More than 30,000 workers are walking out of Chicago Public Schools today to demand better pay and benefits, smaller class sizes and more nurses, counselors, social workers and librarians. The historic strike has brought the country’s third-largest school system to a standstill, with classes canceled for more than 350,000 students. The strike was confirmed Wednesday when the Chicago Teachers Union rejected a final offer by the city’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, following months of labor negotiations. The city offered pay raises of 16% over a five-year period, while union representatives have been calling for a 15% increase over three years. Seven thousand five hundred public school workers with the Service Employees International Union are also striking today after rejecting their own offer from the city. From Chicago, we speak with Stacy Davis Gates, executive vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, and Science Meles, executive vice president of SEIU Local 73, about the strike and public school workers’ demands.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Twenty-five thousand teachers and thousands more aides, custodians and security guards are walking out of Chicago Public Schools today to demand better pay and benefits, smaller class sizes and more nurses, counselors, social workers and librarians. The historic strike has brought the country’s third-largest school system to a standstill with classes canceled for more than 350,000 students as striking workers and their allies take to picket lines throughout the city. The strike was confirmed Wednesday when the Chicago Teachers Union rejected a final offer by the city’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, following months of labor negotiations. The city offered pay raises of 16% over a five-year period, while union representatives have been calling for a 15% increase over three years. The teachers have long demanded more support staff in schools and are demanding the city put this pledge in writing. On Wednesday, Chicago Teachers Union’s Stacy Davis Gates and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot sparred as Lightfoot defended the district’s effort to negotiate with the union.
MAYOR LORI LIGHTFOOT: At every turn, we’ve bent over backwards to meet the union’s needs. … Despite all this, the Chicago Teachers Union intends to forge ahead with a strike.
STACY DAVIS GATES: To say that you’ve bent over backwards, and it’s the same proposal — not even, less than what’s in there now — is absolutely ridiculous.
AMY GOODMAN: Some 7,500 public school workers with the Service Employees International Union are also striking today after rejecting their own offer from the city. More than 2,000 Chicago Park District workers with SEIU Local 73, who were also expected to strike today, struck a tentative agreement with the city Wednesday. They’ll join the picket lines before work in solidarity. The walkout marks the first Chicago Public Schools strike in seven years. In 2012, teachers went on strike under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Today’s walkout is expected to be one of the first big tests for Lori Lightfoot, who took office as mayor in May.
For more, we go to Chicago, where we’re joined by two guests. Stacy Davis Gates is executive vice president of Chicago Teachers Union. And Science Meles is executive vice president of SEIU Local 73.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Stacy Davis Gates, let’s begin with you. Why are you going our on strike today?
STACY DAVIS GATES: Good morning. Thank you for having us.
We’re on strike today because we don’t see another way to actually get a social worker, a nurse and smaller class sizes into our school communities. We are one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries in the entire world, and we have prioritized building playgrounds for the wealthy in Lincoln Park instead of putting a nurse in schools on the South and West Side of the city. We are shifting priorities, hoping to transform the way in which we value the very people who do the work in the school communities and those who desperately need the services in the school communities.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Science Meles, can you explain what exactly is happening today and who all is involved?
SCIENCE MELES: Good morning. Thank you for having us.
This after — I mean, this morning, the SEIU Local 73 members at the Chicago Public Schools are standing shoulder to shoulder with the teachers’ union in the fight for a fair contract. So, there’s actions happening all over the city. There’s pickets happening at every school in Chicago, where workers are demanding a fair contract and that the mayor be the mayor of the people rather than the mayor of the corporate America.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a clip of Mayor Lightfoot speaking at a news conference on Wednesday. We’re going to see if we have that clip, and we’ll — here we have it.
MAYOR LORI LIGHTFOOT: We have tried to provide the best deal that’s fiscally responsible, that’s fair to teachers and fair to taxpayers. Without question, the deal that we put on the table is the best in the Chicago Teachers Union’s history. It provides a 16% pay raise for all employees. … Beyond compensation, we have offered more than 80 proposed changes to the contract on issues requested by the union, including sanctuary school protections, a commitment against privatization, supports for oversized classes, changes to how we serve our special education students, and so much more. … Folks, I’m the daughter of a union steelworker. I’m a strong believer in the power of collective bargaining and, yes, when it comes down to it, the right to strike. But today we are making concerted progress. It is clear that this is not one of those moments.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Stacy Davis Gates, can you respond?
STACY DAVIS GATES: We have a city that spends $5 million on dog parks — $5 million on dog parks. And what we are asking for is hard caps on class sizes that reach 40 — 40 kindergartners on the South Side of Chicago stuffed into a room, 35 kindergartners stuffed into a classroom in another school on the South Side of Chicago. We are living in a city that is experiencing unparalleled, consistent amounts of gun violence, and we need a school nurse in the neighborhoods especially that are experiencing the brunt of this trauma. Our demands have been our demands for the last 10 years.
