Images by Love & Struggle Photos
Introduction by Rebecca Burns
For more than a week now, more than thirty-two thousand Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teachers and staff have been on strike. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is demanding that the school district writes a guarantee into their contract to hire more nurses, librarians and social workers, as well as smaller class sizes. The night before teachers began their strike, veteran teacher Moselean Parker described how, in her twenty-five years of teaching, “One thing I’m sure of is that schools on the South and West sides don’t have what they need—my black and brown students don’t have what they need.” She continued “Give us the books, give us the psychologists, give us the social workers, give us the nurses. I’m not going to sit down until we provide our students with the right to learn.”
Staffing for these critical positions in CPS is severely out of joint with recommendations by professional organizations. While the National Association of School Nurses recommends one school nurse for every 750 students, for example, in Chicago there is just one for every 2,800 students. Some schools have a nurse in the building just one day a week. This week, parent Catherine Henchek wrote an op-ed describing how the school district had told her that her special-needs son could not receive his daily anti-seizure medication unless she came in to administer it herself.
This most recent action continues in the tradition of the CTU’s landmark 2012 strike, when teachers rallied under the slogan, “fighting for the schools our students deserve.” That strike transformed Chicago’s political landscape and inspired a wave of political action by teachers nationwide. And this year, for the first time, the CTU is being joined on the picket lines by special education assistants, security guard, bus aides and custodians who are members of a separate union, SEIU 73. More than half of those workers make less than $36,000, with many working second or third jobs.
On Wednesday, the two unions diverted their morning picket lines downtown, turning the Loop into a sea of red and purple. As teachers rallied outside City Hall, Mayor Lori Lightfoot gave the first budget address of her term, which began in May. At the outset of the strike, Lightfoot said that there was no money available to meet teachers’ demands, a position she repeated on Wednesday. The unions have repeatedly called attention to what the city does have money for: More than $2 billion in public subsidies earmarked for new mega-developments, not to mention the billions that Chicago was prepared to hand over to Amazon last year, should it have been chosen as the site of the company’s hew headquarters.
Negotiations are continuing on some the union’s key issues, and both sides reported movement on Thursday. Still, it seems likely the strike could continue into next week. At a rally following the mayor’s budget address on Wednesday, CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates struck a hopeful note. “Our school communities deserve everything that we are fighting for,” she told the crowd. “Ten years ago, we said that we were going to lead the fight for the schools that students deserve…What I come here to tell you today, is that we are one step closer to winning what we deserve.”