the mayor can get blamed for this. It’s a matter of putting the pieces in order,” Cardenas said. “The pieces are there for an agreement, and I think they’re going to get there.”
Bruno, however, noted that the relationship between mayors and the teachers union has changed over the years, particularly after state legislators gave Mayor Richard M. Daley greater power over the schools in 1995.
“That makes the relationship political. It puts everything within this political space, and a union that feels as if they rightly should speak on behalf of the broader interests of predominantly Black and brown and white working-class communities, they’re going to get engaged in political activity,” Bruno said.
The dynamic changed dramatically after Lewis became the union’s president. The union began advocating on issues outside the schools and “has become really the primary challenge, I think, to mainstream politics of the city,” Bruno said.
The current standoff between Lightfoot and the CTU is the latest in a long line of labor disputes between the powerful union and the mayoral-controlled school district.
Shortly after CTU won its collective bargaining rights in 1967, teachers embarked on an era of strikes in Chicago. From 1969 to 1987, CTU staged nine walkouts. The strikes hinged on issues ranging from pay and health care to class sizes, supplies and preparation time.
The 1987 strike during Mayor Harold Washington’s tenure lasted a record 19 days. Presiding over City Hall shortly after the tumultuous Council Wars era in which a bloc of mostly white aldermen frequently sought to undermine the city’s first Black mayor, Washington was careful not to own the strike politically.
The mayor faced criticism from the media and parents for not being aggressive enough in trying to end the strike, but his hands-off approach came after he saw how then-Gov. James Thompson intervened in a two-day 1985 Chicago teachers strike. The Republican governor promised to speed up state aid to Chicago schools to help broker a deal, only to be hounded politically for years to come over providing more funding to the city.
Washington avoided public and direct involvement in the 1987 negotiations, but when the teachers and the district were close to a deal, he dispatched his top two aides to help broker a final agreement. The CTU was led in the walkout by its first woman and Black leader, Jacqueline Vaughn, who managed to achieve her three goals of getting a multiyear deal with a 4% raise and smaller class sizes at some schools. The union, however, had to agree to up to 1,700 school employees getting laid off and just a 1% raise in 1987 because of the lengthy strike.
After the dispute ended, Washington sought to capitalize politically on the deep frustration among parents over the strike by vowing widespread reform, and he began by drawing 1,000 people to an education summit at the University of Illinois atChicago. Days after the strike, U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett famously proclaimed Chicago’s public schools as the worst in the nation, which Washington used as a foil in pursuing his reform agenda.
Washington never got the chance to tackle the issue. He died in office about a month later.
The following two decades largely featured labor peace and no strikes, with Daley running City Hall and CPS for most of that time. Daley, who became known for doling out generous contracts to avoid labor strife, almost faced a teachers strike in 2003 when he asked teachers to work five extra unpaid minutes a day. CTU members rejected the offer and authorized a strike.
Some education reform advocates contended that Daley was so focused on keeping middle-class families in the city that he continually made concessions to avoid even the threat of a strike. In the final five-year contract signed during Daley’s tenure, teacher salaries grew 19% to 46% at a time when “the U.S. economy nearly went off a cliff” according to an independent arbitrator’s 2011 report.
While Daley spent his tenure accommodating CTU, his successor wasted no time in attacking the teachers union.
One of Emanuel’s first actions as mayor was to direct his hand-picked Board of Education to rescind 4% annual pay raises agreed upon in Daley’s final contract, in which the new mayor said students “got the shaft.” Emanuel then won approval of legislation in Springfield thought to make it nearly impossible for teachers to strike, requiring a 75% vote of CTU membership to do so. Emanuel also got state approval to lengthen the CPS school day and year, and began to spearhead a dramatic expansion in the number of charter schools.
Emanuel aggressively pushed his slate of changes not long after the CTU had elected Lewis, a brash chemistry teacher, to be its new president. With a strident anti-privatization platform and union redefined by grassroots activism behind her, Lewis frequently took on the mayor. Battling news conferences with bruising attacks between Emanuel and Lewis became the norm for months.
Lewis dubbed Emanuel the “murder mayor” and called him a “bully” and “a liar.” The infamously foul-mouthed Emanuel snapped in a 2011 private meeting with the union boss, shouting “F--- you, Lewis.”
