On November 16, the tentative agreement which ended the eleven-day 2019 Chicago Teachers Union strike was ratified, approving the union’s contract with Chicago Public Schools for the next five years. The strike went on for four more days than the 2012 strike, making it the longest strike in 32 years. However, the formal ratification of the contract is not the end of the teachers’ struggle.
“There are a lot of questions still remaining around enforcement of the things that we won,” said Nicholas Stender, a Chicago Public Schools teacher and member of the CTU and the Chicago branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.
When asked about the union rank and file’s attitude toward the contract’s enforcement, Stender didn’t mince words: “CPS is such a nefarious institution, they will do anything and everything to hurt the teachers’ union and, by extension, hurt the children. The priorities of the Mayor, City Hall, and the appointed CPS board are not the priorities of the working class of Chicago.”
A new body called the Joint Class Size Assessment Council will be responsible for enforcing the new reductions on class size. The council will have half its members appointed by CTU and the other the other half by the school board. Per the new contract, class sizes are to be reduced to 38 students per high school class, 35 students per grade 4-8 class, and 32 students per kindergarten through grade 3 class.
“There’s going to have to be a lot of organizing within the union to educate our membership on next steps,” Stender said about the next phase of the struggle for the union. “The thing we have to be most careful of is demoralization and feeling like we’re powerless if the board doesn’t follow through on the contract. The union must be ready to fight for the implementation of every measure we won.”
At the current moment, it’s hard to see how the union could feel powerless. The union achieved historic gains with this strike, which expanded the CTU’s demands, for the first time, to include social justice issues like special education support, staffing requirements for nurses and social workers, restorative justice coordinators, and workers to support students without a permanent residence. Currently, there are over 16,000 homeless students in Chicago Public Schools.
According to the new contract, in addition to class size reduction, more English Learner Program positions will be added, special education teachers will have the authority to limit class workloads and provide more individualized attention to students, and CPS has committed to hiring 120 new counselors, librarians, and restorative justice coordinators for schools. Additionally, paraprofessionals such as teacher’s assistants and special education classroom assistants in CPS schools will get pay raises. According to Stender, many of these paraprofessional positions are occupied by working class women of color, who will now be receiving raises of up to 50 percent in some cases.
A key issue that led to the strike was a lack of adequate nurses and social workers in Chicago public schools, particularly in “tier 1” schools with high rates of students in poverty. Many CPS schools currently have no nurse or social worker at all, with other schools only staffed one day per week. Under the new contract, nurses and social workers will be added gradually over the length of the five-year contract term.
“This is not exactly what we wanted,” said Stender, referring to the CTU’s initial demand for more school nurses and social workers. “We wanted it immediately, but I think this is a partial victory.”
The absence of nurses and social workers largely motivated the strike, but this was not the picture portrayed by the corporate media. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot held a press conference on the second day of the strike, declaring “there is simply no more money,” in an attempt to paint the CTU members on strike for student resources as merely greedy bureaucrats, only looking out for themselves.
Stender attributed the success of the strike both to the union’s militancy in the struggle and support on the picket lines from both Chicago residents and alternative media outlets.
“Without independent media to get teachers’ voices out, it would have been almost impossible to wage this struggle,” Stender said. “People knew what Lightfoot’s game was because of our messaging.” Part of that messaging included using the hashtag #PutItInWriting on social media. Participants used this hashtag to highlight reluctance of Lightfoot and CPS to commit to and follow through with their promises to hire more nurses and social workers as specified in the contract.
Although CPS did eventually put it in writing, the struggle to secure a just and equitable education for all Chicago students will continue.
“The class sizes are still too large, and we need to fight on that,” Stender said. “While it wasn’t the contract of everybody’s dreams, it still was and continues to be a victory for the working class of Chicago.”