CHICAGO, Ill. — By Monday, you could tell it was coming. It had been building for months, of course, but by 2:00 Monday afternoon, at the big rally downtown at the Chicago Temple, you could see that the momentum had grown into a force that was ready to explode, like a race horse inside a starting gate. The people were ready to strike. Even then, three days out from the deadline, it felt like a foregone conclusion.
The mighty Chicago Teachers Union, all clad in red, and SEIU 73, all clad in purple, had coordinated their strike deadlines for Thursday, Oct. 17. That meant that for weeks the City of Chicago knew that there was a very real possibility that 35,000 city workers might all go on strike at once, paralyzing large swaths of city life. The CTU has more than 25,000 public school teachers and personnel, and SEIU 73 has 2,000 city park workers and another 7,500 public school staff, from bus aides to classroom assistants to custodians. When the Chicago teachers struck (successfully) in 2012, the school employees in SEIU 73 were not walking out with them; this time was different. This time, we had the threat of not just another teacher’s strike, but a strike of the entire civic infrastructure. Not only would the teachers not show up, but the aides would not show up, and the workers at the school would not show up, and the people who ran the rec centers at the parks would not show up. You would have to take care of your own damn kids.
That is the sort of power that was being wielded throughout negotiations with Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, a voluble and certified progressive who came into office this year with a 15-point plan for improving local education and a breezy vow that there would be no teacher’s strike on her watch. The fact that she has indeed earned herself a teacher’s strike is either tragic or delicious, depending on your perspective. Even the CTU leaders will say that, as a general philosophical matter, they tend to agree with Lightfoot’s politics; at the same time, scarcely six months into her administration, you could go to union rallies all over town and hear angry teachers and school staffers hollering, “Lori Lightfoot, get on the right foot!” with absolute gusto.
Though every strike is, to a greater or lesser degree, about justice, this strike is about justice more than most. The strike happening in Chicago is in many ways of a kind with the Los Angeles teacher’s strike last January, in the sense that the striking workers are very consciously fighting for not just better wages but for better conditions for the students themselves. In LA, teachers expended a great deal of political capital to win smaller class sizes and more nurses and librarians in city schools. Likewise, the Chicago teachers see class size, nurses, and even a plan to provide affordable housing for teachers and students, in a city where nearly 17,000 public school students are homeless, as key issues. There is much explicit talk about “educational justice,” and winning equity for black and brown students. These are the sort of demands that often evaporate in haggling over dollars and sense. But here, unions were running with them as far as they can possibly go.
Much of the city’s political establishment dismissed such demands as a pipe dream that had no place at a contract bargaining table, but the truth is that the effort by teacher’s unions to broaden the scope of their power as widely as possible is an audacious and exciting development. You can imagine the possibilities, from industry to industry and city to city, with working people using the leverage of organized labor to plug the gaps left by politicians, decade after decrepit decade. This is exactly the sort of thing that the left dreams about. And slowly, we see it moving from possibility into reality. The outcomes of these strikes, and what exactly they are able to win, establish a precedent of possibility. What the leadership of capital has failed to do, the leadership of labor will fix. It’s dreamy. If they can pull it off.
The rally Monday in the temple, which is conveniently located just around the corner from the Chicago Public Schools headquarters, had the feel of a football team psyching itself up in the locker room before taking the field for the Super Bowl. The first floor was packed, and the balcony was also packed, and the stage was packed with the leaders of all three local unions and leaders of national unions and countless local politicians who had showed up to pay homage. “C-T-Who? C-T-U!” chanted the teachers. “Who are we? 73!” chanted the SEIU members. Each side chanted for the other. It was nice. There was a DJ, who played beat drops in the short breaks between speakers, which is a very energizing touch to prevent a union rally from turning into a slog. Instead of awkward pauses, you would hear 15 seconds of IT’S TIME FOR THE PERCULATOR, which, let’s be honest, will get you in the mood to do just about anything.
The local union officials spoke, and the politicians spoke, and the national union leaders spoke, and various students read inspirational slam poetry. The most moving speaker was David Bustos, a goateed 18-year veteran Chicago city park worker, who ran recreation programs for special needs children and adults. One of his clients stood beside him on stage while he spoke. “They do not give us the dignity nor the respect that we deserve,” he thundered. “We deserve livable wages comparable to the cost of living in this city!” Chicago is the birthplace of the Special Olympics, a point of pride for the city’s park workers. Before he left the stage, Bustos led everyone in the Special Olympics oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
The next day, I snuck out to Jesse Owens Park, on the city’s south side, to see where Bustos works. It is a well-kept park the length of two large city blocks, with tennis courts, a playground, a baseball field, and a broad lawn. There is a big building with an indoor basketball court, and a gym, and classrooms, where Bustos leads both children and adults through sports and other activities. Posted on the bulletin board inside, next to the class schedule and the other fliers, was a neatly typed notice from the union, addressed, “Dear Park Patrons and Community Members.”