This is not about Mayor Lightfoot. This is about breaking down systems of white supremacy that ask for flexibility and demand that black children in the city adjust, demand that Latinx children in the city wait in line. This is not the type of world-class city that it promotes itself as, if children do not have the basic necessities that are due to them in their school communities. She has every opportunity, every chance, every power to provide Chicago students with what they deserve, not what she wants to parse out, not what — with what she gets left over when she gives wealthy developers billions of dollars on the North Side of the city.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Science Meles, could you also respond to what the mayor said? In particular, she said that the city has made 80 proposed changes on the issues that were raised by the union. What were those changes, and what exactly is the union calling for?
SCIENCE MELES: So, I’m not quite sure what she’s referring to about the 80 proposals. Maybe that’s referring to CTU. But in our negotiation, it’s unfortunate that the mayor decided to get serious in bargaining after a threat of a strike.
You know, what we’ve asked her to do is be a mayor that — you know, she can make choices. There are several choices that she can make. She can either fund our schools correctly, you know, offer the support that our students need in the schools — clean schools, safe schools. Instead, the mayor had made choices to put $33 million in policing our schools, rather than training our security officers to be able to respond to issues that pop up. And these are security officers that actually know these students in and out. They relate to them. They see them every day. They care about them. They’ve been around for a long time. We’re also — you know, she’s a mayor that chooses to continue to invest in Aramark and Sodexo, which manages — mismanages our custodial services in our schools, which, actually, our schools are dirtier than they’ve ever been. And so, we’re saying, “Make a choice, and be the mayor of the Chicago that, you know, elected you in.” We’re telling her to be a mayor of our — you know, for our students. We’re asking her to be a mayor of the people, where it’s an easy choice, but she chooses to not — you know, she chooses not to be that. She chooses the wrong — you know, she continues to make the wrong decisions. And it’s unfortunate.
Like, we could have avoided this whole strike. She could have avoided and came to the table in fairness and actually negotiated for the things that we are asking for. We’re not asking for a million, a billion, a trillion dollars. Our members are not making that much money. We have bus aides who have slept in their cars because they cannot afford to live anywhere else, because they have split shifts, and so they can’t even work a second job in order to meet their needs. But most of our members are working second, third, fourth, fifth jobs. And so, if you ever come to Chicago, you’ll probably get into an Uber. It’s probably an SEIU Local 73 member and quite possibly a CTU member. And so we’re asking her to invest in our schools. We’re asking her to invest in our students. We’re asking her to invest in the community that elected her. We’re asking her to invest in Chicago. So, she does have a choice, and we’re hoping that she comes to her senses and makes the right decision when it comes to our babies, you know, in Chicago Public Schools.
AMY GOODMAN: Science Meles, can you explain what happened in the last hours, where one of the locals of SEIU has reached a tentative agreement with the city, and one is going out on strike? And how does that work? What demands were met? What weren’t?
SCIENCE MELES: So, I mean, I could give you an overview, since I was not directly involved in the Chicago Public Schools contract negotiation. But what I do understand is that they reached a deal that’s one of the best deals that they’ve had. And we represent about 2,500 workers in Chicago Public Schools. But that’s different from like what our issues are in CPS. Our issues in CPS have been — you know, the class sizes are an issue for us. Our short staffing is an issue for us. Special education — we represent the SECAs, which are special education classroom assistants, that are often pulled from the services that they need to offer to kids, and instead they’re asked to clean closets, to be custodians. They’re asked to be a recess monitor, rather than be what the students that they are hired to protect and provide services to. So, you know, these two things are not — you know, our members at the Park District are in support of our members at CPS. They’re in support of the CTU members. They are, actually, right now, as we speak, on the picket line in support and standing in solidarity with the Chicago Public School workers. So that’s where we’re at right now.
AMY GOODMAN: Stacy Davis Gates, the last strike was in 2012. That was under Rahm Emanuel, the mayor. This is under Lori Lightfoot. What do you see is the difference, or do you see a difference right now?
STACY DAVIS GATES: Look, there are obvious differences. We have a mayor who basically took every contract proposal we put forth, and created her campaign platform. She gave very eloquent speeches about students being in school communities that are fully resourced, with nurses and librarians and class sizes that are manageable. She said on the campaign trail that she was committed to doing these things. And so, we’ve already won the argument. We agree. The problem is, is that she does not want to enshrine this in a contract, in a policy that is dependable, that people can look forward to, that will help to transform our school communities.
