Chicago Teachers Strike Tested Schools, Mayor And The City | WBEZ
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Chicago Teachers Strike Tested Schools, Mayor And The City

Updated 10 p.m.

One of Chicago’s longest teachers strikes in the last half century is finally over.

The 11-day walkout gripped the city, putting conditions in its under-resourced schools in the spotlight and testing Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s will and political acumen early in her tenure.

A deal to end the walkout came Thursday after a meeting between Lightfoot and Chicago Teachers Union leaders. The mayor emerged from the meeting to say she had agreed to make up five days missed due to the strike.

Teachers union delegates had approved a tentative contract Wednesday night, but said they’d only return to class if the missed schools days were made up. Lightfoot quickly refused. But by midday Thursday, the mayor had relented.

“We believe this was the right outcome to make sure we got our kids back in school,” Lightfoot said.

strike
Manuel Martinez
Mayor Lori Lightfoot announcing the end of the Chicago teachers strike.

Chicago Teachers Union leaders followed with their own press conference. Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said the union had sacrificed a lot, including six days of pay.

“My members went out for 10 days and fought for a nurse,” Davis Gates said. “That is the basic minimum for most people around this country and we had to go out and give up six days of pay to get a nurse in our school every day. That is not bitterness. We put our hearts into this every day. We just want a partner who can respect that.”

strike
Manuel Martinez/WBEZ
Chicago Teachers Union leaders at City Hall on Thursday as the strike came to an end.

The 11-day strike was one of the city's longest in the last 50 years, and the longest since a record-setting 19-day strike in 1987. The most recent strike in 2012 lasted seven school days.

Though tensions were still running high at City Hall on Thursday, news of the deal left many in Chicago feeling enormously relieved.

”That’s fantastic news,” said Rus Bass Ehler, a teacher at Juarez High School in Pilsen. He learned of the strike’s end while downtown with his two sons getting ready for a night of trick-or-treating.

He was hoping for more make up days but was happy with five.

“That's wonderful,” he said. “I thought maybe they’d go for six, but I’ll take five.”

Parent Evelyn Johnson, a librarian assistant at Harold Washington Library, said she was ready to get back to normal. “It was a little exhausting but I am glad everything kind of worked out for CPS students and parents and teachers.”

Political fallout

In the coming days there will be much discussion about how this strike will impact Lightfoot politically. She is ending the walkout with a deeply frayed relationship with the teachers union. Its leaders are especially incensed over her decision not to make up all the days lost to the strike — and her strong initial resistance to making up any days at all.

Many teachers also are smarting. They accused Lightfoot of reneging on her campaign promises until the union forced her to honor them.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa, 35th Ward, noted the toll the last strike in 2012 took on Mayor Rahm Emanuel, though he was already unpopular with the teachers union.

“Mayor Rahm Emanuel had very similar favorable-unfavorable ratings as Mayor Lightfoot,” Ramirez Rosa said. “A majority of Chicagoans liked Mayor Emanuel prior to this teacher strike afterwards obviously we know what happened.”

Ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th Ward, herself a CPS parent and schools activist, said she thinks no matter who was the mayor there was probably going to be a strike.

“This is kind of the baggage from the closing of the 50 schools and so she wasn't going to get past this either way whoever got this seat was not going to get away with it,” she said.

Taylor says it’s unfortunate it pitted Lightfoot against CTU Vice President Stacy Gates, two accomplished black women.

“I hate to see her and Stacy Davis Gates ... two black women at each other but for the right reasons,” she said.

Ald. James Cappleman, 46th Ward, said there’s time for Lightfoot to earn back the support of voters she may have lost.

“I think there's some damage but it's early in her career so I think that can get healed,” he said.

As for Lightfoot herself, she said she was not thinking about her political career or winners or losers

“I refuse to even talk about this in terms of winning or losing,” Lightfoot said. “Nobody wins in a circumstance like this. We put an historic deal on the table … but I don’t think about who wins or for me personally. This has been a hardship for way on many people across our city, particularly our young people.”

“Historic” agreement

Since Wednesday evening, the teachers strike had come down to a dispute over making up the missed school days, overshadowing the vote by the union to approve a five-year contract.

Under that deal, which the union called “monumental” and Lightfoot called “historic,” the union got the school district to agree to many of its core demands. Most of the union’s wins took place after the strike began.

“This is about black and brown children in the city of Chicago getting the resources in their school communities that they’ve been deprived of for generations,” Davis Gates said on Thursday.

The union won contract language that over five years will add a nurse and a social worker in every school. They also got the school district to promise to hire a host of other staff, including many new special education case managers and homeless coordinators.

It also won $35 million to reduce overcrowded classroom, $5 million for veteran teachers and $5 million more for coach stipends and equipment for sports teams.

The union says they believe they’ve won commitments of enough money so these promises won’t be empty. In the last few days, the union and school district were stuck over the issue of money.

Sharkey said the agreement was not perfect.

“We are not going to bed in Portage Park and waking up in Lake Forest,” he said Wednesday night.

But it does have commitments around class size and staffing that have never been in their contract before.

The union also secured salary increases of 16% over the five years of the contract and minimal increase in health care contributions.

But there were some demands that the school district refused to relent on. The top one: Teachers wanted an additional 30 minutes of prep time. School district officials, who initially wanted more prep time to be principal directed, refused to offer it.

The union membership still needs to ratify the agreement. That vote is expected in 10 days.

WBEZ reporters Sarah Karp, Becky Vevea and Adriana Cardona-Maguigad  contributed to this story.

Follow her us on Twitter at @WBEZeducation

An earlier version of this story mistakenly said the 2019 teachers strike was the second longest in the last 50 years. It is among the longest but not the second longest.

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