Lightfoot administration ratchets up pressure on Chicago teachers to end the walkout

By Alexander Fangmann
22 October 2019

The 32,000 teachers and staff of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) continue to strike for a fourth day on Tuesday. Fed up with overcrowded and filthy classrooms lacking basic educational necessities, stagnant wages and practically non-existent support services, CPS teachers are determined to win the resources they and their students require.

The ruling class in Chicago, however, is determined to prevent any of these demands from being realized. In a joint letter to Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Jesse Sharkey, Chicago’s Democratic Party Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Janice Jackson called on the union to “end the strike” and return teachers to the classroom “while bargaining continues.”

In the letter, Lightfoot and Jackson disingenuously appeal to the “hardships” faced by students and their families as they miss classes, extracurricular activities and even meals provided by the school system, completely ignoring the hardships these same students and families face as a direct result of their austerity policies. Claiming that CPS had “put it in writing” changes to class sizes and staffing issues, as teachers have demanded, the letter suggests that it is only the union’s “approval process” that is holding up the conclusion of a deal.

Later, at an afternoon press conference, Lightfoot expanded on the comments in her letter, saying, “Beyond what we’ve put on the table, there is no more money.” She also lashed out at the attention placed by striking teachers on the city’s gift of over a billion dollars of public funding on the massive Lincoln Yards development. “We cannot strike a deal based on the illusion that there is Lincoln Yards money available that we can just shift somewhere else.” Dismissively, she said that teachers’ demands would cost $2.4 billion and increase the schools budget by 40 percent.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (AP Photo/Jim Young, File)

Reports of the letter and Lightfoot’s press conference came just hours after Sharkey told reporters at Gray Elementary on the Northwest Side that a resolution was in sight and might take only “a day or two” following what the union characterized as productive bargaining sessions over the weekend.

By evening, Sharkey’s tone shifted. Having initially said, “I don’t see any reason why it can’t happen later this week,” Sharkey stated at an evening CTU press conference, “I find my hopes [for a quick resolution] dashed.” He further said, “Unless there’s a change at the top of this city in regards to their willingness to make meaningful changes, we’re not likely seeing a quick settlement to the current strike.”

CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates referred to Lightfoot’s letter as “a line in the sand” and urged the mayor to treat the union “as partners, as co-equals in educating students in Chicago.” Listing all the aspects of social and political life the mayor controls, Davis Gates said, “The mayor holds all the power, we are asking for being partners in making the city better.”

In relation to issues of class sizes and staffing, the Lightfoot and Jackson letter says, “We put commitments in writing on Thursday and Friday through counteroffers to lower primary grade class sizes in high-poverty schools, and to provide every school with at least one nurse and one social worker within five years.”

According to union figures, the proposal on class sizes would only affect 20 percent of overenrolled classes from kindergarten through third grade, and only at the most impoverished schools. Other grades and high schools would receive no relief. CTU has been vocal about demanding enforceability of class size caps through the contract. However, CPS routinely violates already existing state laws on class sizes, meaning that most of these violations will likely simply be transferred to the union grievance process, never to be heard from again.

Despite the posturing of the CTU leadership, they are working furiously behind the scenes to bring the strike to a conclusion. Almost immediately following Lightfoot’s press conference, the CTU announced they were inviting Jesse Jackson to the bargaining table as a mediator. Additionally, at their evening press conference, the CTU said only its officers would be attending the bargaining sessions on Tuesday, and not the 40-person “big bargaining team.” Portrayed as a move to have bargaining team members bolstering the picket lines, it sets up CTU leaders and Lightfoot’s team to make rapid movement toward a deal.

Davis Gates’ comments during the press conference were also quite revealing. Admitting the union’s demands had to be tempered, she said, “We have said we that we would phase it in. We understand that you can’t do everything at once, and we are willing to work with you on those things.” On the issue of class sizes in particular, Davis Gates said, “We agree that equity has to be a part of it.” In other words, the union is perfectly willing to accept class size limits that affect only the most impoverished schools, and to push off the demand for nurses and other staff into the future. But the proposals have to appear legitimate, even if the union intends to work with CPS to make them meaningless.

To fight back, workers must begin now creating rank-and-file committees to take this strike into their own hands. These committees must put forth and fight for what educators and students need, not what the CTU or Lightfoot administration tells them is affordable.

To provide the resources needed to improve schools and neighborhoods, eradicate poverty and raise the material and cultural level of the whole population, teachers must carry out a frontal assault on the wealth and power of the super-rich, to radically redistribute the wealth created by working people to meet their needs.