Listen, if you’ve lived in Chicago and you’ve been on the South and West Side of the city, you see promises broken in those areas of the city all of the time. What we are saying as workers in the city is that you cannot continue to break promises to the people who need the resources the most. You don’t break promises, to build skyscrapers downtown on the taxpayer dime. You don’t break the promises, to build a wealthy playground for wealthy people on the North Side of town. But, somehow, there is always a question of flexibility and an expectation of adaptability for the people who need the resources the most in the city. This strike is about drawing a line in the sand and saying that the students who attend the Chicago Public Schools deserve the resources. They deserve and the — excuse me, they deserve the resources, and they deserve the written commitment of city leadership.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Stacy Davis, can you talk about, before we conclude, your concerns about class size in Chicago Public Schools?
STACY DAVIS GATES: Class size. You know, class size is a big deal for us here in Chicago. In spaces in the city that have suffered from mass school closures, that have suffered from the mass eviction of black people in the city, you see class sizes, 40 students in third grade class size in schools. Over at Beasley elementary school, we have three third grade classes with about 40 students in each of those classes. That is absolute insanity. We have to get to a place where we bring those class sizes down, offer the students, again, who need the most, the best chance at getting the most. You cannot do that with class sizes of 40.
It is not — it’s immoral to have a school district in one of the richest cities, in one of the richest countries in the world, that does not prioritize the students in the city and provide them with things that they need. Look, the state of Illinois provided the city of Chicago with a billion extra dollars to lower class sizes, to fund special education services, to provide our school district, that is dealing with concentrated poverty, with wraparound supports to meet the needs of the students here. That money has to meet the school communities. And right now our members, the teachers, the paraprofessionals, the teachers’ assistants, the school clerks, the counselors and nurses, they are saying, “We do not have enough to meet the needs of our students.”
AMY GOODMAN: Stacy Davis Gates, you are a mother of three in the Chicago Public Schools. What will they do today? And there was a profile of you in the Chicago Sun-Times, and it talked about your mother, your aunt, your grandmother, all Teamsters who worked at Memorial Hospital. You told the Sun-Times they showed you that unions were powerful “especially for black women who were disinclined to be bossed.” Explain.
STACY DAVIS GATES: Explain. Look, we live in a country that doesn’t often hear or see black women, their worth and their work in this country. And the three women who helped to raise me, they gave me a strong sense of self. They told me to use my voice for justice, to make sure that I was in solidarity with those who needed justice the most and those who could fight for justice, as well. And so, that influenced my decision, obviously, to be in the space that I am in now. But it also drives this fight for us as parents and as taxpayers here in Chicago. I send my kindergartner, my third-grader and my fifth-grader to the Chicago Public Schools because I know that they deserve to be in spaces with other kids. I know that they deserve to have a nurse, a librarian and smaller class sizes. Look, I am not just about leading. I am about being a part of the coalition of people that’s needed to help transform this. My children will be on the picket line today and every day, until their schools get exactly what they deserve.
AMY GOODMAN: Late last month, 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders spoke at a Chicago Teachers Union rally. This is part of what he said.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: It is no great secret that kids can’t learn and teachers can’t teach if the class size is too high. Tonight I say to the city of Chicago, substantially increase the pay and benefits for teachers in Chicago and for the support staff in Chicago. … Tonight I say to the city of Chicago, sign a contract that deals with the desperate shortage of school nurses, of social workers, of librarians and of other critical staff that keep our schools going.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Senator Sanders. Stacy Davis Gates, have other 2020 presidential hopefuls come out to speak with you? Senator Sanders will be holding another presidential rally on Saturday in Queensbridge, New York. He’ll be joined by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She and Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are supporting Bernie Sanders. But the significance of having the candidates out there with you?
STACY DAVIS GATES: Look, we’ve gotten the support of five of the 2020 hopefuls.
Look, the argument, it’s not if our students deserve it. It is — rather, the fight is about making sure that these things are enshrined in a contract that is enforceable, that guarantees smaller class sizes. Let’s be very clear: The state of Illinois has given the city of Chicago, its public schools, a billion more dollars to do all of the things that Senator Sanders outlined at the rally here in Chicago. It is past time that the generational injustices and inequities that Chicago Public Schools has heaped on thousands of students, that they stop.
We have a mayor who says that she agrees. We expect for that agreement to be enshrined in an enforceable contract, where we can depend on smaller class sizes, where we don’t have to wait for a nurse to get there, where we have a social worker who can actually provide our students with the trauma supports that they need. We have put contracts in writing that maintain filthy schools. We have put contracts in writing that overmilitarize and overpolice our school communities. Absolutely, you can put something in writing that provides smaller class sizes and wraparound supports.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Stacy Davis Gates, executive vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union; Science Meles, executive vice president of SEIU Local 73. Of course, we’ll follow the strike.
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When we come back, as more than 300,000 civilians are displaced by Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria, President Trump defends his decision to withdraw U.S. support for the Kurds, paving the way for Turkey’s assault. Stay with us.