Chicago teachers fight for their safety – and ours
Interview with Kirstin Roberts and Dennis Kosuth
Elizabeth Lalasz: Can you tell me about what the Chicago Teachers Union is fighting for?
Kirstin Roberts: The entire school year has been extremely difficult. I think if you asked any educational worker anywhere in the country, they would report the same extreme short-staffing. No substitute teachers. Then, the COVID-19 protocols and mitigations add another layer of difficulty. Kids get sick in classes and quarantine. In our case, we continue teaching the kids who are quarantining at home at the exact same time as the children who are not quarantined and who are vaccinated in classrooms.
It’s just constant. The schools constantly feel chaotic, understaffed, and like nobody can do their jobs. It’s just a hard, stressful place to be. Very similar, I think, to what hospitals are facing and a lot of other workplaces from short-staffing. You just never feel like you’re accomplishing anything.
That is hard when you’re dealing with children and young people. You feel like a failure to them. Then Omicron started to spike, especially here [in Chicago] coming back from Thanksgiving. It was clear. We were in a spike and our classes started quarantining. You know, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.
Then we had a colleague die at a school down on the South Side. A fully vaccinated guy. He caught COVID-19 at school and lots of kids caught COVID-19, and parents got COVID-19 that their kids brought home, and our co-worker died, and a parent died, and it’s like, this is getting crazy. All the workers and staff at that school and the parents got together and said, “no way,” but the city and the school board wouldn’t shut that school down and go remote to try and get in front of the spread.
They had to do it themselves, the parents and the staff. That’s when I knew, “Wow, if Omicron keeps spreading and spreading, we’re going to all have to do that, because they don’t seem to care what’s happening to us.”
We’re going to have to help ourselves. We’re in the middle of a terrible surge of over twenty percent positivity. The hospitals are filling. We’re scared for our students. We’re scared for ourselves. We’re scared for our communities. So, we decided not to go into work and try to teach remotely.
Dennis Kosuth: I mean, the year has been similar for school nursing. We started off with the idea that we would have more nurses in schools and we would staff up. But as the year progressed, it was clear that there were just not enough chairs on the deck of the Titanic. CPS [Chicago Public Schools] began to shift them around.
Since the beginning of the year, two days a week, I have been going into schools and providing G-tube feedings, giving insulin and medications. These are jobs I’m certainly qualified to do, but my main responsibility in schools is to work with kids who have special education and health issues. I should be writing their individualized education plans, working with their teachers about health maintenance, working with doctors and parents to make sure they’re getting the support they need at home. But because there’s not enough nurses, they’ve basically reassigned me a couple of days a week to give direct services.
These would normally be the responsibility of a different nurse in the school. I don’t have a problem with doing this, but it does have an impact overall on the kind of services our special education students with health conditions should be getting.
KR: Everybody’s covering somebody else’s job in addition to their own constantly.
DK: Yeah. In any given month, or a couple of times a week, I’ll be pulled to another school. It’s like, “This nurse called in sick,” or, “There’s just no one available. So, you have to go and provide these direct services.”
Attendance was way down at one of my schools. Twenty out of a hundred staff were not able to come to work, and it’s not because they just didn’t feel like it. It’s because they got sick with COVID-19 or had family members who tested positive.
CPS had this plan of sending take-home test kits to students to have them test during the break right before coming to school. They thought, “That will show how safe schools are.” They sent 150 thousand tests out, which is about half of the student population, targeting communities that are more highly hit by COVID-19. But then, pictures started coming in of overflowing FedEx boxes, with these tests literally piled up around the FedEx boxes. Those tests were then determined to be invalid. A bunch of people didn’t even get a result.
But one family with two kids, who had initially received an invalidated test, had the test come back positive on Wednesday. Their kid had gone to school on Monday and Tuesday positive for COVID-19. Therefore, we feel like we need a safety agreement that actually outlines measures that will keep our communities safe, keep our students safe, keep their families safe, and keep the people who work for CPS safe.
EL: Educators around the country are asking specifically, “what does your job action look like?” as they try to figure out how to fight for safety in their schools. What are your demands?
KR: There’s a lot that people can learn from what we’re doing here in Chicago. And there’s a lot of very specific circumstances.
For instance, one of our specific circumstances is that we are bargaining against a mayor who has one way of bargaining. She’s a bulldog. She’s a former prosecutor. The way she thinks you bargain is to draw a line in the sand. She’s very childish, extremely nasty, and hard to negotiate with. [Educators] have a different situation in LA. They have a different situation in San Francisco. So, their local conditions really matter.
