Chicago Teachers Strike Changed the City and Perhaps Labor Movement

Interview with Rebecca Burns, contributing editor at In These Times, conducted by Scott Harris

When 32,000 Chicago Public School teachers and aides went on strike in the nation’s third-largest school district with 360,000 students on Oct. 17, there was broad public support. The first major walkout in the city since a strike in 2012 came after 10 months of talks with Mayor Lori Lightfoot failed to resolve differences over pay and benefits, class size and a demand for fairly compensated school support staff.  The teachers union also demanded the city launch a program to expand affordable housing.

After 11 days on the picket line in the rain and snow, teachers returned to school on Nov. 1. The strike had succeeded in winning teacher pay increases and an agreement to place a social worker and nurse in every school. However, the union failed to make progress on their demand that the city initiate programs to expand affordable housing in the city.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Rebecca Burns, contributing editor at In These Times magazine, who discusses her coverage of the Chicago teachers’ strike and how the union’s focus on social justice issues affecting their communities, known as bargaining for the common good, could be a harbinger for change within the U.S. labor movement.

REBECCA BURNS: So this is the longest teachers strike that Chicago has seen in decades, longer than the landmark 2012 strike that the Chicago Teachers Union went on and they were campaigning for a number of issues related to classroom learning conditions. So things like class size and also issues that kind of spoke to broader issues facing students— staffing for social workers, nurses, counselors. And finally, I think the strike was really sort of unique and avant garde in that, you know, the Chicago Teachers Union has been a proponent of what’s called bargaining for the common good, sort of an orientation to contract negotiations that really brings in the concerns and the issues of the broader community. The teachers union was also pushing affordable housing as one of its contract demands in a way that I think we haven’t seen in quite some time and that really sort of started conversations here in the city. And I should note one of the other things that was really notable this time around was that it was not just the CTU, the Chicago Teachers Union that was on strike, but another union, SEIU Local 73 that represents janitors, bus aides, special education assistants.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And Rebecca, as you talked to union members after the strike included, were they satisfied that their time out from work was worth the effort, worth all the organizing that they’d been engaged in for months and months? Did they feel the outcome was worth their effort?

REBECCA BURNS: Yeah. Well, I think there are two parts to that answer. The first is, you know, yes, definitely. I think people are incredibly proud of the fact that they won – really for the first time – a guarantee that by 2023 every school will have a nurse and a social worker. They won, I think the average was 40 percent pay bumps for paraprofessional staff, who in many cases were making poverty wages, as well as pay bumps for special education assistants and other support staff who, two-thirds of their children, qualified for reduced lunch because of the low wages they were making. So there are significant, significant gains around issues with staffing, to a lesser degree class sizes, bilingual education and special education that really clearly wouldn’t have happened had these unions not gone on strike. So that’s the first part of the answer.

The second part that I think strikers are very much cognizant of is that these still are really basic guarantees that a lot of Illinois suburban school districts already enjoy. You know, just asking for things like a nurse in every school really seems sort of so fundamental that I think even at the same time that people are proud of the strike they went on, there’s some reflection on why it took that kind of sort of monumental effort just to win those basics.

BETWEEN THE LINES: At the outset, Rebecca, you mentioned that the Chicago Teachers Union had not only campaigned for internal issues related to their day-to-day work in the school system in Chicago, but also on a common good agenda, a social justice agenda for Chicago and the communities that they live in and teach in. And this was a departure from most union organizing these days. It may have been that unions took on these bigger social issues back when unions were in their heyday and certainly in the ’30s when organizing was met by armed force and repression. But that hasn’t been the face of labor unions for quite some time now.

REBECCA BURNS: That’s right. You know, the, the CTU’s 2012 strike really helped sort of spark the wave of both more militant teacher uprisings that we’ve been seeing, as well as sort of a renewed orientation among a lot of progressive unions towards this idea that bargaining is, you know, not just about pay and benefits, but an opportunity to raise these broader social issues and to sort of wield the power that unions have to try and address them. So, you know, a really concrete example is that Chicago, like many other cities, doesn’t have rent control in part because of a state law that pre-empts cities from legislating around this issue. The Chicago Teachers Union sort of took the opportunity of its contract negotiation to essentially urge the mayor to support the push for rent control and to urge Chicago public school districts to support the push for rent control, highlighting the issues of affordable housing and homelessness. There are 17,000 homeless students in the Chicago school system – those are related fundamentally to issues that teachers see in the classroom every day.

Subscribe to our Weekly Summary