The Chicago Teachers Union has been working without a contract since June, and 94 percent of members recently voted to authorize a strike. SEIU Local 73, which represents school workers such as special education classroom assistants, school custodians and bus aides, as well as Park District workers are also set to strike on October 17.

The last strike of Chicago teachers in 2012 was a major victory for labor and working people in the city, and helped inspire the wave of teacher strikes that has taken place across the US over the past few years.

As the CTU prepares for a strike on October 17, the Chicago Branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation hosted a labor forum entitled “Teachers Fight Back!” on October 12.

Erica Clark, a former Chicago Public Schools  parent and founding member of Parent 4 Teachers, spoke at the forum. She noted that if the CTU strikes, it will be different from the previous actions in 2012 and 2016, in part because of solidarity with SEIU Local 73. In addition, in 2016 CPS was broke and the union was forced to accept austerity measures. But today the district has more money. “The teacher’s union is the only institution that can reverse the damage disinvestment has done to schools,” Clark said.

The Chicago Teachers Union is fighting for better pay and benefits, fully staffed schools, enforceable class size limits, and social justice for students and their families, which includes sustainable community schools, restorative justice, affordable housing and sanctuary schools.

Staffing is a major issue in Chicago, where many schools have no librarians, art, or music teachers. There is a severe shortage of nurses and other wrap-around services. Nick Stender, a CPS teacher and member of the PSL, said that at his school, the secretary has to give diabetic students insulin shots as they only have a nurse once a week. Stender teaches at a school in Woodlawn on Chicago’s South Side. “Woodlawn is a high-poverty, heavily oppressed neighborhood, with a large need for social support,” he said. “But we have one counselor for the entire middle school, which is frankly absurd.”

This sort of understaffing is common in Chicago. There are more than 300 open special education positions and there are not enough social workers or counselors to go around. The national recommendation for social workers is one for every 250 students, and 1 for every 50 in high trauma areas. In Chicago the ratio stands at 1:730.

More than 25 percent of elementary classes are overcrowded, even by CPS’s high and unenforceable standards, with many classes having only one teacher for more than 40 students.

However, conditions are not uniformly bad across the city. There are “two school systems in Chicago. One system that is struggling, that is for Black and Latino children, immigrants and oppressed children. The other system is well funded and is seen in the special enrollment schools. It teaches the children of the elite and the ruling class,” said Stender.

Katie Osgood, a CPS special education teacher and member of the CTU’s negotiating team described the conditions in many overcrowded classrooms as “chaos.” “Our schools have been cut and attacked so much. Our schools are operating at a dangerous level,” she said.

Osgood noted that negotiations are complicated by the fact that under a 1995 law, the CTU can only strike over pay, benefits and prep times. The city is currently refusing to put other staffing issues and class sizes into the contract because they “want to maintain their ability to implement austerity at any time,” she said. Despite the new mayor, the city’s bargaining team is essentially the same people who worked for Emanuel, and even former city boss Richard M. Daley. “They have an ideology of testing and union busting,” said Osgood.

Both the union and the city are fighting for public support. “They are using the corporate media effectively against us,” said Osgood, “but nobody buys the message of greedy teachers.” As Chicago heads toward a strike, the unions and their supporters are taking to the streets to demand that the city puts a fair contract in writing, so that Chicago’s teachers and staff can meet the needs of all of Chicago’s students. The unions are ready to fight, and when we fight, we win!