When children with disabilities go to Chicago’s public schools, people like Jonathan Williams help them get through their days. Williams is a full-time special-education classroom assistant, or SECA, working mostly with medically fragile students. “I get them to the restroom if they can’t utilize the restrooms themselves. I would say that within the population I serve, around 80 percent we have to assist with the restroom,” he told New York. “When it comes down to learning, if they can’t physically move their head or physically move their hands, we have to make sure that we modify the proper tools that they have.”
“I love my job. I love my students. You come to work every day and you expect something different every day. You understand what it really means for a person to be depended upon,” he explained. But Williams, a member of SEIU Local 73, walked out on strike this Thursday. Though Williams, and SECAs in general, are essential to special-education classrooms, he told New York that he makes only around $39,000 a year. His salary must support three children and a wife with multiple sclerosis. The task would be impossible, he said, if the family didn’t rent out a four-unit building for supplemental income. “It’s unfortunate for my other peers, who don’t have that option or who don’t have the support to purchase real estate or have something other than the job that’s taking up their whole day,” he added. Other SECAs work two or even three jobs to keep themselves and their families afloat.
SEIU Local 73, which represents school support staff like bus aides, custodians, and SECAs, says its members are among the lowest-paid public workers in the city. But their grievances aren’t anomalies. When 7,500 of its members gathered on picket lines this Thursday, they weren’t alone. Members of the Chicago Teachers Union also walked out on strike this morning. Combined, the striking workers number over 32,000.
For Lori Lightfoot, the city’s new mayor and a Democrat, a dual strike is a nightmarish scenario. A strike by CTU alone would have been among the city’s biggest since 2012. At that time, the union stayed out on strike for a week, protesting low pay, unwieldy class sizes, and the policies of then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, an ally of the charter-school movement. If the teachers’-strike wave that erupted in West Virginia and spread across the nation had a discernible and singular root, it’s probably Chicago and the strike of 2012. But a dual strike, coordinated by two of the city’s most powerful public-sector unions, has no precedent. Not only will it temporarily close the city’s public-school system; it undermines a promise central to Lightfoot’s mayoral campaign.
Lightfoot ran as the progressive antidote to the policies of Emanuel and Mayor Richard Daley before him. She pledged to clean up corruption, rein in the city’s violent police department, and work amicably with CTU, and while that wasn’t enough to win the powerful union’s endorsement, teachers told New York that some members supported her campaign anyway. “I’m not Rahm,” the new mayor told the union last September.
Thanks in part to CTU and SEIU Local 73, Lightfoot’s progressive credentials now look less robust. SEIU says its members currently make poverty wages, and, in a statement, the union slammed Lightfoot for missing a chance to “fulfill her campaign promises to bring educational equity to Chicago students and bring economic justice to the workers who work in the Chicago Public Schools.” CTU, citing the city’s high cost of living and an estimated 16,000 homeless students, wants its new contract to address fair housing. The union has asked for a ban on evictions during the school year, housing assistance for teachers, and, according to Labor Notes, new funding to help homeless students and families. Other city workers already receive housing assistance. Nevertheless, Lightfoot publicly criticized the union for incorporating fair housing in its demands, on the grounds that a labor contract is not an “appropriate place for the city to legislate its affordable-housing policy.” In a statement released on Wednesday, CTU president Jesse Sharkey blamed the mayor for the stalled negotiations. “Mayor Lightfoot has the power to ensure that the equity and justice she promised our students as a candidate becomes the norm and not the exception in our schools — yet she’s failed to bring those values to the bargaining table,” Sharkey said. Lightfoot, in other words, has yet to persuade either union that she is truly serious about making Chicago a more egalitarian city.
Lightfoot’s labor troubles are part of a broader challenge for the mayor. Her most recent predecessors, Emanuel and Daley, slashed funding for the city’s public services. During his time as mayor, Emanuel closed dozens of public schools, most of them located in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods. He antagonized teachers further by expanding the number of privately operated charter schools in the city. Daley too closed a number of public schools and consolidated others, citing budgetary constraints and poor performance as his rationale. But the policy, designed by Arne Duncan before he became Barack Obama’s secretary of Education, did almost nothing to improve the school system’s overall academic performance. Lightfoot inherited an unenviable situation from both men and so did her constituents. Decades of austerity have stripped the city’s public services to their bones.
If CTU’s grievances sound familiar, austerity may also help explain the sense of déjà vu. The union is still asking for higher pay, smaller class sizes, and better wraparound resources — like school nurses, social workers, and librarians — because schools still have needs the city hasn’t met. “What we’re asking for is really necessary to give Chicago students the schools they deserve,” said Rebecca Reddicliffe, who teaches second grade at Chavez Elementary School. “I think every child deserves a nurse in their school, and I think that we need more social workers and counselors for students. We don’t come anywhere close to the suggested ratio, and I think that that is an injustice.” CPS has made some progress in reducing overcrowding, but at many schools, average class sizes still exceed the city’s recommended caps. CTU says a quarter of the city’s elementary-school students learn in overcrowded classrooms; that figure jumps to 35 percent for high-school students. One math teacher told a local CBS affiliate that her classes range from 32 to 37 students. The union also says the district has a nursing shortage, and parents themselves have complained that students often receive uneven and inadequate medical care at school.
