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Will Chicago Teachers Be Next to Strike? Union Head Speaks Out as Walkout Date Approaches

StoryOctober 08, 2019
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Image Credit: Facebook: Chicago Teachers Union

In Chicago, union leaders and the nation’s third-largest school district are racing to reach an agreement to avert a teachers’ strike authorized to begin later this month. In late September, 25,000 educators voted overwhelmingly to authorize a work stoppage, demanding more staffing and lower class sizes. On Monday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot accused the union of not coming to the bargaining table with a proposal to counter the offers the district has made in recent weeks. This comes as about 7,000 school support staffers with the Service Employees International Union have also made preparations for a strike, as have over 2,000 Chicago Park District workers with SEIU Local 73. From Chicago, we speak to Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in Chicago, union leaders and the nation’s third-largest school district are racing to reach an agreement to avert a teachers’ strike authorized to begin later this month. In late September, 25,000 educators voted overwhelmingly to authorize a work stoppage, demanding more staffing and lower class sizes. This is Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey.

JESSE SHARKEY: We need staffing in areas like nursing, for social workers and for special education services. We need enforceable caps on class size. And yes, we need pay and benefits, too, but those things — but pay and benefits alone are not enough. We care deeply about the learning and working conditions in our schools.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On Monday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot accused the union of not coming to the bargaining table with a proposal to counter the offers the district has made in recent weeks.

MAYOR LORI LIGHTFOOT: My team is ready to go, 24/7, to get a deal done. We are working hard. We want to meet the challenges — and I think we have. But, recently, instead of meeting us at the bargaining table to solve problems, our counterparts have focused their energy on preparing for a strike rather than avoiding one. We can’t bargain alone.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as about 7,000 school support staffers with the Service Employees International Union, SEIU, have also made preparations for a strike, as have over 2,000 Chicago Park District workers with SEIU Local 73.

For more, we go to Chicago, Illinois, where we’re joined by Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. He taught social studies in Chicago Public Schools for 12 years at Senn High School and Chicago Vocational Career Academy.

Jesse Sharkey, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the issues, why the teachers’ union and SEIU locals have decided to strike.

JESSE SHARKEY: Thank you. Right now we’re bargaining; we’re trying to avoid a strike, if possible. We have a mayor who ran on the promise of educational equity, on providing basic educational supports in our schools. We have a contract that expired at the end of last year. And, you know, we came to the table asking for a nurse in every school every day. Most Chicago Public Schools have a nurse one day a week. We asked for supports for special education case managers, for counselors in our schools, for librarians. We have about 120 librarians in the entire city, school librarians. And so far, the district has said, “We’ll bargain with you about money and benefits, but we’re unwilling to make commitments about all those other things,” as if they’re dangling money in front of us, and when we refuse to take it, they become upset that we’re not bargaining in good faith.

Our insistence is that the working and learning conditions in schools, the things which make school high quality, provide wraparound services, all the things which students need, have to be in the collective bargaining agreement. And that’s what we’re bargaining for. That’s been our position for years.

It’s just that now we see both a mayor who ran on that platform, there’s been — the general Legislature in Illinois passed a school funding bill back in late 2017, which provided an extra billion dollars a year into the schools’ budget. So we have — the money should be there for this. There’s political will. There’s also a Red for Ed movement, a wave of teacher strikes, going on across the country, from West Virginia all the way across the country, Arizona, Los Angeles. And so, we feel like this is our best opportunity in a generation to actually deliver these improvements.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Jesse Sharkey, I wanted to ask you what the difference is between these negotiations and what happened in 2012, when it was Mayor Rahm Emanuel in power. Some people have observed that we have — there’s a new mayor in Chicago, Lori Lightfoot, but the people you’re negotiating with are the same people that were there when Rahm Emanuel was in office. Could you comment on that and what that means in terms of a willingness to take a new approach to the bargaining situation?

JESSE SHARKEY: In 2012, Rahm Emanuel came at us guns blazing. He had prior — even prior to taking office, he was already working to get laws changed in Springfield which would take away our right to bargain or strike over how long the school day was, over crucial parts of our evaluation. He brought in an out-of-town education privatizer who was going to close schools, open charter schools, create basically a test score competition scheme, together with school privatization, and attack the union. In a lot of ways, 2012 was a defensive strike. It was us trying to hold the line in an environment in which the other side had momentum and was coming at us hard. We struck. We held the line, in some places not entirely.

This is different in that, like, this is a situation where the tide has turned in the country. People want to see high-quality education. People don’t think that the chronic underpay for educators is appropriate. They want resources going into the schools. And from West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, you look across the country, and there have been big movements to that effect. We see that, and we think this is our opportunity in Chicago to like actually win improvements in writing. We need to see a contractual guarantee.

