Teachers in Chicago are heading back to school Friday, marking the end of a historic 11-day strike that had shut down the country’s third-largest school district. After weeks of tense negotiations, the city agreed to reduce class sizes, increase salaries by 16% over the next five years and bring on hundreds more social workers, nurses and librarians. The union demanded that teachers be able to make up the full 11 days of school before agreeing to return to work, and eventually settled with the city on five days. Earlier this week, 7,500 public school workers with the Service Employees International Union who had been striking also settled with the city. We speak with Stacy Davis Gates, the executive vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, and labor journalist Sarah Jaffe.
AMY GOODMAN: Teachers in Chicago are heading back to school today, marking the end of a historic 11-day strike that had shut down the nation’s third-largest school district. After weeks of tense negotiation, the city agreed to reduce class sizes, bring on hundreds of extra social workers, nurses and librarians, and increase salary by 16% over the next five years, with big gains for low-wage workers. This is Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announcing the news.
MAYOR LORI LIGHTFOOT: I’m happy to announce that we have reached — in an agreement with CTU President Jesse Sharkey, classes will resume tomorrow. We invited him to come out so we could do a joint announcement. He declined. But we have an agreement, and teachers will be back in class and students will be back in class tomorrow.
AMY GOODMAN: The union demanded teachers be able to make up the full 11 days of school before agreeing to return to work; they eventually settled with the city on five days. Negotiations lasted hours. Union members were split on whether or not to approve the deal with the city. This is Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey.
JESSE SHARKEY: This has been a tense last two weeks. But it’s not about me or the mayor. This is about the members of the Chicago Teachers Union. It’s about 20,000 teachers and thousands of education support workers and clinicians. And frankly, our members are still out there on the picket line today. And they don’t need to see me smiling with the mayor, when in fact what they need to see is they need to see that we have a tentative agreement. We now have a return-to-work agreement. I’m glad that people get to return to work. We’ve been wanting — you know, frankly, it’s been hard on teachers to be out this long. And it’s been hard on parents to be out this long. It’s been hard on our students. And so, you know, I just didn’t feel like doing a celebration lap with the mayor right now.
AMY GOODMAN: Seven thousand five hundred public school workers with the Service Employees International Union who had been striking also settled with the city earlier this week. They stayed on the picket lines through Thursday.
Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. In Chicago, Stacy Davis Gates is with us, executive vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union. And labor journalist Sarah Jaffe joins us from Philadelphia, author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s go directly to Chicago. Stacy Davis Gates, can you talk about what this deal is that you struck, the Chicago Teachers Union, with the city of Chicago, that if all the workers approve, ends — well, today teachers are back at school.
STACY DAVIS GATES: Good morning. Our members took a 10-day sacrifice to finally bring about some equity in the Chicago Public Schools. Our school communities will have a nurse five days a week in every school, a social worker five days a week in every school. School communities on the South and the West Side of the city are now being prioritized. They will get the wraparound supports that they need. The class size limits will go into effect almost — it will go into effect faster for them. Look, this sacrifice that our members made has ushered in a new type of Chicago Public Schools, that offer sanctuary to their students, that provides homeless students with the necessary supports. We are very pleased with the outcomes. And we just really thank our parents in the city for standing by us.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk also about the salary and healthcare benefits that you negotiated.
STACY DAVIS GATES: Virtually no change in our health insurance. And our members got a 16% COLA increase, cost-of-living increase. Our PSRPs, our lowest-wage workers in our bargaining unit, two-thirds of them were — their children could qualify for free and reduced lunch prior to going on strike. Now we’ve lifted that basement, and those women who serve in our school communities, who are the glue in our school communities, they don’t have to exist in poverty anymore.
AMY GOODMAN: The Chicago Tribune ran an editorial headlined “This CTU strike has betrayed Chicago’s children.” The editorial read, in part, quote, “There are about 300,000 children in Chicago who have missed nearly two weeks of classroom instruction and after-school activities. There are high schoolers who have fallen behind on college application preparations. Athletes who lost the chance to participate in postseason playoffs and tournaments. And there are children from every community who counted on school as a sanctuary. For thousands of those children, school essentially was their only place of learning, emotional support and consistency.” The editorial went on to criticize CTU leaders, saying, quote, “They made outlandish demands as if City Hall owed teachers not just a big wage bump but a utopian version of Chicago.” Stacy Davis Gates, can you respond?
