Interview with a teacher on strike in Chicago

About 30,000 public school teachers and support staff went on strike in Chicago yesterday. This includes over 20,000 teachers represented by the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU), and 7,500 support staff represented by SEIU. Marianne Garneau spoke to Randall, a music teacher and member of CTU.

How was your day on the picket line?

It was exhausting. We were picketing at our schools from 6:30 AM until 10:30 AM, and then there was a rally and march through downtown at 1:30 PM. There were a lot of people there. One teacher I was with said she thought it was larger than the 2012 strike, which had 20,000 people.

What is your job?

I’m a music teacher at an elementary school. This is my first year at this school. Last year, I was at a different school. And the year before that I was subbing in the district.

So you were not around for the 2012 strike?

In 2012, I was teaching in Indiana.

What was the mood like on the picket line?

The teachers at my school were pretty upbeat. They seemed happy that we’re standing up for these important issues. There’s a lot of discontent throughout the whole district.

What are the biggest issues?

Class sizes are out of control. And there’s no contract language to enforce class sizes, just recommendations. At my previous school I had a kindergarten class with 40 students, which was… odd.

Having enough librarians, nurses, teaching assistants. Some schools only have a nurse one day a week.

And they’re trying to raise the cost of our health care.

There are some issues with pay. Obviously everyone wants an increase, but another aspect is that veteran teachers max out. There are steps and lanes; the lanes are for your education level (if you have a master’s degree, etc.), and the steps are for your experience. And they go up every year. I think there are only 14 or 15 steps, so if you’ve been teaching that many years in the district, your last ten years or so before you retire, you’re at the same pay rate. You don’t get a raise. So a lot of the veteran teachers are hoping that changes.

Another big issue is that support staff and teaching aides get really low pay. They’re actually in SEIU, but they’re out on strike with us, which is different than in 2012.

Did they time their contract to expire with yours?

I think they’ve been without a contract for a year. I think SEIU and CTU coordinated so we would be able to negotiate our contracts at the same time. So I think SEIU sacrificed a year to be able to bargain at the same time as us.

What was the lead-up to the strike like?

Ever since the new mayor [Lori Lightfoot] was elected in the spring, everyone kind of knew there was a possibility of a strike. The union’s been bargaining since January. The contract expired sometime in the summer [June 30]. CPS [Chicago Public Schools] has been dragging their feet with the negotiations, especially early on.

Lightfoot promised all these changes, and used the Chicago teachers’ platform in her campaign, but when she took office, she kept the same bargaining team as Rahm Emanuel. So in the lead-up to the strike, people were upset.

She campaigned as being a friend of teachers and the CTU?

Not necessarily, but she took a lot of the issues that the union had been pushing for – lower class sizes, bringing justice to the poorer schools, especially on the South Side — and it was kinda obvious she just lifted various issues from the union. The union actually endorsed a different candidate, who had been a teacher previously, but she lost. But Lori Lightfoot took various issues that the union had been pushing.

What is the significance of the CORE caucus, to you?

I mean, I’ve followed the CTU and CORE for years. I’ve always been inspired by what they’ve been doing. I think the CTU is interesting because it’s such a huge union. For all the different members, it’s impressive to me how many people have such a clear message on the things that everyone is fighting for. At my last school, there were a lot of very conservative viewpoints, but somehow there’s this common ground that people have been able to find.

What do you think of the “bargaining for the common good” approach, asking for affordable housing for teachers and students?

I think it’s a great idea. It’s a great tactic. The criticism is that bargaining outside of the contract is kind of silly, but our [CTU] VP, Stacy Davis Gates, has talked about it and explained that it may be technically outside of the contract, but if there’s an absurd number of homeless kids, it affects the classroom. So it’s something we should deal with in the contract. It’s a serious social justice issue.

Membership re-elected the CORE slate in September, right before the strike. They had an opposition group called Members First go up against them. They are conservative; they think the union administration is corrupt and wasting money. They want to prioritize only “member issues” like pay and benefits and ignore the other issues like homeless kids. They received a really low percentage of votes in the election, but I know teachers who voted for them, at my last school. So [the election results were] a win for those valuing social justice priorities in bargaining.

I’m intrigued about why your last school was more conservative. Is that because it was a wealthier school? And in spite of that, there’s a lot of unity on the strike and the issues that you guys are fighting for — how do you think that was achieved?

It wasn’t wealthier. It was mostly Latinx teachers. High poverty, but a stable community. Teachers were easily persuaded by conspiracy theories [about union leadership]. But teaching conditions are so bad that even with their bad politics, they have been won over to support the strike, because of CTU’s good, clear communication and reasoning and democratic, member-run structure.

How long do you expect this strike will go on?

I really have no idea. I’ve been talking to my colleagues who were around in 2012. That one went seven days. It’s really hard to tell. I’m just hoping the union doesn’t cave in and settle it without getting our demands [met], but I’m pretty confident we’re not going to do that, from what I’ve seen. On the other hand, I’m not confident how long we can go. I don’t know what Lightfoot’s end goal is. I’m a little nervous, if we end up being on strike for a long time, whether parents will stick with us. A lot of people have to find places to put their kids. They can technically go to the school, but a lot of parents are apprehensive since there are not a lot of adults at the schools. We’re definitely on strike tomorrow [Friday]. We’ll see.

Once they have a deal, I think they have delegates vote on it, then it goes to the full membership. The union leadership has said they want to give time for everyone to read the proposal before we vote on it.

Is this your first strike?

This is my first job strike. I’ve been on picket lines in support of other people’s strikes, but this is my first strike.

Are you getting strike pay?

We don’t get strike pay. Before the strike, they suggested we start saving a certain percentage of our paycheck – 20% or 30%. If we’re on strike for 15 days, we qualify for an AFT [American Federation of Teachers, of which CTU is a part] 0% loan. We are still getting a paycheck for now because there’s a two-week lag.

But I think most people are prepared to do what it takes. Although no one’s really happy to be on strike, we are happy to be fighting for the issues.