CPS Strike is Officially On As Teachers Union, Chicago Mayor Fail to Reach a Last-Minute Deal
Vice President of Chicago Teachers Union Stacy Davis Gates speaks to the media concerning negotiations between the union and the mayor on Oct. 16, 2019. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)
It’s official — Chicago Public Schools teachers are on strike and will hit picket lines Thursday after failing to reach a new contract deal with the city following months of negotiations.
In announcing the Chicago Teachers Union’s first formal walkout since 2012, President Jesse Sharkey said teachers and school support staff deserve “to have pay and benefits that give us dignity and respect. I don’t think we are there on that yet."
Even before the formal decision to strike, the union’s overtures toward a walkout prompted Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson to preemptively cancel Thursday classes, though the hundreds of schools in the district will remain open for children who need a safe place to go.
Lightfoot told reporters after the official word came down Wednesday night that she was “disappointed” with CTU’s decision.
“We will remain at the table,” Lightfoot said. “We hope CTU will as well. I hope this work stoppage will end soon.”
The union has stressed that, in addition to a compensation and benefits package it thinks is fair, it wants to use its contract as a mechanism to improve conditions for teachers, students and their families.
Sharkey said late Wednesday that union members “want to make this a short strike.” But he also said the union “will be on strike until someone comes with good faith … to make conditions better ... not just something that’s going to appease us.”
About 300,000 CPS students and their families will be affected by the strike, as well as about 25,000 teachers. Another 7,000 support staff members — including security personnel, custodians, special education classroom assistants and bus aides — also announced earlier Wednesday evening that they would join teachers on the picket lines after they, too, failed to reach a contract agreement with the city.
“The city and the board dug in their heels and were not willing to negotiate with us any further,” said Dian Palmer, president of the Service Employees International Local 73, which represents the support staff members. “So we have no other alternative than to take our workers on strike. It’s unfortunate, but our workers deserve more.”
However, Chicago Park District employees who had also set a strike date for Thursday called off their plans when they inked a tentative deal Wednesday. That avoided what would have been the group’s first-ever labor walkout.
In calling off classes, Lightfoot says she couldn’t accept the CTU’s demands, saying they would cost $2.5 billion that the city can’t afford.
She said she and her administration “value the workers. ... Honoring that value is who I am and what I stand for. But I also must be responsible for the taxpayers who pay for everything that goes on.”
The mayor also said Wednesday that the union has been “signaling to us for a long time that they intended to strike.”
“We’ve tried despite that to work through as many issues as possible to meet them on as many of their demands as we responsibly could,” she added.
And even as the CTU’s House of Delegates was still in its meeting Wednesday to decide whether to formalize the strike, the union gave another indication that was on, Tweeting that its 2012 walkout “inspired a movement. Tomorrow, we do it all over again."
When the meeting ended at CTU headquarters, delegates streamed out of the building saying they were ready for Thursday. As members of the media entered the building for a news conference, a wave of red-shirted union members stood beneath projections reading in big bold letters: “ON STRIKE. Pickets at all schools and CPS headquarters at 6:30 a.m.”
In announcing the preemptive cancellation of classes, Jackson said the decision was made on expectation that the union’s House of Delegates would go along with their bargaining team’s recommendation to go forward with a strike.
“We’re assuming that the House of Delegates will vote today to move forward with a strike, and as a result all classes and after school activities will be cancelled tomorrow," CPS CEO Janice Jackson said. "This includes team practices and competitions, tutoring, field trips, internships, Parent University activities and all other community activities.”
Jackson stressed the schools will remain open and meals will be served to children who need a place to go. Other organizations like parks and libraries are also offering programming for CPS schoolchildren. More details here. Charter and contract schools in Chicago will remain open.
One big priority for the union has been placing more social workers, counselors, librarians and nurses in schools, as well as those who can assist thousands of schoolchildren who don’t have a permanent residence. In recent days, though, the CTU has said members might be open to a phase-in if it started with schools in areas where children are more likely to experience trauma.