STACY DAVIS GATES: Well, we got what we needed for our students. It’s always outlandish and utopian when right-wing news sources limit the resources that black children, brown children in the city get to have. It is a shame that the Tribune cannot see the work that teachers did in these 10 days as a benefit for the entire city. I know that our members are happy to go back to work today. They are happy to go back to work because they are a part of ushering in a new way of doing public education in the city that prioritizes the least of them, a bargaining structure that is for the common good because our members serve the common good. And we are very pleased about the transformation that our city is going through in this moment, that is led by a movement, a movement of community groups, of parents, of students, that amplified in this moment with their teachers.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the fact that it was not only the Chicago Teachers Union, but SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, that also went on strike? The significance of this?
STACY DAVIS GATES: The significance of that is that these are black women who were making wages that did not make sense in a city that’s growing increasingly unaffordable. These women went out on the picket line with the teachers, and they won tremendous gains in their salary structure. You know, I’ll be honest with you: I don’t think that this could have been as transformative, as monumental as it was, without SEIU 73 members on the picket line with us. Those women settled their contract before we settled ours, and the very next day, they were on the picket lines with us. The solidarity that we had with the city, with each other was tremendous in this moment.
Look, this is a movement that has been percolating for the last decade in this city to bring about change that focuses on those communities that have been left behind while skyscrapers in downtown Chicago are built with taxpayer money. This is a shift in how we conceive of public resources actually helping those who need them the most. This is a win for our city. This is a win for our state. This is a win for our country.
AMY GOODMAN: Stacy Davis Gates, you’re a mom of three kids in the Chicago schools. I think about that editorial that talked about this utopian version of Chicago you’re looking for. Can you talk about what educational justice means?
STACY DAVIS GATES: It means that black children in Chicago don’t have to beg for a nurse, which is the bare minimum for most children across this country. Listen, Chicago has a very terrible history of racism and segregation, and when you read editorials like that, it provokes those same feelings again. Look, our children, every single child in the Chicago Public Schools deserves more than what we even won in this contract. This contract sets forth an infrastructure to help us fight for even more.
Listen, when you can take a public subsidy and build a playground in one of the richest neighborhoods in this country and call it a giveaway, but then make teachers picket and strike for 10 days to get a social worker in school communities that have been ravaged by violence, poverty, unemployment and disinvestment, there is something wrong with the priorities and values of those who are in charge. What I am saying today is that I am proud that Chicago lifted its voice in unison to say that we’re going to transform the way in which we prioritize children in this city, our school communities in this city, and the public sector in this city.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Jaffe, you have been looking at school strikes for years, and you’ve also had this wave of school strikes across the country, not to mention the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012. Talk about the significance of what just took place with the nation’s third-largest school district.
SARAH JAFFE: I think we have to start with the Chicago strike of 2012, because that is where this entire wave was rooted. When Stacy says that they’ve been fighting for a decade, this is a caucus within this union that took power in 2010 that fought for the right to strike and then successfully went on strike in 2012, beat Rahm Emanuel, who was in many ways more committed to privatizing, to crushing the public schools, to crushing the union, than Lori Lightfoot was. And so, that’s where this movement began to reform the teachers’ unions.
The last time I was on talking to you, we were talking about Los Angeles. And the Los Angeles teachers pushed forward this Bargaining for the Common Good framework, and now the CTU has done that again. They have come back to the center of the teachers’ union movement where they belong, because they’ve always been there. They brought demands around housing, and they won demands around housing. They won extra funding for students that are suffering from homelessness. They won extra social workers, nurses — the things that these students actually need to be able to go to schools and learn.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, Stacy Davis Gates, you had talked about Mayor Lightfoot being a “shero,” that she had the opportunity to be a shero. How would you assess what she has done over these last 10 days?
STACY DAVIS GATES: Well, I would say we are disappointed that it took a strike for her to make good on the promises that she put forth on the campaign trail. I think that this serves as notice to all of us in the movement that when candidates assume our positions and our platforms and our agendas, that we can hold them accountable to making good on those things. Look, this was never about a power struggle. In fact, for the last decade, it has been about giving Chicago students what they deserve. And she was in a position to do it before the strike, and certainly our members took it to a strike, and they won those things for their students.