Nonetheless, Emanuel and Lewis managed to strike a deal on the longer school day and year in exchange for CPS agreeing to hire back nearly 500 teachers who had been laid off. But the toxic talks over pay, teacher evaluations, health benefits and job security quickly broke down.
Nearly 25 years of labor peace between the teachers union and the school district ended on Sept. 10, 2012, when a sea of red-clad teachers picketed the streets of Chicago.
In the end, the CTU drew national attention to its cause and harmed Emanuel politically, but won only modest concessions from the financially strapped district, including annual raises of 3% and 2% over three years — far less than the 30% hike in base pay the union had requested.
In 2014, Lewis was preparing a mayoral run against Emanuel when she was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. She recruited Jesus “Chuy” Garcia to run instead. Then a little-known county commissioner, Garcia forced Emanuel into a runoff, which amounted to an electoral embarrassment for the mayor given his financial and political advantages in the race.
When it came time to negotiate another teachers contract in 2015, Emanuel had been weakened politically. His decision to close 50 schools on the predominantly Black South and West sides remained unpopular, and his approval rating and trust with the public were at record lows amid his handling of the Laquan McDonald police shooting.
The second go-round for Emanuel and Lewis was less contentious, with each admitting their relationship had improved. Negotiations centered more on the district’s financial resources, or lack thereof, and less on education ideology.
While the union’s members again voted to authorize a strike, an eleventh hour deal avoided another walkout.
Although not usually one to admit fault, Emanuel acknowledged during his final week in office that his 2011 decision to unilaterally yank the teachers’ pay raises represented a major mistake. The move, he said, created an environment where everything he tried to accomplish on education “was a battle, and it need not have been.”
As Emanuel left office, CTU President Jesse Sharkey reflected that “Nothing united our members like Rahm. I’ll miss that.”
But now the CTU has a new nemesis on the fifth floor of City Hall in Lightfoot, leaving at least one teacher wistful about the battles with Emanuel. During a recent car caravan to protest Lightfoot’s calls for teachers to return to the classroom, a sign on the back of a Jeep featured a caricature of Emanuel and a red slash through the name “Lori.”
“We miss you Rahm!” the sign read. “Kidding/not kidding!”
CTU leaders framed the lead-up to the 2019 teachers strike by saying they were simply trying to get “Mayor Lightfoot” to agree with “Candidate Lightfoot.”
During a post-strike interview with the Tribune, Lightfoot said the union was going to walk out “no matter what,” and said she expects the CTU to “come after” her in 2023.
The mayor has faced criticism and second-guessing for her negotiation tactics. In 2019, Lightfoot’s initial offer to the union included a 14% pay raise. She then upped it to 16%, leading to criticism that her strong opening salary proposal may have boxed her in.
The mayor sought to avoid a strike and to cut through the back-and-forth posturing that often bogs down labor negotiations, but gave herself less room to offer the CTU more money after teachers walked out anyway.
Lightfoot also repeatedly said she had made her best offer or wouldn’t negotiate further, only to go back and make more concessions. Lightfoot has made similar moves leading to the current crisis.
As CPS prepared for the 2020 school year, Lightfoot’s administration asked parents and guardians to let them know whether their kids would attend in-person classes or stay home. Lightfoot signaled she wanted a hybrid model with remote and in-person classes, but the union objected and scheduled a strike vote if the year didn’t start remotely.
Lightfoot relented, giving the union a win while her administration claimed they weren’t reacting to the threatened strike.
In this latest dispute, Lightfoot and CPS officials initially insisted they did not have to negotiate a reopening plan with the powerful union at all. But the union threatened a strike and declined to return without a deal.
The mayor and district leaders recently proclaimed they would electronically lock out CTU members who did not report to schools on Feb. 1 as ordered. Lightfoot then repeatedly extended the deadline, instituted a “cooling off period” that came and went without an accord, and held a forceful news conference saying her patience had run out and she needed a deal by end of Thursday.
The union, meanwhile, said it would continue teaching remotely until a deal is reached, potentially setting up a strike if Lightfoot follows through on her threats.