In Battle with Lightfoot, CTU Continues to Prove the Power of Social Justice Unionism

Out In The Cold

Images of Chicago public school teachers with cherry noses and windswept hair proliferated on social media this week, as educators protested their district’s reopening plan by teaching remotely from outside their school buildings. They declined to resume indoor teaching, flouting directives from Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her handpicked Board of Education. Lightfoot’s reopening plan began on January 11th for pre-K and some students with special needs, and is set to continue for all K-8 on February 1st. K-8 teachers were instructed to report to their buildings to prepare for students, but the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members voted to instead work remotely to protect their health. This meant that teachers and staff who were already back in schools returned home (or outdoors) in solidarity with members who are at high risk from COVID19 or who have high-risk household members. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has denied exemption requests from educators caring for family members with cancer and other known COVID risk factors. 

Lightfoot is promoting CDC research that suggests schools should reopen in the presence of evidence-based mitigation strategies. But CTU has countered that the research was done in rural districts that are more sparsely populated and include fewer high-risk communities than CPS, the nation’s third largest district. The union observes that while the research concludes reopening should be paired with bans on indoor dining, Lightfoot recently reopened the city’s bars and restaurants. CTU argues that the district has failed to put in place adequate safety measures such as air purifiers, rapid testing, and PPE. There have been 64 positive COVID cases in city schools since the first round of teachers were ordered back on January 4th. At least two teachers have died from COVID-related health problems after reporting to their buildings to work.

“A Matter of Equity”

While Mayor Lightfoot and her team are framing the issue as a matter of equity for students in a majority-minority district, only a fraction of Black and Latino families say they have confidence in CPS’s plan. (Families of color, who have been hit hardest by the deadly disease, have recently called for an end to the mayor’s unmediated control of the district, arguing that school board officials should be elected as they are elsewhere in Illinois.) Additionally, 36 of Chicago’s 50 elected alderpeople have objected to the rushed reopening, along with local school councils composed of parents and students, and principals’ groups. The principals’ union, an AFL-CIO affiliate like CTU, is recommending a much more gradual reopening plan, which CTU leaders say they support. As Joe Biden noted earlier this week, teachers are eager to do their jobs. They just don’t think it makes sense to expose high-risk people to deadly infection by forcing all K-8 teachers back into buildings when most of their students have opted to continue learning from home.

A Matter of Justice

By halting a reopening that tramples over community needs, CTU is once again displaying the power of a democratic union whose leaders are willing to fight alongside rank-and-file members for common good demands. Despite the fact that CTU does not have the same rights that teachers unions across the country enjoy (a fact which may soon change), over the past decade it has emerged as one of America’s most militant unions, prepared to engage in a multi-front battle to wrest CPS from the death-grip of corporate privatizers and win Chicago’s children the schools they deserve. After energizing teachers across the nation with their historic 2012 strike, CTU members struck for 11 days in 2019, demanding reduced class sizes, less emphasis on standardized testing, a nurse in every school, full-time social workers and librarians, sanctuary schools for undocumented students, and affordable housing for students experiencing homelessness. Raises were not central to their strike agenda. Although CTU did not win every one of its 2019 demands, their expansive focus enabled them to build community support and achieve a number of vital gains. 

CTU’s tireless common good organizing proves a point that should be obvious: Teachers and school staff care about students and their communities. Contrary to myths promulgated by those with a vested interest in smearing organized labor, teachers union members are not mainly in the business of securing raises for lazy, incompetent teachers. They are people who entered the field because they want to help kids get the high quality education that should be their birthright. They are saddened by a shamefully underfunded system that subjects poor and minority students to dull programs aimed at drilling decontextualized skills in the service of abusive tests that enrich shady corporations. Teacher preparation programs stress the importance of culturally responsive schooling that capitalizes on community resources and students’ interests. But on the ground, teachers find schools ripped apart by neoliberal reforms that ignore the complexity of human experience, equating student outcomes to a business’s bottom line. 

Although teachers unions have a proud history of advocating broadly for educational and economic justice, in the past several decades they have been pushed to adopt narrower platforms limited to issues like pay and prep time. This, in turn, appears to confirm the false idea that teachers union members care only about themselves. Unfortunately, teachers union leadership has too often encouraged this narrowing of demand scope. When union leaders claim massive salaries, they’re frequently inclined to support the status quo, cozying up to the same entrenched corporate and state powers that collaborate to deny children the vibrant, resource-rich schools they need and deserve. CTU’s current leaders, who emerged from the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) in recent years, have worked to change this dynamic. When CORE won control of the union in 2010, leadership’s salaries were reduced, and CTU recommitted itself to a far-reaching social justice mission. 

At this moment, however, CTU members are forced to focus on their survival. Lightfoot is threatening that if educators do not report to work in person on Monday they will lose pay and be locked out of their digital classrooms, meaning that students who have been relying on remote learning would be abruptly cut off from their teachers. If this happens, CTU has promised to strike. Teachers and union members across the nation will be watching closely as the situation unfolds.

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