Chicago’s poised for a perfect storm of strikes. Parents are f’d. Here’s what you need to know.
Chicago’s headed for the most potentially disruptive strike in its history, with city teachers, school employees and park workers all threatening to walk off the job at the same time.
With more than 360,000 students without a place to go, basically, working parents are f’d, unable to lean on traditional backup sources of care - like park district and afterschool programs.
The park district strike is scheduled to begin as early as Oct. 17. As that deadline looms, here’s what you need to know and how the situation compares, nationally:
In a nutshell
The Chicago Teachers' Union and the Service Employees’ International Union Local 73, the former representing teachers and the latter representing school employees and park workers, saw their memberships vote in overwhelming favor - 94 percent or above - of holding a strike.
The controversy between each group and the city comes in the wake of their contracts expiring last year, the unions since then withholding a renewal until they can secure better conditions for the workers they represent.
What do the unions want, and how far apart are the sides?
This would be the first major strike for the Chicago Teachers’ Union - which represents 25,000 teachers and support staff - since its seven-day strike in September 2012. A much smaller one-day strike took place in April 2016.
Mayor Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson have issued a joint statement noting that the city is willing to cooperate with the unions through negotiation but also that it has already agreed to raise school-related salaries by 16% over the next five years, an offer they have characterized as historic if compared to the lesser deal offered before the 2012 CTU strike. The city is also pledging to hire hundreds of new social workers, librarians, nurses and other support staff that are necessary for the healthy functioning of schools. Details of the current negotiations between the city and SEIU Local 73 groups have not been disclosed as of this time.
Understaffing and overcrowded classrooms that many Chicago schools experience are two particularly sore issues for the union, which has advocated for class size caps in its elementary schools, as well as for more nurses, school counselors, librarians and social workers. CTU president Jesse Sharkey says the union wants its demands acknowledged in writing.
Although Mayor Lightfoot’s initial offer does already address some of these problems, the position of the CTU is that it doesn’t do enough. Things like more comprehensive worker benefits, setting contract lengths to three years with a 5 percent raise on each one, hiring more substitute teachers and possibly hiring even more support staff are all additional requests currently being made by the CTU. Continued negotiations are expected to center around these problems,
School Support Staff
SEIU Local 73 also represents about 7,500 support staff employees, which include special education classroom assistants, custodians and security guards. Concurrently, the school staff affiliated with the SEIU Local 73 cited a desire for increased pay, the return of previously-offered benefits and better career development opportunities as the main reasons they were withholding a contract renewal, though each of the represented worker groups have more specific requests as well. Bus aides, for example, are asking for more reliable work schedules, while custodians request that their contracts to be managed in-house rather than by outside firms.
Park District Workers:
This would be the first strike for the Park District in its 85-year history. About 80 percent of its employees - 2,300 of which work year round, another 700 during summer months - are members of SEIU.
One of the main sticking points for the union is pay and benefits for part-time workers who represent two-thirds of the district’s workforce but are often paid less for working the same job than full-time employees. Many, union officials say, work 52 weeks a year without access to health insurance, paid vacation or holidays.
Superintendent Michael Kelly says its latest offer would give hourly workers a wage increase ranging from 15.5 percent to 28 percent over a five-year period, those raises depending on whether they are classified as attendants, instructors, or recreation leaders. The park district has also offered paid vacation for hourly workers for the first time, but is also asking employees to pay 15 percent of healthcare costs, up from 9 percent currently paid. That’s a main concern for the union, but Kelly counters that contributions have remained flat for the past five years.
What should we brace for?
Here are the implications of just one day: On April 1, 2016, thousands of teachers, staffers and allies staged a walkout, rally and march that affected the entire city. A large downtown rally at the Thompson Center and subsequent march from there to Grant Park, which passed through the CPS Headquarters and City Hall on the way, caused a traffic jam in the Loop during rush hour. Smaller concurrent protests also happened, such as the one at Chicago State University which gathered hundreds of attendees from students to teachers. Some CPS schools did not participate in the strike and were in class as scheduled. And, of course, charter schools, not being a part of the CPS, also remained open as usual.
To try to assuage the situation of the students who didn’t have anywhere else to go during day hours, Chicago's public school district had over 250 contingency sites set up throughout the city where parents could drop off their children. Each site was staffed by principals, CPS central office employees and other school staff that chose not to participate in the strike, as well as public workers assigned to the task. The full breakdown of the sites according to an article by ABC7 Chicago is as follows: 107 CPS schools, all 80 of Chicago’s public libraries, 80 Park District facilities (in these last two cases, both librarians and Park District workers helped to take care of the children) and “numerous Safe Haven locations”. These sites offered free breakfast and lunch for the children, as well as educational activities like arts and crafts and physical education, as well as sports in the case of parks.
This time, with Park District employees also threatening to strike, Kelly has indicated that some facilities will be open, but the footprint will be “much-reduced.”
Number of education strikes in Chicago and Illinois through the last ten years:. Below is a list of all the public education work-related (including both K-12 and Higher Education) strikes that have happened in Illinois from FY2010 to FY2019 (last ten years) according to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. The list includes strikes which were either fully carried out or started but were eventually suspended by the union.
