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Chicago Teachers and Staff Walk Out for Community Needs

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John “JP” Pointer has seen five teachers strikes unfold in his more than four decades working in Chicago’s public schools and parks. But yesterday was the first time he’s ever walked off the job himself.

“I’m just four years away from retirement, but I’m doing this for the people who come after me, and especially for the kids,” he said.

As a security guard at National Teachers Academy, Pointer is one of about 7,500 Chicago Public Schools support staff who are striking, alongside the 25,000-member Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). During the Chicago teachers’ landmark 2012 strike, support staff stayed on the job—they’re represented by a separate union, SEIU Local 73. But this year, for the first time ever, the two unions synchronized their contract negotiations and strike dates in order to join forces on the picket lines. As a result, roughly 1 in every 100 people in Chicago is now on strike—“the new one percent,” as some of Pointer’s colleagues dubbed themselves Thursday morning.

During ten months of contract negotiations and public protests, the CTU has frequently trained its fire on the other one percent, calling on the city to raise taxes on the rich and reverse tax giveaways to developers in order to free up revenue for increased staffing and student supports. If Chicago teachers win, they could usher in dramatic policy shifts in the nation’s third-largest school district, and propel even further the national movement for public education they helped jump-start in 2012.

Seventy-eight percent of Chicago Public Schools students come from low-income families, and the teachers union has been especially vocal this year in its call for more nurses, librarians, counselors, and psychologists. The latter are staffed at just one-fifth of the nationally recommended rate—one psychologist per 1,760 students, according to a 2018 report from the union—despite the fact that schools are often the front lines of dealing with issues like housing instability and trauma.

Some 17,000 students are homeless, and one of the boldest demands CTU is making is for more affordable housing. By raising an issue that affects not only teachers, but the communities they live and work in, CTU is deploying a strategy known as Bargaining for the Common Good. That approach has been key to securing public support, and other unions have increasingly followed suit.

Legally, the school district isn’t required to negotiate with teachers over any issues beyond pay, benefits, and the length of the school day. But through strikes and public pressure, the CTU has been able to move the needle on bigger political issues in recent years, and they’re hoping to do so again. Union delegates voted unanimously to proceed with a strike on Wednesday night after the union’s bargaining team reported that the district was still refusing to write key issues about staffing and class size caps into a new contract.

“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,” said McKay Elementary teacher Moselean Parker at a press conference afterward.

Parker has taught for 25 years at different schools. “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 said, adding that she had to fundraise online just to get reading and science books for her classroom.

While both teachers and staff are quick to emphasize that pay isn’t the central issue, many school support workers haven’t received raises in years. According to SEIU 73, about half the CPS staff they represent—including special-education assistants, bus aides, custodians, and security guards like Pointer—make less than $36,000. Support staff are also frequently pulled into ancillary duties, such as lunchroom monitoring, to compensate for short-staffing.

After 17 years on the job at National Teachers Academy (NTA), Pointer makes $43,000. The job “changed his life,” he said—but on that salary, it’s still hard to find affordable housing within city limits, where all CPS staff are required to reside.

Greeted by parents on the picket line as “the mayor” of the school, Pointer grew up in the nearby Dearborn Homes, some of the last public housing left standing in the rapidly gentrifying South Loop. Last year, he helped rally community support against a controversial plan under then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel that would have closed down NTA, one of the city’s few high-performing neighborhood schools that serves predominantly black students. The school district backed down at the eleventh hour following a civil rights lawsuit, saving what Pointer called a “community anchor.” NTA has a kitchen and a garden for students, as well as an adjacent health clinic that parents can also use, a model that CTU wants to see expanded.

The fight to keep NTA open became a symbol of both what schools in high-poverty neighborhoods can accomplish with adequate resources, and the city’s unwillingness to provide those resources. On the campaign trail earlier this year, newly elected Mayor Lori Lightfoot cited the school as a model, and criticized her predecessor’s attempt to shutter it. She also pledged to add hundreds more special-education assistants, nurses, and other support staff within the next five years.

That’s left parents like Veronica Schmidt, mother of fourth-grade NTA student Christopher Schmidt, wondering if the new mayor has “gone back on a lot of the things she talked about as a candidate.”

In August, Lightfoot announced that the city was offering teachers a 16 percent raise over five years, but she has said that the full package of proposals presented by the teachers union would cost $2.5 billion. “We won’t move any further on money, because we can’t,” the mayor told reporters Thursday morning, calling the offer on the table the best in the teachers union’s history.

To that point, CTU and SEIU Local 73 are quick to point out that the school district’s finances are in better shape than during the 2012 strike, with more than a billion dollars in annual additional revenue flowing in this year under a new state funding formula.

That improved financial terrain, plus evidence that teachers are winning the war for public opinion, could set the union up for major gains. As of Thursday night, both sides reported limited progress in negotiations but were planning to return to the bargaining table as the strike enters its second day.

“We mean business,” said Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, speaking to reporters outside NTA on Thursday. “It cannot be about personalities. It’s got to be about shifting and transforming the infrastructure of inequity.”

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