Education

Chicago teachers may test unions' 'social justice' strategy

A threatened strike by Chicago teachers would be the latest test of teachers' unions strategy to expand contract talks beyond members' pay or benefits and into broader classroom issues

A threatened strike by Chicago teachers would test a strategy employed by a growing number of urban teachers unions convinced that transforming contentious contract talks into discussions about class sizes and student services wins public support and can be a difference maker at the bargaining table.

Unions in left-leaning cities including Los Angeles, have made a renewed push to use the strategy this year, emboldened by strengthened public support for teachers and their unions amid 2018 walkouts and protests in conservative states. Chicago's last major teachers strike in 2012 also has been cited as early inspiration by other unions.

Now, Chicago teachers are returning to that strategy, aiming to get enforceable school district commitments on smaller class sizes and hiring more support staff. Without those and other commitments, they could begin a strike Thursday that would affect nearly 400,000 students.

If Chicago does strike, teachers around the country will be closely watching parents' response to a walkout based on the unions' "social justice" agenda beyond state school funding or teachers' pay, experts said.

"Right now, you're hard pressed to find a teacher's union that says we only want to bargain for the economic interest of our members," said Robert Bruno, a University of Illinois labor professor who has studied and written about the 2012 Chicago strike. "And that's why it's so hard to get a settlement."

City officials, though, argue contract talks are meant for employee wages and benefits, not questions of staffing or affordable housing.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot also has said the district's offer of a 16% raise over five years for teachers is fair and ensures the district can continue to improve its once dire financial state. The district also has committed to hiring more nurses, social workers and support staff over the next five years but opposes teachers' demand that be written into their contract.

After a change in union leadership in 2010, the Chicago teachers union partnered with other community groups working on poverty and crime. Teachers walked out for seven days in 2012, filling Chicago streets and using the bargaining process to force conversations on how those broader issues affected their students.

The Chicago union wasn't the first to use that strategy. But its leadership, including then-President Karen Lewis, acted when teachers nationwide felt unions' political power and clout had been severely weakened, said John Rogers, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"Chicago was a dramatic moment, when this set of ideas coalesced and was enacted and then caught the attention of other unions," Rogers said.

In the years since the 2012 Chicago strike, teachers clad in red have flooded state Capitols in right-to-work states including West Virginia to protest years of cutbacks in school funding.

The response to those protests reassured teachers of the public's support, said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association.

"It is about much more than pay," Lee said. "It's about ensuring that every student, not just a select few, has a great public education."

This year, unions in liberal-leaning cities including Denver, Los Angeles and Oakland, California, used contract talks to highlight class sizes and push back on charter schools.

The approach resulted in some victories: Los Angeles teachers got more money toward reducing class sizes and support staff hires; Denver teachers won changes to the district's pay scale; and Oakland's teachers got reduced class sizes.

Those changes still affect a school district's bottom line, and education funding in most states was never fully restored after the Great Recession, said Kency Nittler, director of teacher policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality.

"Advocating for and winning smaller class sizes means adding teachers, adding additional staff," Nettler said. "So it does feed back into this question of overall compensation from a district or administrator's perspective."

Staffing costs, including salary, health care and other benefits, remain districts' largest expense, said Thomas Bertrand, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards.

"When you begin to bargain issues like personnel or class levels, from a management side, you're now more hamstrung in managing up to 80% of your budget," he said. "It's a delicate balance."

Chicago Public Schools' finances have improved in recent years with help from higher property taxes and changes to Illinois' formula for funding schools.

A Civic Federation review of the district's 2020 budget, though, warned that position remains fragile — particularly as the district deals with an underfunded teacher pension fund and declining enrollment.

Some experts wonder whether emboldened teachers can push parents too far, testing support amid walkouts that scramble thousands of families' routines. Union leaders, though, argue that's unlikely since class sizes and school staffing directly affect students — and parents.

Chirag Mehta, whose daughter and son attend a magnet school on the city's north side, volunteers with a group called Parents 4 Teachers that has been urging parents to contact Lightfoot's office every week in support of the teachers union. Mehta, a 48-year-old who works for a national nonprofit, said if Chicago teachers do strike, his kids will come along to the picket lines.

"Our school can't operate in a vacuum," he said. "We are all in this together and we need to have a mayor, a school system, a school board that sees it the same way."

Tanesha Peeples, a community advocate in Chicago, said she's skeptical about public support for a strike this year, particularly among minority community members who worry about their kids' safety during a walkout.

"This can't be the go-to every time (the Chicago Teachers Union) feels they don't get what they want," Peeples said. "Almost every year, there's a strike threat and it throws the community into a frenzy."