The Chicago Teachers Strike Could Revolutionize the Way Unions Fight for the Working Class

The city’s rent crisis is so bad, educators are taking it upon themselves to fix it. It could be a model for class conflict across the country.
The Chicago Teachers Strike Could Revolutionize the Way Unions Fight For the Working Class
Supporters of teachers in Chicago this week. (Photo by Max Herman/NurPhoto via Getty Images)Social image includes Photo of Bernie Sanders by Laura McDermott/Bloomberg via Getty Images

An estimated 25,000 Chicago Public School workers headed for the picket line on Thursday for their first strike in seven years. But while they want the things striking teachers usually demand—smaller class sizes and increases to support staff, for example—they are also explicitly declaring war on racism and the city's housing crisis.

The strike, which will see nearly 300,000 students shut out of classrooms in the country’s third-largest school district, comes after ten months of unsuccessful bargaining during which members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) faced pushback from district officials, newly-elected Mayor Lori Lightfoot and local media for their unorthodox decision to make commitments to affordable housing a centerpiece of their bargaining platform.


An editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times on October 9 urged teachers to "stop wasting precious bargaining time pushing far-fetched demands," and take the 16 percent raise over a five year period that was reportedly on offer from the district. (The editorial board also called the fight for housing provisions to be added to their contract "absurd.") Lightfoot has similarly characterized the union's demands as being in bad faith, saying that while she agrees that the city is facing a housing crisis, the issue is "not germane to the nuts and bolts of a CTU contract."

But union members argue addressing shrinking affordable housing stock is critical to ensuring a quality education for all students, more than 16,000 of whom were said to lack permanent housing during the 2018-2019 school year. In an interview, CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates explained that going to bat for housing was part of a larger effort to rectify a long legacy of public policy that codifies racism in Chicago and keeps the city’s public school students—over 80 percent of whom are Black or Hispanic—down and out.

The move is a followup to the local teachers' union's seminal seven-day walkout in 2012 after months of bargaining with then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who insisted on taking recession-era austerity measures. That strike injected a shock of energy into the education labor movement nationwide and paved the way for the #RedForEd strikes that saw thousands of teachers flood city streets to fight increased privatization and budget cuts in states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona in 2018. Seven years later, Chicago teachers have public support—and increasingly populist national political winds—on their side, helping them deploy a potentially revolutionary bargaining tactic to address America's ever-intensifying economic inequality.


The housing crisis in Chicago may also have contributed to a precipitous drop off in public-school enrollment, particularly among Black students, the union claims—one that has been particularly hard-felt in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

On Wednesday, hours before the union announced it had rejected a final offer from the district and planned to strike, Omar Ramirez Atilano sat across from one of his freshman students and attempted to help him find permanent housing. Their deadline was Friday, when the student, his siblings, and grandmother would be forced to vacate their property, Atilano explained. He works as a youth intervention specialist at Richards Career Academy, a high school wedged between Chicago's Back of the Yards and Englewood neighborhoods in an area he described as "a hotbed for rival gang activity" and "ground zero for the things we're fighting and striking for."

Much of the evenly-split black and Latino student population is poor or working class, he said, and many have lost family members to gang violence.

"When you witness the conditions many of our students come from, it becomes imperative that we address and advocate for basic needs such as housing," Atilano explained. "When kids are worried about where they're going to sleep at night, getting them to focus on their education becomes extremely challenging."

"No human, let alone a child, can function normally if their most basic physiological needs aren't being met," he added.


Tanya Vega, the mother of a transgender daughter who is currently a senior in the school district, said two separate stretches of homelessness years ago had left her child feeling depressed and full of "hopelessness that we wouldn't find a permanent home again." Although her daughter was able to maintain straight As in school throughout both periods, Vega added, the psychological damage she witnessed in her during that period was undeniable.

"Being homeless is something no kid will forget," she said. "There's always that nagging fear it will happen again, no matter how much you assure them it won't."

In flouting the fact that the district has no legal obligation to bargain over housing concerns, teachers were utilizing a strategy known as "bargaining for the common good." It hinges on the idea that unions and grassroots organizations can use contract negotiations to notch wins for working-class rights that will ultimately benefit larger communities. Most recently, striking teachers in the Los Angeles School District used this method to successfully bargain for an immigration defense fund for local families.

"We are in a fight against white supremacy," Davis Gates said. "White supremacy in CPS manifests with 40 black kindergartners in one classroom; it manifests when they close 50 black schools; it manifests when we are begging for school nurses to be in schools every day, but instead taxpayers are subsidizing wealthy playgrounds in Lincoln Park."


In the 11th hour of contract negotiations this week, as the reality of a strike seemed all but confirmed, a union source said the school system seemed poised to agree to certain other provisions within the union's bargaining platform, including class-size reductions and ensuring each school employs a nurse, librarian and counselor. But the system had refused to write it into the contract explicitly, which teachers found to be inadequate, the source said.

During a news conference early Wednesday, Lightfoot said that the district had made "more than 80 proposed changes to the contract on issues requested by the union," during the course of bargaining, including "sanctuary school protections, a commitment against privatization, supports for oversized classes, changes in how we serve our special education students, and so much more."

But Lightfoot, the city's first openly gay, black mayor, campaigned for and won her office on many of the same issues that now comprise the union’s platform, including unspooling the systemic inequality that has left much of Chicago class stratified and racially segregated. Now, Davis Gates said, educators have given her an opportunity to make manifest the promises she made to voters earlier this year.

"The question now is whether she wants to be known as a mayor who is fighting the very people she needs to eradicate the poverty and inequities she's talking about," Davis Gates said. "Why would you fight your best gladiators?"

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