Nov 11, 2019
After a passionate, hour-long debate on October 30th, the Teachers Unions’ House of Delegates voted 364 to 242 to end the Chicago schools strike—though only if Mayor Lightfoot agreed to make up the eleven strike days. Lightfoot agreed to make up just five of the days, but nonetheless, the teachers went back to work on Friday, November 1.
It should be obvious that no one strike in one city—even one as large as Chicago—can roll back the decades of attacks on public education, which have been national in scope. Yet the strike won certain gains, in the kinds of unclear ways that are often written into contracts. Every school is supposed to have a nurse and a social worker—but only by the end of the 5-year contract. Schools with the highest numbers of homeless students are supposed to get funds to hire two people to help those students access services. Class sizes are supposed to have enforceable caps under the contract. And school support workers won raises and credit for education credentials.
Teachers had to strike because the mayor was not willing to give any of these things before. The issue of wages for teachers was essentially settled before the strike.
If 40% of delegates voted no with the idea of keeping the strike going, it was because there were a number of other things they thought were worth staying out for. This started with preparation time for elementary schools. In the House of Delegates meeting, where every school has at least one representative, a number of high school teachers expressed that their schools were willing to continue to fight to win more prep time for elementary teachers. Teachers also wanted language in the contract to block the mayor from closing schools. And teachers were reluctant to sign the five-year-long contract demanded by the mayor.
The final say is still in the hands of the teachers and support staff who will vote on the contract, though the fact that teachers have already returned to their schools, after the House of Delegates voted to end the strike, can make it less likely that people will vote no. Still, school workers will have to decide if they are willing to accept this deal.
What’s important about the strike, finally, is not the gains as such in the contract. By showing they were ready to fight, school workers put Lightfoot on notice to back off.
Most importantly, school staff and teachers, through their strike, felt some of the power people can have when they organize to carry out activity together. They certainly made their strike known by organizing spirited picket lines throughout the city, with high participation rates. Teachers and staff got to know each other on these picket lines, organized barbecues, songs, picnics, and neighborhood marches encompassing multiple schools.
The experience of solidarity is always an important resource for the future.