32,500 Chicago teachers, school workers strike for new contract

By Ilona Gersh
and Samantha Hamlin
November 4, 2019

CHICAGO — Some 25,000 Chicago Teachers Union members and 7,500 school support staff — custodians, bus aides, special education assistants, teaching assistants and more, members of Service Employees International Union Local 73 — walked out here Oct. 17. They set up spirited pickets outside all 514 public schools in the district and organized sizable protests throughout the city.

Teachers are fighting for smaller class sizes and more support staff like nurses, social workers and librarians. They want a three-year contract with a 15% wage increase and better teachers’ health insurance.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the city of Chicago offered teachers a 16% raise in salaries stretched out over a five-year period, but have refused to address class sizes or staffing issues. Lightfoot, who was elected earlier this year, calling herself a “progressive,” has accused the striking teachers of contributing to higher crime rates in the city. She says their strike allows students — who must all be criminals — to be on the streets.

“At my school this year, we have a first-second grade, a third-fourth grade, and a fifth-sixth grade,” Theresa Ibrahim, special ed teacher for 33 years, told the Militant. “There’s split levels, with at least 30 students in each classroom. Some even have more than 30. We’re fighting for smaller class sizes.

“Also, we used to have 30 minutes built-in time to prepare before school,” she said. Now they want to take that away. “Teachers have to come early and stay late to prepare. We’re asking for those paid 30 minutes back too.”

Martha Rivera, a bilingual coordinator with 21 years teaching, said, “We’re out here because we don’t have enough resources for the students with special needs. They don’t have support.

“If you don’t have a nurse what are kids with allergies and conditions like asthma supposed to do? There’s a nurse at our school only one day a week,” she said. Fewer than 115 school nurses have to cover over 500 schools.

This was the first time the teachers and the 7,500 SEIU Local 73 members have gone on strike together. This makes both stronger.

Many school workers are part time and have a hard time getting by. “There is no reason why a bus aide should have to get two or three more jobs in order to survive,” SEIU Local 73 President Dian Palmer said the day before the strike. Support staff workers are fighting for higher wages and to stop the city’s practice of pulling them off their jobs to fill in on other work.

The union is also demanding Chicago Public Schools stop contracting out support jobs. “There is no reason why custodians should be struggling for resources while Aramark and Sodexo receive millions of dollars from the school district,” Palmer said. Aramark and Sodexo workers don’t have a union.

Workers need our own party

CTU officials complain that the new mayor — who ran as a friend of labor with support by some unions — isn’t carrying through on her campaign promises. At a Labor Day rally Lightfoot had claimed “Labor will always have a partner in the Mayor’s Office.”

“Candidate Lightfoot ran on a platform calling for equity and educational justice — including a nurse, a social worker and a librarian in every school — all proposals her negotiating team rejected,” an Oct. 21 CTU news release said.

“But reliance on either the Democratic or Republican Parties for public workers to make gains is a losing proposition,” Dan Fein, who ran as Socialist Workers Party candidate against Lightfoot, told the Militant. “From West Virginia and Arizona to New Jersey and Illinois, teachers and other school workers have been fighting both Democratic and Republican government attempts to slash school budgets, cut health and pension benefits for workers, and limit wage increases.”

“We can only rely on our own strength,” Fein said. “Working people need our own political party to fight for the interests of workers and all the oppressed and exploited. And to chart a course to take political power out of the hands of the capitalist rulers and their twin parties.”