Consider CTU’s demands alongside those put forward by SEIU Local 73 and the strategy behind Thursday’s strike becomes clear. Both SEIU Local 73 and CTU represent workers charged with making sure public spaces remain truly public, that the city’s schools provide enrichment for everyone. In this way, their members carry on a fight that teachers launched in 2012. “In 2012, it was much larger than conventional aspects of bargaining, where you talk about a number of workplace-related issues,” explained Robert Bruno, a professor of labor relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the co-author of a book on the 2012 teachers’ strike, A Fight for the Soul of Public Education. “The subsequent strike was about the defense and empowerment of the role of public institutions, in this case, public education.”
Bruno and his co-author, Steven Ashby, concluded that the strike had worked. “Some of the bigger and more systemic changes that the teachers wanted to bring, they didn’t accomplish in 2012,” Bruno said. “But the reason why 2012 is so important is that this is when you first see the teachers union reconceptualize how it’s going to use the collective-bargaining process. Now it’s going to be used to lead a social movement, and it’s going to be to bring about some larger public good. We really want to have a say in changing the way schools are organized and governed.”
“They probably got more of those bigger changes in 2016 than they did in 2012,” he added. “But it was in 2012 that they really put these issues front and center in the dispute.” CTU owes its evolution into a more militant — and successful — union to the internal organizing efforts of the union’s left-wing Caucus of Rank and File Educators; both Sharkey, the union’s current president, and his predecessor, Karen Lewis, belong to CORE. Their broad emphasis on systemic inequality is visible in each of the union’s major victories. The 2012 strike warded off an Emanuel proposal to link teacher pay to merit, the Chicago Tribune reported at the time, in addition to pay raises and assurances that laid-off teachers have hiring preference within the district. In 2016, after a one-day walkout, the union won funding for the creation of 55 community schools, publicly run institutions that provide GED courses and some health services in addition to regular K–12 education.
As the public sphere contracted, the private sphere flourished. Workers and low-income city residents, meanwhile, haven’t fared so well. Charter schools are still a major union grievance, but there are other sources of tension: CTU has long criticized the Chicago Public Schools for outsourcing some wraparound services, like counseling and nursing, to private contractors; the school system is “cutting corners with private contracts, which fail to save money and have serious health impacts on kids,” the union said in a report quoted by the Chicago Tribune. In its own press releases, SEIU Local 73 singles out two large corporations, Sodexo and Aramark, as examples of privatization gone wrong. Since at least 2014, both companies have received tens of millions of dollars to manage the city’s school custodians, many of them unionized. But buildings are frequently filthy, a trend the union blames on private contractors. Children tend to be messy, for instance, but SEIU says Sodexo and Aramark often give custodians Swiffer Jets instead of mops to clean up vomit and diarrhea. That’s a health hazard, and it isn’t just dangerous for students. Chicago’s austerity regime rests on the backs of public workers, many of them low income and vulnerable themselves.
“These are workers that are mostly black and brown, and they’re mostly women,” explained Dian Palmer, the president of SEIU 73. “A lot of them are heads of households that support their families and themselves in the district.” Unlike Jonathan Williams, most work part time. According to SEIU, the city often schedules them for less than 28 hours per week so workers aren’t eligible for health insurance. Wages are typically low. Larry Alcoff, the union’s lead negotiator with the city, said that unless they pick up additional work, the city’s bus aides make around $16,000 to $22,000 per school year. “We have stories of people who ended up living in their car for three months over the summer when they weren’t getting a paycheck,” he said. CTU members generally receive higher pay, but the city’s high cost of living makes wages a priority for members of both unions. Though CTU’s demands for affordable housing are distinct from those put forward by SEIU 73, the unions share a common enemy. They’re striking against austerity.
Lightfoot’s election isn’t the only evidence that change is coming to Chicago. Several democratic socialists now serve on the city council, which gives unions a reliable base of support and adds some pressure on Lightfoot. Charter schools still abound, but many charter educators are now unionized, and they’ve complained of low pay and overcrowding in their own workplaces. Last December, CTU launched the nation’s first-ever charter-school strike, which earned teachers at Acero schools better pay, smaller class sizes, a shortened workday more in line with standards at traditional city public schools. If the city hoped the charter schools would weaken CTU’s growing power, they were wrong. Another charter strike looms: Teachers at the Passages school have authorized a strike for October 22. By linking up with SEIU Local 73, the city’s teachers have thrown down the gauntlet. The strike is a fight for the city’s public future.
“I think the mayor should really understand what and why we’re fighting,” Williams said. “We’re fighting for a transformative contract.”