Chicago Teachers Strike for Children’s Services and Affordable Housing

October 18, 2019

Teachers in Chicago aren't just committed to fighting for higher wages. They say the city has the money to support its students and teachers outside of the classroom.

Teachers in Chicago aren't just committed to fighting for higher wages. They say the city has the money to support its students and teachers outside of the classroom.


Teachers protest during a rally and march on the first day of a teacher strike in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. October 17, 2019.  REUTERS/John Gress

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us.

Chicago teachers are striking once again; and not just for higher wages, but for affordable housing, for smaller class sizes, and–almost as important as anything else–for services for the children they teach. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, elected in part as an advocate for teachers and education, says the city can’t afford any of these new ideas and that affordable housing will not be part of the negotiations. Today, teachers rallied in Chicago. They’re still out there.

And one of our guests was there; Eric Blanc, who is a former high school teacher and author of Red State Revolt: The Teacher’s Strike Wave and Working Class Politics. He writes for Jacobin, The Nation, and The Guardian. And our other guest is in the middle of negotiations; Jen Johnson taught high school history before becoming a staff member at the Chicago Teachers Union in 2014. She’s currently the CTU’s Chief of Staff and has tied teaching and activism as part of a larger struggle for social and racial justice in Chicago and around our country. And Jen and Eric, welcome. Good to have you both with us.

JENNIFER JOHNSON: Thank you.

ERIC BLANC: Thanks for having me on.

MARC STEINER: Great to have you. I’m glad you could make it. I know you’re both in middle of many, many things here so let me just start very quickly, Eric, bring this up to date with what’s happening at this rally that is taking place as we speak that you walked away from to join us here on the air.

ERIC BLANC: Yeah, it was remarkable. There were tens of thousands of educators. We’re talking about teachers, custodians, all the workers that make a school run, together with a lot of parents, a lot of students, community members, marching in red, a lot of banners, and really making it clear to the city and to the mayor that this strike is strong and it’s not going anywhere and that the mayor has to listen to the demands of the teachers and the school workers if this strike is going to end like we all want it to.

MARC STEINER: So Jen, we had some conversations yesterday with folks who were on the UAW strike. They were also wearing red. Is red coming back into fashion for unions and strikes again, Jen? Before we get serious here.

JENNIFER JOHNSON: I think we brought red back in 2012, right?

MARC STEINER: That’s right, you did. Yes, you did.

JENNIFER JOHNSON: Cool.

MARC STEINER: So let’s talk a bit about the heart of what’s going on here and why teachers walked and why you called this strike. And I’ll start with Jen and we’ll go to Eric. Because it seems, when people look at this, we always think of teachers as just striking for money for themselves. But there seems in this walkout, the city’s already offered, I’ve read already offered you a 16% raise, if I read that right, over a period of years. But is this something deeper than that? So talk a bit about that.

JENNIFER JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, so, unfortunately here in Chicago, our school district is under mayoral control. And that came about because of a 1995 law, which actually also restricted the subjects that are mandatory for the district to bargain with us over, and that restricts what we have a right to strike over. So we are striking on legal issues. We have qualms with the pay raise offer, which is over a five-year contract. We have issues because it doesn’t address all of the things that we need in our schools. We absolutely need changes in our working conditions, to teacher evaluation. Our paraprofessionals, who are typically black and brown women, need real substantial raises. These are folks who are still living in poverty wages in many cases and their children themselves qualify for free and reduced lunch. So we absolutely do have issues with pay and benefits and the offer that’s on the table.

And we know that our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions and we thought we had a new mayor who agreed with us. She ran on this idea of providing basic education support to all of our students. She talked about librarians, nurses, social workers. And so we feel like we were walking into a situation where we could bargain a contract for the students that we serve every day. And particularly because we have students who live in high poverty and 90% of our students are students of color. We shouldn’t have to fight for these things, but because we serve students of color who live in low-economic situation, we don’t get everything we need and we have to fight for it. So despite restrictions, we’ve been able to push because it’s morally just, it’s equitable to provide our students the things that we’re trying to bargain for.

And so we’ve been able to push the city and the district to actually have conversations with us over non-mandatory subjects. Like I said, we have qualms with the pay and benefits. Our teachers work very, very hard. Our veteran educators are due for some increases as well. But we absolutely believe that our schools must be fully staffed, and we must address things like reducing class size in schools where you have 40 kindergartners in a classroom. That should be unacceptable, and we feel that this mayor should be on the same page with us. And so we’re hoping that we can get a lot of these wins in writing in our contract.

