Twenty-five thousand Chicago public school teachers, supported by other school workers, went on strike on October 17. Their demands were broad in scope, reflecting the demographics of the city.
The population of Chicago is almost equally divided between Blacks, Latinx, and whites. However, its public school student population is 47% Latinx, 37% Black, and 10% white. About 76% are economically disadvantaged and concentrated in the city’s south and west sides. The north side is more white and affluent.
The teachers are members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). The 7500 custodians, classroom assistants, bus drivers, security guards and other support workers are in the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73.
Both unions are on the picket lines and support each other’s demands.
One of their demands is that the city government commit to developing a program to address the scourge of homelessness.
Sixteen thousand Chicago public school students are homeless. This is a growing problem in cities across the country.
A related issue is the high cost of housing. The CTU wants the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district leadership to declare support for the expansion of affordable housing for educators, students and parents.
Barbara Madeloni wrote in Labor Notes on October 17: “Chicago has residency requirements for city workers, which means high rents and home prices impact union members…
“Lori Torres, a teacher and bargaining team member … said she is watching her neighborhood become unaffordable. ‘Once people in CTU and SEIU saw that housing was a demand, their lived experiences told them there is a need for it,’ she said. ‘We are having an exodus of black and brown people.’
“CTU’s housing demands include: No evictions during the school year. Support for state rent control legislation. A city commitment to create more sustainable housing [and for] the same housing subsidy for CTU members that is currently offered to firemen, police, and paramedics…”
The CTU also wants, “More money to support students in ‘temporary living situations’, including for school supplies, uniforms, field trips and public transportation [and] wants the mayor to put these commitments in the contract.”
The union is calling for raised taxes on the rich to pay for these demands.
Class sizes are another major issue. At present, many classes are severely overcrowded, creating conditions where students cannot learn and teachers cannot teach adequately.
The union’s demand is to cap class sizes, and open new classrooms when numbers go over the cap.
Chicago is a victim of the nation-wide drive to privatise public schools by establishing so-called charter schools. The only thing “public” about these schools is that they are publicly funded — but they are privately owned and managed as businesses. They steal funds from actual public schools.
The low percentage of white students in public schools is explained by parents opting for charter and other private schools for their children.
Arne Duncan ran CPS and championed charter schools, before he became former US president Barack Obama’s secretary of education.
The CTU previously won a moratorium on new charter schools, and are demanding that this moratorium be extended in the new contract.
Madeloni wrote: “In 2017, Illinois passed a new school funding formula that has meant more than a billion extra dollars for CPS each year.
“The legislation ‘channels more resources to lower class sizes, provides more support to English language learners, addresses high levels of trauma among students, supports low-income learners and special education students, and provides wrap-around supports to students in need,’ the union says.
“But somehow, according to the union, ‘CPS will spend less in this year’s record $7.7 billion budget on classroom resources than it did last year’.”
There are woefully inadequate numbers of social workers, counselors, special education teachers and other clinicians in Chicago’s public schools.
The CTU is demanding that these staff be hired at national recommended levels and that nurses and librarians be hired in every school.
The union is calling for the hiring of 1000 more teaching assistants and measures to achieve equity for women, Black and Latinx educators and other workers.
The CTU is fighting for salary increases for all school workers, not only the teachers.
Madeloni points out that “Many SEIU members work with students with special learning, developmental or emotional needs.
“The average salary for custodial workers is $35,000 a year and for special education classroom assistants $36,000. That puts these workers below the Housing and Urban Development measure of ‘very low income’.”
Local 73 is demanding pay rises, access to health benefits and holiday pay, an end to outsourcing and more training for members working with high-needs students.
Democracy Now interviewed Stacy Davis Gates, executive vice president of the CTU, together with Science Meles, executive vice president of SEIU Local 73, on October 17.
Meles said: “Local 73 members are standing shoulder to shoulder with the teachers’ union in the fight for a fair contract.
“There’s actions happening all over the city. There’s pickets happening at every school in Chicago, where workers are demanding that Mayor [Lori Lightfoot] be the mayor of the people rather than the mayor of corporate America.
“Our members are not making that much money,” Meles emphasised. “We have school bus aides who have slept in their cars because they cannot afford to live anywhere else.
“Most of our members are working second, third jobs. If you ever come to Chicago, you’ll probably get into an Uber. The driver is probably an SEIU Local 73 member or quite possibly a CTU member.”
Lightfoot is a liberal, who was elected with overwhelming support. During her campaign she “basically put every contract proposal we put forth in her election campaign platform,” Gates said.
“She gave very eloquent speeches about students being in school communities that are fully resourced, with nurses and librarians and class sizes that are manageable … The problem is that she doesn’t want to enshrine this in a contract, in a policy that is dependable, that will help transform our school communities.
“If you lived in Chicago and you’ve been on the South and West side of the city, you see promises broken all the time … You don’t break promises to those who need the resources the most, in order to build skyscrapers downtown on the taxpayer dime, or to build a playground for wealthy people on the North side of town.”
Gates added that, “this is about breaking down systems of white supremacy” that penalise Black and Latinx students.
Meles said that Lightfoot is spending $33 million putting police in schools, “rather than training [SEIU] security officers … who actually know the students.
“They relate to them. They see them every day. They care about them.”
Lightfoot insists that issues like housing and school staffing cannot be part of a contract settlement with unions, on the grounds that a reactionary 1995 state law limits bargaining to pay, benefits and the length of the school day.
Gates replied saying that the union has a responsibility to use “the leverage of an enforceable contract” to help get the people of Chicago the city they deserve.