Columns / Discourse / October 16, 2019

The Fire This Time: CTU, SEIU, and parks workers too!

By the time you read this, a great mass moving will be under way.

A red sea will spill out onto the streets of Chicago, with crashing waves chanting: “Who’s future? Our future!” Within eighteen hours of my writing this, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the Service Employees International Union Local 73 (SEIU) – made up of Chicago public park workers and school support staff will strike for a better contract and a better future for the kids of Chicago Public Schools.

This marks one of the most well mobilized teacher strikes since the Red for Ed wave last year. But why is it happening under the watch of Lori Lightfoot, a mayor framed to be off the beaten path of corruption and elitist protection? And why are they requesting affordable housing regulations in Chicago as part of their contract? Let’s first jump back all the way to 2012 for better context.

Chicago knows the gravity of a teachers’ strike well. When Rahm Emanuel first took office, he moved to rescind a 4% raise for teachers while increasing the length of the work day after promising to do much the opposite. In a similar show of force, the CTU took to the streets and attempted to muscle their rights and the rights of the children they teach back onto the bargaining table.

Sadly, the strike bore little fruit for their tangible demands, but the CTU made great waves against the reliability and image of Emanuel. Later in his career, his Board of Education moved to close 50 schools – 49 elementaries and 1 high school – and thus enacted the largest school closure in Chicago history. Aside from leaving burdensome language in the contract negotiated with Emanuel, he had also left a bad taste in the mouth of teachers across the city.

Enter Lori Lightfoot, mayoral hopeful vying to seize the mantle of a more progressive platform, one that would surprisingly ease the struggles of public school teachers. She ran on a position of increased democracy in the school board, allowing for a fully elected board, and a major facelift for Chicago’s communities by revitalizing the most poorly supported schools.

However, once elected, she went back on those promises with a certain ease that had many feeling deja vu.

Before I proceed, it should be noted that Lightfoot is not an exact parallel to Emmanuel. Lightfoot isn’t offering nothing to the CTU, but the purse strings have certainly been drawn tight against their requests – though nothing is in writing so far.

She has put forward a bargain of $300 million to increase teachers’ wages by 14% over five years, but the buck stops there. She has fought tooth and nail to not budge on union requests for more bilingual and special education support, the presence of nurses and librarians in every school, smaller classes, more school counselors and even more social supports. The most major rub for Lightfoot? Affordable housing regulations. But why ask for something seemingly irrelevant to both the union and the schools?

It’s no secret the many neighborhoods in Chicago are in the clutches of extreme gentrification and a largely unacceptable cost of living. As lower income residents are priced out of their homes and pushed out of the city, the rate of homelessness and insecure residency skyrockets.

This has led to there being a population of about 9,000 housing insecure children in the city of Chicago. For any child it’s horrifically difficult to balance going to school with trying to survive. This is reflected in the extreme drop in enrollment in Chicago, especially after the closing of the 50 schools prior.

To amend this, the CTU is demanding that the city commit to creating sustainable housing, provide housing subsidies for staff and provide actual support for students in temporary living situations. Whether or not students can afford to even go to school lies at the heart of the issue here – if there are no students, there’s no education system to account for.

The CTU and the SEIU are right to fight for this basic, fundamental step for Chicago’s education system. And if Lightfoot plans to champion strong social uplift, this is paramount to that goal. Additionally, as she begins to push back against the invasion of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers (ICE) in the city and in their schools, she should back their demand as well to make CPS schools Sanctuary schools. These requests are not only feasible, they are absolutely fundamental.

All across the country, this has been a momentous time for labor generally and teachers in particular. So this weekend, please consider the hard work that our teachers do and the little thanks they get from our government. Please consider where you would be without them. Please consider supporting history right outside our doors when they walk out and while they’re on strike by donating to their drive for food insecure students here or by joining their picket lines over the next couple of days. And consider the words of CTU President Jesse Sharkey with great care:

“So let me speak clearly in words of one syllable: we will stand for what’s right in our schools. We will lead. If you cut me I bleed CTU red. And if it takes a strike, so be it. We stand for our kids. I’ll see you out there.”

Soleil Smith, Discourse Editor
Discourse Editor

Tags:  chicago chicago public schools chicago teachers strike chicago teachers union lori lightfoot

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