But the issues at stake go well beyond that, extending to compensation, particularly for classroom assistants and veterans teachers; paid prep time for teachers; and class sizes. The union has rejected an offer for 16% raises over a five-year contract and wants 15% over three years.
SEIU Local 73 member Tanya Dumas, a special education classroom assistant, picks up picket signs for the pending strike at the Chicago Teachers Union Center, Oct. 16, 2019, in Chicago. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)
Wednesday, ahead of the resumption of talks, the sides traded sharp words in dueling news conferences, with the union questioning Lightfoot’s “role in the city” and the mayor saying the union has “been signaling to us for a long time that they intended to strike.”
CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates told reporters: “Negotiating in good faith means that we reach a settlement. If (Lightfoot) cannot land a deal with teachers then you have to question her role with the city.”
Lightfoot’s strategy, Davis Gates said, “is to take back everything that we have won in previous contracts and hand it back. ... We are holding her accountable."
Lightfoot wouldn’t say how long she expects the strike to last.
“I don’t want to speculate about that,” Lightfoot said. “I think we need to get back to the table and get the outstanding issues resolved as quickly as possible.”
She reiterated her argument that she’s put a good deal on the table for the union, highlighting a 16% raise for teachers and 38% raise for support staff.
“Without question, the deal we put on the table is the best in the Chicago Teacher Union’s history,” Lightfoot said.
She also said her team has proposed more than 80 changes to the contract on issues requested by the union, including enforceable targets on class-sizes in high-poverty schools and staffing level support.
“They wanted us to put it in writing and that’s exactly what we did,” Lightfoot said. “At every turn, we bent over backwards to meet the union’s needs and deliver a contract that reflects our shared values and visions for our schools and the support of our students.”
As the daughter of a union steelworker, Lightfoot said she believes in collective bargaining and the right to strike. But today, “it is clear that this is not one of those moments.”
Despite the union publicly saying that its two big unresolved issues are class size and staffing, Lightfoot said they’ve raised additional bargaining issues behind the scenes that aren’t economically feasible. The union also wants to shorten classroom time for 30 minutes in the morning, Lightfoot said.
“We won’t do that,” Lightfoot said. “We will not cheat our children out of instructional time. I won’t agree to any changes that do that.”
Beyond the 16% raises offered by Lightfoot, the union wants an additional $230 million in teacher pay over the course of the contract, the mayor said. She also said the union wants to “go back to wasteful practices, like getting paid out for unused sick leave, which would cost CPS $25 million a year conservatively.”
“We can’t agree to that. CPS finances are still recovering from the brink of insolvency and we do not have unlimited funds,” Lightfoot said. “Our offer to teachers and support staff is responsible to taxpayers.”
CPS Board President Miguel Del Valle said he believes the union “at this point has stopped bargaining in good faith.”
“I encourage them to go back to the bargaining table and resolve this as quickly as possible so that the work stoppage does not last long,” Del Valle said. “We don’t want a long work stoppage.”
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Tribune reporter Jessica Villagomez contributed.
Raised in Little Village, Gregory Pratt covers Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and City Hall. Before joining the Tribune in 2013, he worked for the BGA, alt-weeklies in Phoenix and Minneapolis, and Spanish-daily Hoy. He has been a finalist for the Livingston Award and earned recognition for investigative reporting, including a Scripps Howard award.
Hannah Leone reports on Chicago Public Schools for the Tribune. She spent a year covering crime scenes overnight and previously covered breaking news and courts in the west suburbs. She worked at newspapers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho before joining the Tribune in 2016. She lives in Rogers Park, where she enjoys running along the lake.
Juan Perez Jr. is a Metro reporter for the Chicago Tribune -- and is a proud graduate of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Before joining the Tribune, he covered city issues for the Omaha World-Herald newspaper. Juan can often be spotted making disgruntled faces before, during and after area sporting events.
Before coming to the Tribune, Javonte worked at The (Toledo) Blade, where he covered K-12 and higher education. Previously, he was a general assignment reporter at the Post-Tribune in northwest Indiana. Javonte hails from Gary and is a proud Indiana University graduate.