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Hundreds of Chicago teachers and supporters rallied downtown on October 11, 2019 as a strike deadline loomed. They were demanding improvements to working conditions, including more nurses and social workers and class size limits.

Manuel Martinez

Teachers Strike Remakes 25 Years Of Bargaining In Chicago

The Chicago teachers strike challenged a 1995 law that handed over control of the school system to the city’s mayor.

Before the Chicago teachers strike started last month, the president of the union said he told his sons there was a possibility he could be arrested for leading what could be ruled an illegal walkout.

That didn’t happen. Instead, the strike rendered a law that has governed labor relations with teachers in Chicago for 25 years mostly irrelevant. The law prohibits the Chicago Teachers Union — and only the Chicago Teachers Union — from striking over issues related to working conditions, including class size, staffing, worker layoffs and privatizing services.

“I view that law in the same way I view laws that say that two people who love each other can’t be together or the same way as laws that discriminate against broad sections of the population,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey. “Not only are those laws wrong but they have proven to be unenforceable.”

Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates is also a fierce opponent of the 1995 law, saying it serves to try to “muzzle” the mostly women of color who work inside Chicago Public Schools.

The 1995 law also handed over control of the school district to the mayor, which the teachers union has long opposed. During the strike, the union demanded that Mayor Lori Lightfoot honor her pledge made during the campaign to support switching from a school board appointed by the mayor to an elected board.

Union leaders argue their members were fed up not having a say on working conditions in the schools — and say they used their newfound voice to score major wins.

Proponents of mayoral control downplay the wins in the contract, saying they could have been accomplished without a strike. But they also admit the strike was a clear rebuke of not only mayoral control, but also the reform agenda that has accompanied it over the last two decades, including a push for more charter schools, test-based accountability and school choice.

How CTU sidestepped the 1995 law

To get around the 1995 law, the union refused to discuss salary in negotiations until it reached agreements on other issues. This way, the work stoppage was officially over compensation.

But union leaders also defiantly said they were striking for class size caps and to get promises in writing for more nurses, social workers and other staff. Teachers also walked the picket lines with signs broadcasting those same demands.

In doing so, they knew Mayor Lightfoot could have gone to court to argue the strike was illegal. If she had succeeded, it could have potentially led to teachers and staff on picket lines being arrested.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel had filed an injunction to end the 2012 strike, arguing it was illegal, but a deal was reached before it was heard in court.

The union knew this was a test for Lightfoot. Davis Gates said that as a candidate Lightfoot had supported an elected school board and viewed the collective bargaining limits as repressive. They knew she would be hard-pressed to defend them going to court.

Lightfoot never publicly entertained seeking an injunction and said from the beginning she intended to deal with issues in negotiations, not in the courtroom.

In the end, the proposed contract, which members will vote on next week, includes class size and staffing promises that go far beyond any previous CTU contract. Some members don’t think these measures are enough, but the fact that they are in the contract is significant.


Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey addresses reporters at Peirce Elementary in Andersonville on the first day of the teachers strike on Oct. 17, 2019.

Manuel Martinez

School district needs “flexibility”

Paul Vallas, the first CEO of the school district appointed under mayoral control, said it is evident the union was aiming to turn back the clock on what could be negotiated.

Vallas said this is a mistake. He argued that the school district should “have the flexibility to be able to balance its budget and set its priorities without Springfield or without some collective bargaining agreement dictating their every move.”

Vallas supports having some elected school board members, but thinks the mayor should maintain control. Vallas ran for mayor in 2019 but supported Lightfoot in the runoff.

Peter Cunningham, who served as head of communications for Chicago Public Schools and assistant secretary for communications at the U.S. Department of Education under President Barack Obama, agrees. Cunningham cites the fact that Chicago Public School students are outperforming similarly situated students across the nation as evidence that mayoral control works.

“We are getting good results, we are getting stuff done,” he said. Cunningham said he saw the strike as needless and disruptive.

Both Vallas and Cunningham see charter schools, which started and expanded significantly under mayoral control, as key to improving the school system. Cunningham said the Chicago Teachers Union has been at the forefront of turning the tide against charter schools.

At the end of the walkout, the relevance of mayoral control law in the contract battle became crystal clear.

Two days before the strike was called off, Lightfoot said she was outraged that a last-minute union demand was a pledge of support for an elected school board and the repeal of the law that limits CTU’s collective bargaining rights. She said these demands have no place in a collective bargaining agreement.

Then, on the night a tentative agreement was approved, Davis Gates said state legislative leaders had agreed to take these measures up in the spring session.

It is still unclear whether lawmakers would allow these measures to go through without Lightfoot’s blessing — but it’s also unclear whether the limits on collective bargaining in Chicago mean much anymore.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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