by Sunyata Courie / Staff Reporter
More than 300,000 Chicago Public Schools students were unable to attend class for 11 school days due to the Chicago Teachers Union Strike. Starting on Oct. 17 after the Chicago Teachers’ Union refused to accept Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposed budget for the 2019-2020 school year, the intense strike was the longest since 1987.
The teachers of Chicago have long been frustrated by the crumbling education infrastructure and stagnant wages, two problems that have run rampant in Chicago for years. Many of the problems that CTU drew attention to resulted from the Chicago Public School district having a long-term debt burden of $8.4 billion. When negotiations of their contract with the city arrived, the Union had steep demands of the mayor which included a 15 percent pay raise for teachers over three years, a decrease on overcrowding in the classroom, a nurse and librarian in every school, sancturary city protection for undocumented immigrants on school property and a demand for affordable housing.
“Ultimately, we were on strike for things that other districts do not have to beg for,” said 23-year-old fifth-grade public school teacher Manka Arifi. She remarked that the energy during the actual strike was interesting. “It was a mix of exhaustion from picketing from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and then again in the early afternoon.” She details getting support and donuts from passersby and a few drivers who would honk and yell at the picketers. “[We also felt] sadness that we were away from our students for so long and frustration that the mayor did not and does not seem to see the value in education.”
Now that the strike is over, Arifi conveyed that it feels like “a mad dash” because the quarter ended Thursday, Nov. 7. When asked how her students feel about the strike she explained that many of her students were surprised to hear the problems facing other schools. “When we explained how some classes in CPS have around 50 students in them (about twice my average class size), they began to understand it more. Or that some schools don’t have a nurse.”
Arifi admitted that the teachers were “not able to get everything” but remains optimistic for the future, pointing out that “we finally got a cap on class sizes, which has never happened before. Now, if a class has 35 students in it, a process automatically starts to figure out the best way to accommodate the students and teacher.” She also believes that “in the future we as educators will be able to take this momentum with us to continue fighting for the best learning environment for our students.”
The reaction to the strike was mixed amongst the students. Corbin Eaton, a 20 year old Columbia College Screenwriting major admitted he didn’t know much about the strike. When asked what he knew, he said, “Honestly not much. The main thing I remember were the signs on my walk to the train everyday. There was a really cool sign that featured Lizzo.” The one thing Eaton did know was that “ the class sizes are too big, which is a huge problem because then I know it’s much harder for the kids to learn”.
Ieliot Jackson, a senior paralegal studies and social justice studies major at Roosevelt attended 10 days of the strike. He described the teacher’s strike a bit differently. He said he felt as though the energy was “misdirected, saying, “ It was more teacher based then student based. Everybody that asked me if I was there asked me if I was there supporting the teachers, not if I was there to demand the rights of the children be respected.”
Jackson stated that he believed the primary focus was “Politics. Chicago Public Schools and the Mayor’s office trying to bully the CTU … the money is what was important.” He brought up that Chicago “is still dealing with the effects of closing 50 schools and nobody has addressed that.” As far as the outcome of the strike, he said, “Everything the teachers were fighting for was already included in the contract and they’re still not enforcing it.”
In the end, the city agreed to install a nurse and social worker in every school, guaranteed that social workers and nurses will not be outside contractors, cap class sizes, provide a 16 percent pay increase over five years for teachers as well as a 40 percent raise for teaching assistants, clerks and other low-paid workers and hiring of staff at schools with high numbers of students who are homeless, according to Vox. Several of the Union’s demands remain unmet, including guaranteed 30 minutes of preparation time for elementary teachers before classes begin and maintaining a five-year period contract for Chicago teachers.
With both the CTU and the city having to compromise in the end, children can now return to school and get back to learning. Lightfoot originally made it clear that she was not going to allow teachers to make up any of the days missed, but on the last day of negotiations, she agreed to five more paid days of school added to the calendar. The effects of the contract will take several years to play out – but it can be said that the demands of the teachers reverberated around the United States and is inspiring unions across the country to make larger demands of their negotiating bodies.