MARC STEINER: As a former teacher, I can attest to 42 kids in a classroom is absolute insanity when you’re trying to really focus on the kids’ needs. That is no joke.

JENNIFER JOHNSON: That’s right.

MARC STEINER: But before we turn to you, Eric, let’s play this clip of the mayor, Lori Lightfoot, and what she had to say today. And, Eric, I’ll go to you next, and let’s wrestle with what she had to say here.

LORI LIGHTFOOT: No. The fact is there is no more money. Period. There’s not really been that much conversation around compensation at the bargaining table. Keep in mind, CPS is just on the other side of the line from insolvency. We are borrowing $700 million every year. When you’re doing that, your finances are still in a precarious state. Yes, we’ve made great strides. I’m very thankful for the work that a lot of people put into it, not the least of which is the members of the General Assembly who changed the funding formula, but CPS is not flushed with cash.

MARC STEINER: So Eric, let me let you jump in. You’ve been covering this strike. And as Jen Johnson said earlier, people are a little shocked that she’s taken this hard stance given how she ran for mayor. But talk about how you would respond, or what your observations are, from what she said.

ERIC BLANC: Yeah. The truth is there is money. This is a priorities crisis, not a resources crisis. And it’s really unfortunate that the mayor has taken this tack, which is really the classic excuse to not give demands to workers and students when they need it. The Chicago Teacher’s Union has made it clear, there is research, that in fact there’s over a billion more dollars yearly in funds for the schools now, and so the question is, why is this money not going towards the students that need it most, towards the schools that need it most? And I think the answer is, unfortunately, right now, the mayor is bending to pressure of big business, the political machines, and that’s why it’s taken a strike, and it’s taken a movement from below to really raise the issue that it’s going to have to be more action to force the mayor to listen to the demands of students and teachers.

So I think that the reality is across the country, just like in Chicago, it’s not an economic crisis. It’s not a resources crisis. It’s a question of political will. And I think one of the exciting things about this strike wave that we’ve seen beginning in 2012 in Chicago spreading to West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, more recently, Los Angeles, is that it’s saying, “Why is the money going to the rich people? Why do the rich keep on having tax breaks while we can’t fund our schools?” And I think it’s really putting this question to the fore of the political debate.

MARC STEINER: And Jen, let me bring you back in here and talk about how you begin to pay for this. And we can go back to the question of affordable housing in a moment–which I think is part of the key to this–that she’s refusing to deal with, which I want to talk about in some depth. But I mean, when you talk about the money, she’s saying that the schools are already in debt; they have to borrow this money. But then I’ve read other arguments in the press about they should re-institute the head tax–which you can describe–in Chicago to raise hundreds of millions, if not a billion dollars. And people talk about a luxury tax on people who make over $100,000. It could bring in 1.4 billion. How popular are those ideas, and how does that fit into your struggle?

JENNIFER JOHNSON: Yeah. I think we’ve been trying for the last many years to encourage the city to listen to organizations that we’re a part of and that we work with; like Grassroots Collaborative, who’s done a ton of research on real estate transfer tax, as has the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, corporate head tax, TIFF surplus. We’ve really tried to make the case that this isn’t about “there’s no money.” It’s about the choices that we’re making. We thought we had a city leader who understood that. Instead, it seems like we have more of the same. We thought she was going to try to reverse course on the police academy that got $95 million. And then she said, “Well, actually, I think it needs more.” We thought she was going to pump the brakes on the nearly $2 billion investment in Lincoln Yards, a playground for the rich. Instead, she kept it moving and removed the barriers to it and it’s happening. We think she could look at declaring TIFF surplus. We settled a previous contract through an infusion of TIFF dollars and money in the school’s budget from the state. She’s acknowledging that and she’s saying it’s all allocated. Well, it’s not all allocated.

So we think between the money from the state and other solutions like TIFF surplus, like enacting city policy, she can commit to, over time, investing heavily in our schools. I think we tend to take the position that we’re going to ask for everything our kids need, but we’re also rational, reasonable, and well-researched people. We understand that just because we’ve got $2 billion worth of investment that it’s not going to happen overnight. And so what can she do this year, next year, and then hopefully in the final year of a contract, we think that she needs to make a down payment and then talk to us about how we’re going to keep moving that goalpost. We’re bargaining, we’ve moved on our positions, but we’re standing firm that deep commitments to staffing and class size reduction must be included. There must be enforcement and there must be a mechanism of phasing in either through schools or over time. So we think it’s doable and we’ve seen previous strikes come to settlement or previous contract bargain come to a settlement by finding money. And so it’s a matter of priorities and choices.

