26,000 Chicago public teachers & 8,000 support staff strike

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Chicago teachers marching on October 14 before declaring the strike

TWENTY-SIX thousand Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teachers and 8,000 support staff workers including custodians, special education assistants and bus aides walked out on strike last Thursday morning and came out again on Friday morning. It is the first CPS teacher strike since 2012.

Teachers picketed at CPS schools across the city on Thursday and then the union came out in force with a huge crowd of teachers and supporters marching through the streets of downtown Chicago.

Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Jesse Sharkey said: ‘We have been asking to bargain on this issue for literally ten months.

‘Our proposals went in in January. This was the first written offer that gets the ball rolling on the subject. It’s a shame that it happened on the first day of a strike. It’s not there yet though.’

The Chicago strikers are demanding smaller class sizes and more resources.

At a West Side community centre, Mayor Lightfoot read to kids impacted by the strike and called on the CTU to bargain with more urgency.

‘We need to make sure that we have the CTU at the table night and day in good faith to close the gaps and get a deal done,’ Mayor Lori Lightfoot said.

But the union says they’re still not close on several other issues, including the CTU’s demand that a position be created to help homeless students.

‘Bad news is the substance of the proposal doesn’t go anywhere near far enough to address overcrowding in the Chicago Public Schools,’ said CTU attorney Robert Bloch.

On Friday teachers and staff held a spirited rally and marched in downtown Chicago. But negotiations ended without the two sides reaching a deal, meaning some 300,000 school children will remain in limbo.

All classes were cancelled on Friday as negotiations continued.

Jennifer Friedhart, a 5th and 6th grade science teacher at Beaubien Elementary, said teachers would rather be in the classroom than on the picket line.

‘We should be in the classroom,’ said Friedhart, a 15-year Chicago Public School veteran who brought her 7-year-old daughter, Zoe, with her.

‘Striking for needs that every school needs, it’s worth it.’

In Chicago poverty is rife. About 75% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. In some neighbourhoods, gangs and violence dominate the streets.

Even though classes were cancelled, schools will stay open and provide ‘breakfast, lunch, and supper’ during the strike, CPS Superintendent Dr Janice Jackson said.

The campuses were staffed by administrators and employees who aren’t part of the union.

But school buses did not run, and students were not required to go to school.

Dozens of community centres were open for students, including YMCAs and Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago.

Special education teacher Linda Perales said: ‘Our students deserve smaller class sizes. They deserve nurses. They deserve social workers. They deserve bilingual educators.’

The union listed more than a dozen demands for the school district, including firm limits on class sizes, hiring more teachers’ assistants and raises for all school employees.

Teachers and supporters rallied last Thursday in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighbourhood.

Willie Cousins has worked as a teacher’s assistant at Bond Elementary School for the past five years. ‘In those five years, I have been working with a salary of less than $30,000 a year,’ he said.

‘And to make ends meet, I’ve had to pick up an extra job at Walmart, Food 4 Less, it all depends because of my salary. But I have a family of four that I have to provide for.’

He said the cost of living in Chicago makes it especially difficult to live on an educator’s salary.

‘We are required to live in the city. So how can I live off of that when skyrocketing rent is unbelievable?’ he said.

‘Please, we deserve a fair wage in this city.’

Then there’s the lack of librarians, bilingual teachers and other support staff.

Nine of 10 majority-black schools have no teacher librarians, and there aren’t enough teachers for English language learners in the district, which the union said is ‘nearly half Latino,’ the union said.

The CTU union said in a statement: ‘After more than 10 months of frustrating bargaining, over 25,000 CTU teachers, clinicians, teaching assistants and support staff are officially on strike as of Thursday, October 17.

‘The goal: to win – in writing, in an enforceable contract – learning and working conditions that respect educators and provide Chicago’s students with the schools they deserve.

‘Educators are fighting for conditions that include smaller class sizes, adequate staffing – from social workers and school nurses to librarians and teachers for English language learners and special education students ‘and living wages for paraprofessionals, some of whom earn less than $30,000 a year.’

Fast facts:

  • The CTU and CPS exchanged formal proposals for new contract language on January 15, jumpstarting formal bargaining. The CTU’s contract expired six months later, on June 30.
  • CTU educators are fighting for better wages, smaller class sizes, adequate staffing, and educational justice for students and their families.
  • After the State of Illinois created a new equity-based school funding formula in 2017, the State began sending CPS over a billion additional dollars a year explicitly to lower class sizes and support students in poverty, English language learners, special education students and students confronting trauma. Yet for this year’s record $7.7 billion budget, CPS is investing less in classrooms this year than last.
  • CPS is desperately short of school nurses, social workers, librarians, special education teachers, ELL teachers and more. But CPS has balked at meeting staffing ratios recommended by national professional organisations and best practices. CPS has fewer than 115 school nurses for over 500 schools, with a nurse in schools barely one day a week. One out of four schools has a librarian – and that number falls to barely one in ten for Black-majority schools.

A decade ago, most schools had a librarian. CPS is desperately short of social workers, English language teachers, special education teachers and more, even as CPS is under the oversight of a state monitor for shortchanging its diverse learners.

  • This year, more than 1,300 CPS classes are overcrowded even under CPS’ own high class caps, up from more than a thousand overcrowded classrooms last year.

Almost 25% of elementary students are jammed into overcrowded classes, with some kindergarten classes topping 40 students. Roughly 35% of high school students are enrolled in overcrowded classes; at schools like Simeon, virtually every core class is overcrowded, with math, social studies and world language classes are topping 39 students.

  • The CTU’s school clerks and teaching assistants earn wages as low as $28,000 a year – so low that the children of two-thirds qualify for free and reduced lunch under federal poverty guidelines. Over 1,100 cannot afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment at prevailing rent rates in ANY zip code in the city.

In year 5 of the mayor’s proposed contract, most of those workers would still be earning poverty wages. And in the last ten years, NO CTU member’s wages have kept pace with the inflation rate.

  • Candidate Lightfoot ran on a platform calling for equity and educational justice – including a nurse, a social worker and a librarian in every school – all proposals her negotiating team has rejected at the table.

She also ran in support of an elected, representative school board – but moved to stall that legislation in the Illinois Senate after she was elected. We want those promises in writing, in an enforceable contract – the only way we have to hold CPS and the 5th floor to their promises.

The Chicago Teachers Union represents more than 25,000 teachers and educational support personnel working in Chicago Public Schools, and by extension, the nearly 400,000 students and families they serve. The CTU is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Federation of Teachers and is the third-largest teachers local in the United States.