September 20, 2021

Striking Chicago teachers picket as contract talks gear up


CHICAGO (Reuters) – Teachers in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system picketed outside of schools on Thursday during their first day of a strike after protracted labor negotiations between the union and district leadership failed to produce a deal.

The work stoppage across the third-largest school district in the United States forced officials to cancel classes for more than 300,000 students, but school buildings stayed open for children who need a place to go during the strike.

Thousands of people, including teachers and some parents who support their cause, formed picket lines in front of many of the district’s 500 schools. Picketers wearing bright red T-shirts and sweatshirts carried signs demanding “a fair contract” and chanted “Whose schools? Our schools.”

“I’m hopeful. I’m here to stand up for teachers and the future teachers,” said Pamela Wasson, a bilingual special education teacher in her 34th year of teaching, as she picketed in front of her North Side elementary school.

The strike is the latest in a recent wave of work stoppages in school districts across the United States in which demands for school resources have superseded calls for higher salaries and benefits. In Chicago and elsewhere, teachers have emphasized the need to help underfunded schools, framing their demands as a call for social justice.

In addition to wage increases, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) wants more money to ease overcrowded classrooms and hire more support staff, such as nurses and social workers, two perennial issues plaguing the district.

Flanked by dozens of teachers and parents outside a North Side elementary school, union president Jesse Sharkey said he expected to “keep making progress” in negotiations on Thursday.

“This is about the will to get a just settlement,” he said.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said on Wednesday the district’s bargaining team has offered 80 changes to the current contract related to issues that the union wants to be addressed.

The proposal would grant a 16% raise over five years, set enforceable targets for reducing class sizes and add more support staff across the district, she said.

The mayor said the union’s full list of demands would cost the district an additional $2.5 billion annually.

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At Audubon Elementary School on the city’s northwest side, 100% of the school’s union employees showed up to demonstrate, said Phyllis Ryan, a seventh-grade humanities teacher at the school.

“We will be here every morning until we have a contract,” Ryan said. “I do not think an agreement will happen today. It does not seem like the mayor is interested in putting down in writing a lot of what she is saying.”

The strike comes seven years after 29,000 Chicago teachers walked out for seven days over teacher evaluations and hiring practices. In 2016, teachers staged a one-day walkout to protest the lack of a contract and failures to stabilize the school system’s finances.

Reporting by Brendan O’Brien and Mark Weinraub in Chicago; Editing by Frank McGurty and Matthew Lewis

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Brendan O’Brien