FY2019: 4 (longest strike - 15 days, at the University of Illinois-Chicago, by the Graduate Employees Organizations)
FY2018: 2 (longest strike - 10 days, at the Community Consolidated School District #15, by the IEA-NEA)
FY2017: 6 (longest strike - 6 days, at the Minooka CCSD and High School District, by the IBT Local 179)
FY2016: 5 (longest strike - 21 days, at the East St. Louis SD 189, by the IFT Local 1220 - striking days were made up)
FY2015: 3 (longest strike - 20 days, at the Waukegan SD 60, by the IFT Local 1200 - striking days were made up)
FY2014: 3 (longest strike - 5 days, at the Mt. Olive CUSD 5, by the IEA)
FY2013: 10 (longest strike - 8 days, at the Dixon Public School Dist.#170, by the IEA)
FY2012: 5 (longest strike - 8 days, at the Peoria Illini Bluffs CUSD 327, by the IFT/AFT Local 3810)
FY2011: 2 (all three strikes that year only lasted 1 day)
FY2010: 4 (longest strike - 16 days, at the Ottawa Twp. HSD 140, by the IEA)
The longest CTU strike in Chicago history was in 1987, lasting for 19 days.
Is this a Chicago problem? How do other cities stack up?
Just this January, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) authorized a 6-day strike, a response by public school teachers to the continuing expansion of charter schools in the city. The strike, affecting over half a million students was authorized by a 98 percent vote by the 34,000 union members and centered on teachers’ pay and class sizes. Two other big strikes have happened in LA. In 1970, UTLA was formed when multiple groups, the local AFT chapter and state and national groups merged; a strike happened that spring which lasted for 23 days. Another strike occurred in 1989, which lasted for nine days and involved 20,000 teachers. These strikes focused heavily on teachers’ pay and administrative control. No other strike occurred between the ‘89 and ‘19 strikes.
Believe it or not, the last teacher’s strike to take place in NYC was in 1968. This long period of tranquility may be due to the severity of that strike: It was really a series of strikes that lasted for about 36 days and affected over a million students. Almost 57,000 teachers took part in the strike, nearly all of the teachers in the New York City education system.
This ‘68 strike was not necessarily about class size or pay. Instead, the issue starting the strike was race. Integration continued to fail in the NYC schools until the creation of a black-controlled local school board of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood. This was part of a larger effort in creating “community school boards” to better address hyper-local needs and concerns, like integration in particular neighborhoods.
The first strike in the series began in September of 1968; the last strike ended in November of that year. Contentions were not resolved through negotiation. Instead, the Education Commissioner for New York State took over control of the local school board in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, reinstated the teachers and transferred several principals. The UFT’s role in the strike was divisive: the pro-school district public appreciated the efforts to re-open schools, yet the pro-strike liberals thought this was a huge defeat for equity among educators and students as the community control experiment for school boards ended at this time. It also exacerbated racial tensions between black/minority educators with their white and Jewish counterparts.
Philly’s education system is a little different than in LA and NYC. First, the State of Pennsylvania controlled the Philly school board for 17 years due to financial mismanagement (we’re talking a budget deficit for the district of $1.5 billion in 2001). State leadership at this time also wanted to introduce more charter schools into communities like Philly, so the state-run School Reform Commission (SRC) was formed and lasted until the end of 2017. This commission was also formed in partial response to a threatened strike by Philly teachers the previous year.
Historically, Philadelphia has experienced several strikes. In 1969, state law legalized teacher strikes; the PFT struck five (or six times, depending on the source) between this point and 1981. The last one, in ‘81, was a doozy. It lasted for 50 days and involved 22,000 union-backed educators. The strike centered on contract disputes between the PFT and the district; the district laid off over 3,500 workers to help close a budget deficit and canceled a pay increase, revoking the strike. This didn’t end through negotiation. Rather, a court-order forced the strike to end. The court found the district had to re-hire those workers but did not have to reinstate the pay increase.
Few records exist regarding potential strikes in Houston or the entire state of Texas. After strikes in states like Oklahoma and Kentucky in 2018, Texas papers did broach the idea of teacher strikes in the state, though nothing materialized. This piece from the Dallas Morning News asserts the state of education in Texas is bad enough that a strike may be the only measure that could create real change.
Texas’ own “right-to-work law” bars public employees from going on strike and partaking in work stoppages. Specifically, those who do so will forfeit “all civil service rights, reemployment rights and any other rights, benefits, and privileges”. Instead, teacher’s allies have advocated for pushing for reform through elections.
Why here in Chicago?
Unlike in a number of other states, Illinois law actually sanctions strikes, as long as they occur after certain prerequisites have been met.
Those include contracts being expired before strikes occur; an attempt first for a public mediator to settle contract disputes; a space of 10 days between an announced strike and its occurrence; and at least 75 percent of educational union membership affirmatively voting to authorize a strike.
The Illinois Public Relations Labor Act and the Illinois Educational Relations Labor Act are both designed to protect the public good, such as by not allowing firefighters and police officers to go on strike or education workers to do so before a supermajority of its members has agreed on it. Furthermore, both statutes have provisions in allowing them to be stopped if they can be proven to be harming the public health or safety in some fashion. In such a case, the public employer can call for an injunction by the state circuit court against the strike, or other possible future strikes.
Yet, of the teachers unions across the state, the CTU has, by far, the largest membership and therefore biggest megaphone. Combined with Chicago’s financial troubles, it’s often a toxic combination.
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