“We understand that our strike may cause some hardships since there are not a lot of readily available alternative programs,” it read. “When we strike, we are striking because we care about the programs we offer.” That was Tuesday, two days before the strike deadline. On Tuesday night, I went to an SEIU press conference, where the bargaining team gravely advised us that things had not gone well, and that hope seemed to be slim. And then, mid-day Wednesday, the city’s unionized park workers got a deal. Though the teachers in CTU and the school aides in SEIU 73 were fated to strike, the park workers pulled off their contract just in the nick of time. They had been brave. And they had won.
At 6:30 a.m. Thursday morning, just as the light is breaking through the clouds, on a residential street in Edgewater on the city’s north side, you can hear an echo two blocks away from Peirce Elementary. “Whose school? Our school! Whose school? Our school!” This is the beginning. A circular picket line is formed in front of the graceful, telegenic school entrance. Local TV news trucks line the narrow block. The teachers are all in red. Though most are wearing their standard issue CTU red t-shirts or sweatshirts, others have donned anything red in their closet—winter coats, Chicago Blackhawks gear, even a red Pokemon hoodie. It’s the red that counts. Someone has brought two dogs to the picket line, and they keep trying to sniff the microphones, getting instantly famous.
Jesse Sharkey, CTU’s professorial leftist president, stepped to the microphone with little ceremony and began explaining why we were all here: overcrowded classrooms. Lack of resources. Mayoral intransigence. “A strike is always about a voice for the voiceless,” he said. He emphasized, again and again, that the mayor had the power to end the strike. He was followed by a charter school teacher, expressing solidarity, and then by Sandra Leander, a special education assistant with SEIU 73. “We haven’t had a strike. We’re kind of a forgotten group of people. But we make a huge difference,” she said, adding, “Our brothers and sisters who are there on the south side suffer more than we do.”
You realize very quickly that strikes are a grind. It was cold. Even half an hour into the picketing, it felt like a grind. This was day one, at the opening press event, with the union president and the cameras. This was peak energy. You can imagine after two hours, six hours, two days, six days, two weeks… it’s a grind. Picket lines were in place at every public school in Chicago. All of them. You could drive around the city for days visiting them, one after another, each its own little front in the war.
At Avondale-Logandale Elementary School in Logan Square, a raucous picket had formed by 8:00 in the morning. One guy holding SEIU 73 signs playfully kicked at a pile of broken glass by the curb. “Hey! Where’s the janitors to clean this up? Oh, they’re over there!” he said, pointing down the picket line.
Maribel Lozada, a third grade teacher, was playing hype woman, blasting a megaphone repeatedly. She has 33 students in her class—more than can comfortably fit in the room. “I have to teach them to maneuver” so people can walk, she said. She wants smaller class sizes “I have 20 boys in my class. Twenty boys! Just for them to go to the bathroom….” she trailed off.
Lozada gets to school at 6:00 a.m. every day, two hours before starting time, to prep for her day. Most teachers said they spend a similar amount of prep time either before or after school. There is no full time social worker at Avondale-Logandale. “I feel like I’m becoming a mother more, and a teacher less,” she said.
A nurse shows up at the school only one day a week. “What—the kids can only get sick on Tuesdays?” says Adesuwa Obazee, a preschool teacher. “I feel like I’m a nurse in the classroom. If there’s blood, I put on gloves and take care of that.” In her native Nigeria, she says, there was a better student-teacher ratio than she sees in the Chicago public schools.
At 1:30 p.m. came the big rally downtown. The big, big rally. Thousands of teachers on strike dispersed across a vast city is somewhat hard to grasp, but thousands of teachers packed tightly into the slot canyon streets of downtown Chicago are a very tangible thing. They toted picket signs on unusually long handles, taller than a man’s head, so that when they raised them up they resembled a forest of righteous saplings. Thousands and thousands of SEIU members in purple and CTU members in red and assorted supporters, packing together tighter and tighter and filling block after block. Their signs read “ON STRIKE For a Fair Contract” and “ON STRIKE For My Students” and “A nurse in every school every day” and “Stop Starving Our Schools” and “Educators, Students, and Parents United.” Whistles blew. Teachers huddled in excited friend groups. An older woman in head-to-toe red rang a big bell with intense determination, like a unionized Mrs. Claus. One whimsical Dr. Seuss-themed sign read, “Oh, the places they’d go if they had funding!” Another, more poignant and wordless, showed a solidarity fist clenching an apple.
By 2:30 p.m. they had formed up into an immense column and began marching—hooking around Randolph Street, bending back to pass by Chicago City Hall, where they all screamed at the stone facade, beseeching its mute face. The march moved and sounded and pulsed like an army. An army of teachers. It was led by drummers, who were followed by a woman with a microphone, leading chants. An assistant wheeled an A/V cart beside her with a speaker on it. The school had come to the street. The picket signs looked like a sea of lances. The mass of thousands, vibrating, strode down LaSalle Street, directly towards the Chicago Board of Trade. Well-fed and well-scrubbed men in fleece vests stared slack-jawed from the sidewalk. This was the army of labor, enveloping the headquarters of capital. Everyone turned the corner and kept moving, a horde of union members streaming past the windows of the lavish Union League Club of Chicago: A Members Only Club. The skyscrapers on every side channeled the river of humanity, moving inexorably as water. The teachers have had enough. They brought their apples. And they also brought their fists.