MARC STEINER: So I’m going to turn to another clip here. WGN is a station in Chicago. Like Fox, it’s a very conservative station in their outlook and their whole network is. But this is what they posited on air. And I raise this because these are kinds of things that teachers unions and others will have to justify in this battle when this is kind of what’s thrown out there for the public to digest. Let’s watch this.

SPEAKER: …Who have grown up in Chicago have become accustomed to the threat of a teacher strike every couple of years. You may be wondering, do Chicago teachers have it better or worse than their peers elsewhere?

SPEAKER 2: A Chicago Tribune analysis of state and national salary data shows that the district’s teachers already out-earn most of their public school colleagues. When adjusted for cost of living, the starting salary at CPS is also higher than those at the country’s other large public school districts in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Miami, according to data compiled by the National Council on Teacher Quality. And the changes made in LA cost more than $400 million over the next three years. District officials say they’re going to be using assigned reserve money and an estimated increase in state revenue to cover all of that.

SPEAKER: Good perspective. Thank you, Dana.

MARC STEINER: Good perspective. Eric? I mean, you’ve been covering this across the country; in your book as well. I’m just curious what your response would be to WGN.

ERIC BLANC: Yeah. The reality is that teachers everywhere, including Chicago, are struggling to survive, particularly in big cities where the rent is way higher than in a lot of other parts of the country. It’s very difficult to pay rent, let alone find a home. So the reality is that across the board, whether it’s Chicago, LA, New York, teachers are not making exorbitant salaries. It’s a ridiculous idea. And, in fact, the fact that they’re resorting to this type of really smear at this point, I don’t think it’s catching. The reality is that parents know that their teachers are not living in luxury. They see it every day. They’re their neighbors, so I think the dynamic on the ground now is that those on top really have lost the narrative, they’re on the defensive.

Every strike we’ve seen since 2012 and more recently has gotten overwhelming public support, the support of the Chicago public, that just even a conservative newspaper researched, shows the majority of people support the teachers. So I don’t really think this is going to catch. The reality is that all working people deserve more including teachers. And I would also add that this isn’t just a teacher’s strike, this is also a strike of the members of local 73 of SCIU, who, for them, they’re making poverty wages. A lot of the special education workers, custodians, they have to take two or three jobs. So the idea that this is a strike of greedy educators is just, it misses even the basic reality on the ground.

MARC STEINER: So Jen, and so this is unity between these different parts of the workers who work in the education system in Chicago. And so talk about again about the push for affordable housing, which the mayor clearly said numerous times now that is not going to be a part of negotiations, is a separate discussion, she won’t do it with the teachers’ unions or the other unions. So how do you resolve that? How big an aspect of this walkout is that?

JENNIFER JOHNSON: Yeah. And first can I just say that the Chicago Sun Times rated Laurie’s claim about teacher pay as mostly false, right? Teachers don’t go into teaching to become rich, but they do expect reasonable compensation since it’s a tough job. And like Eric said, our paraprofessional wages have really stagnated and those are black and brown women who are anchors of the community. They live in the communities they serve, and they’ve got to make a livable wage and their children ought not to be on free and reduced lunch. It’s part of that, for that reason, that we fought on and continue to fight for affordable housing. We work with great community allies like CCH, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Logan Square Neighborhood Association. We work with people in communities where people are getting pushed out. Gentrification is real in this city. Rents are rising. It’s becoming incredibly unaffordable to buy a home, and that means we’re losing students.

Chicago public schools need to play a role in stabilizing the city for the black and brown students that it serves. They should be a district that are looking out for the families and wanting to keep our school’s doors open and providing maximum services. We’ve seen, I believe, over a hundred thousand black, I’m sorry, I think it’s 100,000 black residents leave on the city of Chicago over the last decade. That’s because of the crisis of violence, unemployment, unaffordable housing, and under resourced schools. So we believe it’s very much connected to our fight for public education. If we don’t have families living in the city, we don’t have enrollment at our schools, and we’ve seen enrollment go down, so it’s mutually beneficial for us. We, as educators, have to live in the city. We want to be able to afford homes. We want to have students to teach.