What’s happening in Chicago is that there are huge tax giveaways for the rich. Obviously, nationally, you see that with Trump’s tax giveaways. But on a local level, what that looks like is deals which give developers billions of dollars in order to provide help for development projects in part of the city that is already very developed. And so, we’re saying, if there’s money for that, there has to be money for the schools to do what schools need to be able to do in order to educate children.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about the SEIU local that represents other workers, some of them in the school districts, some of them in the parks department, their contract they’re conspiring to, how you are — are the unions coordinating their efforts or cooperating?

JESSE SHARKEY: Well, we’re talking. And the truth of the matter is that we share similar goals. A lot of the workers in Chicago Public Schools are low-wage workers. The Park District talked about one of its members who was homeless for a period of time while working as a bus aide. We have currently about 75% of our education support staff, who we call paraprofessionals, or PSRPs, that group, about 70% of them would qualify for free or reduced-price lunch under federal poverty guidelines, their children. So, for us, there’s a bunch of folks who work in the schools who actually need fair treatment economically. So, money and wages do matter in this fight. And we want the schools to be places where we can be proud, where there’s is a high-quality education delivered for students. So, we think the public supports us in this kind of demands.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. So, what do you see as the chronology leading up to next week? What’s going to happen, and what specifically needs to happen for a strike not to take place? And are you totally coordinating with SEIU? Will you agree together to strike or not to strike?

JESSE SHARKEY: If there’s no agreement reached, we’re standing together on wages, benefits and other crucial issues. In fact, the district has offered SEIU that they would get whatever wage settlement that we get. So, in a way, the district made the argument for us. So, yeah, we’re standing shoulder by shoulder with them. We’re talking. We’re going to try to maximize our unity in order to maximize our power at the bargaining table.

The district does have the ability to avoid a strike by delivering on the promises that mayor made when she was campaigning. What we say is, put it in writing. If you’re going to campaign on the idea of basic education supports, you put that in writing. That could avoid a conflict. As for now, she hasn’t been willing to do that.

And, something that Juan said earlier, it is tied to the fact that this is a mayor who has sent a negotiating team to the table that’s comprised of people who were there from Rahm’s administration — and, frankly, from Daley’s administration, before that. So, it’s really about us trying to hold the city political establishment to its promises and to overcome the inertia of the way the system has run for so long.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Has the mayor herself actually been to the negotiating table yet? Because often at the final hours, it’s the people in charge have to sit down directly, and not through their underlings. I’m wondering, because some people are saying Lori Lightfoot is going to have to decide whether she’s going to become a Rahm Emanuel 2.0 or Harold Washington 2.0, and that this may be the decisive moment for that. I’m wondering your thoughts.

JESSE SHARKEY: I like that. I’m going to have to steal that, that formulation. I think that — yeah, I think the mayor is going to have to get personally involved. You know, as for coming to the table, there will come a time for that.

You know, a schools contract has a lot of sort of small details in it. You know, for example, the mayor said something in a press conference yesterday criticizing the idea that we were negotiating over nap time in preschool. I wish that we didn’t have to negotiate over nap time, but the truth of the matter is that 4-year-olds, 3-year-olds need naps physically. They’re developing physically and as well as mentally. And there’s been a kind of a tendency to push down a superacademic curriculum all the way into kids that are that young. Teachers that understand that the actual what’s good for students involves the ability for them to nap, you know, have asked to protect the ability to nap for full-day preschool in our contracts. So that’s something that we have negotiated about.

And I don’t know if it’s necessarily the case that we want the mayor of a city of two-and-a-half million people, you know, negotiating that level of detail. But when we get to the big issues, the transcendent issues about whether we can have enforceable caps on class size or reduce class sizes, whether or not we can have nurses, social workers and other critical staffing needs, whether teacher time is protected, pay and benefits — if those issues the mayor wants to come in on and do the right thing, then that will be appreciated.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much for being with us, Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. In breaking news, the State Department —

JESSE SHARKEY: Thanks. Can I say one more thing, Amy?

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

JESSE SHARKEY: Just solidarity with the UAW. We’re rooting for the members of the UAW and just want to express our solidarity with that struggle.

AMY GOODMAN: Jesse Sharkey, thanks so much.

This breaking news: The State Department has ordered Gordon Sondland, the key figure in the House impeachment inquiry, not to testify to lawmakers today. Sondland’s lawyer said in a statement Sondland is “profoundly disappointed” he will not testify before Congress today. We’ll have the latest on the impeachment inquiry against President Trump tomorrow.

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“This Is a Win for Our City”: Chicago Teachers Celebrate End of Historic Strike After 11 Days

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