We have nearly 17,000 homeless students in Chicago public schools right now and there’s a tiny office of maybe four or five staff at the central office who are there to do work around that, and then counselors, teachers, and paraprofessionals pick up an extra voluntary duty and get a small stipend in order to help homeless students. We said that’s not okay and so we’ve actually pushed the district to think more broadly about what should be included in a contract and that you can put a memorialized contract language on housing. They’ve moved on this and they’ve been willing to staff a small number of full time positions in schools where students have the highest rates of homelessness and we’ve said that’s a good start. We should look at those numbers. We should really make sure that we’re moving towards addressing further those student needs and find ways that we can work with the city, and say, the department of housing, in order to advocate for solutions. This is a part of our fight for public education, but also racial justice. Our schools serve black and brown students.

MARC STEINER: So before we turn it back to Eric for kind of a closing thought on the national perspective here that he has written about, what are you all prepared to do? I mean, one of the problems here is that people look at teacher’s strikes and go, “Oh, the kids are out of school and nobody’s learning. The kids are going to fall behind,” but you need some of these demands to be met, if not all of them. So what are your thoughts about how far this might go and how long you might be out to get the demands that clearly the city is really recalcitrant to give up on, it seems anyway?

JENNIFER JOHNSON: Sure. I mean, I think the demonstration showed that people are very resolved. This is not a fight that we take lightly. And I have to say that I’ve now been through a few of these strikes, one open-ended in 2012, and then our one day strike in 2016. And honestly, I know that the next generation of young people has learned a great deal from these strikes. Sure, they’re outside of the school building, but they’re learning incredible lessons about civic engagement, about racial injustice and capitalism. They’re learning about how their parents and their teachers and their other loved ones are willing to stand up and fight for them. I have former students who I’ve met on picket lines. In 2012, a student that I taught in high school was in her first year of teaching and I ran into her at a rally at Marshall, on the west side, and she was there on strike in her first couple of weeks of teaching. And she ran up to me and hugged me and was just so excited to see me and so proud to be standing now as one of her fellow educators fighting for what’s right for her students.

I have another former student who came back to Chicago this week and she went to picket lines. She’s studying to be potentially a psychologist. We’ve actually educated a generation of young people about what it takes to fight back, and we learned from our elders, right? We’ve got members of our bargaining team who were here during the Jackie Vaughn years, when the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike very frequently in the 1980s. And so they’re learning. We’re going to be out there as long as it takes to win real just contracts for our students and our schools. I don’t know exactly how long that’s going to take. We’re bargaining today and we’ll bargain until it’s done. Really how fast and how long it goes depends on the district and the city. They need to respond to our proposals and show us substantial investment in addressing our students’ needs.

MARC STEINER: And so Eric, I’m coming back to you before we close out here very quickly to talk about this from a national perspective. I mean, it seems to me the teachers unions have really been in the forefront of generating a lot of energy into the union movement in this country, this being another example. So talk about that in the national perspective of what these teachers’ actions actually mean.

ERIC BLANC: Yeah. We’re in the midst of the most important strike wave in decades. And that’s really important because if working people in the labor movement are going to win, we need to be able to bring back the strike. And that was a weapon that was abandoned for a very long time as the labor movement was, at best, lobbying the Democratic Party. And so really what CTU in 2012 and now again has brought back is the idea of a bottom up grassroots democratic militancy. That’s how we win. And more broadly speaking, is this type of movement, which is going to be necessary if we’re going to really win the big changes for our school that we need, the demand that CTU raised in the slogan is fighting for the schools that our students deserve.

But I think we’ve seen now with the trajectory, for instance, of Mayor Lightfoot that just these promises when running for election aren’t enough, and it raises the question then for those presidential candidates of the Democratic Party who are running in 2020, everybody’s saying good things about education now. So really, what is it going to take? Are we going to have somebody who’s going to just backtrack again when they get elected? I personally think that you need to have somebody who’s a movement candidate, who’s supporting the struggles, people like Bernie Sanders who’s raising the question of a moratorium on charter schools. That’s what it’s going to take if we’re going to really see the changes and not more of the status quo.

MARC STEINER: Eric Blanc, thank you for joining us. And Jen Johnson, good luck with negotiations. Thank you for joining us. Look forward to talking to you more in the coming week and see how this resolves. Good luck with this.

JENNIFER JOHNSON: Thank you.

ERIC BLANC: Thanks.

MARC STEINER: We’ll be standing with you on the air. And I’m Marc Steiner here with The Real News Network. We’ll stay on top of the teacher’s strike and more. Take care.