But there’s some stuff that others can probably learn from, as well. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) took a vote after a very democratic discussion over the course of 48 hours. The discussions were happening prior to going on break. But when we got back from break, we had 48 hours to decide.
We said, we’re going to go into the schools to see what it looks like, because we don’t know. Maybe this surge won’t be showing up in our schools. Maybe we can continue to negotiate while we do in-person instruction. And when we got back those two days, it was just clear that one class after another was having to quarantine, so many staff were out sick, so many kids were out sick.
We convened our House of Delegates and then we voted with our entire membership to take a remote job action. I think democratically involving the membership in a discussion about what to do, about what the conditions were, and what the potential risks were was really important.
So, we all stayed home Wednesday and attempted to work remotely. CPS and the city did everything they could to confuse parents about what was going on. But we have lines of communication with our [students’] families, which we used to tell them we were trying to do remote instruction until the surge went down while we negotiated with the city for a better safety plan.
We were immediately locked out. We started getting locked out at midnight the night before, and it just continued through the night. People checked emails all night long and found out they were not going to be able to teach.
Our basic demands are very limited. We are demanding we stay out until January 18, a very short amount of time. All we are talking about trying to do is flatten the curve to allow our hospitals a chance to catch up, bring the positivity rate down, and get more testing.
We have very little testing happening in the Chicago public schools compared to New York or LA. We would like to see a system where everybody gets tested unless parents opt out of testing. Currently, parents have to sign up for testing, and it’s kind of complicated, you have to opt in. We’ve found it is the kids and the families who are opting in who are the most COVID-19 cautious. We also want randomized surveillance testing.
Lightfoot went ballistic when we asked for more testing. She said we wanted to do quasi-medical procedures on children, that we were morally broken for asking. It’s like a baby Trump. I mean, literally, she’s just a dictator and she’s really anti-testing. Who is anti-testing? Well, Lori Lightfoot is anti-testing. That’s bizarre. That’s who we’re negotiating with.
DK: Her own kid goes to a private school that has been remote. Her “let them eat cake” approach to the rest of the city of Chicago is completely hypocritical. But that’s where she’s coming from. It’s her way or the highway. That’s been her approach.
That’s why at the end of this week, after it became clear bargaining was not getting anywhere, CTU decided to go public. Again, we did that in a democratic manner. There was an executive board meeting early Saturday morning, followed by a House of Delegates meeting. The House of Delegates is the highest decision-making body within the CTU. I think six hundred or seven hundred delegates came together for that meeting on Saturday morning to discuss, debate, and then vote upon this proposal, which was released publicly so everyone could see what we wanted and what the city said back to us.
Based on that testing, we asked for a metric for when a school would [transition] to remote instruction. We asked for increased PPE because Omicron is shredding cloth masks and surgical masks are very expensive. We’ve already seen how this disease has targeted the poor and Black and Brown communities in this city. I think without better PPE offered to students, we’re just going to see a continuation of those gross inequities. We asked for very minor things and the answer, particularly around increased testing and around the ability to ever do remote education, has been a hard, “no.”
The other thing Lightfoot is doing, which is very much in line with Republicans, is promoting this idea that the union, the workers who are employed in schools who do the actual educating, provide the services, all the rest of it, should have no say in the operation of their workplaces.
Lightfoot’s other line is that CTU members should just go to work, do their jobs and be quiet. CPS says “yes” to the masks, which I suppose is progress, but they say “no” to the main demands of more testing and remote learning.
EL: This sounds similar to the hospitals and fights around PPE. It’s about power then, right? Who has control over the workplace, the workers or the boss?
DK: They talk about how hard it is to get these things done. But let’s remember that CPS was given $1.8 billion in COVID-19 federal relief money to help fund these safety measures in schools. It also came to light that the State of Illinois has been offering the City of Chicago assistance with vaccinations, with masking, with testing, and the city has been like, “No, we’re good. We’re fine. Everything’s great.”
So Lightfoot’s not able to substantiate her arguments, but continues to dig in with her position. I think that gets a hearing because there’s a layer of the people who run this society locally and nationally who do not want workers having a say, who want people to just go to work.
The CDC’s [decision to shorten quarantine time to] five days is telling. In California, they’re telling nurses if you’re positive for COVID-19 and you don’t have symptoms, come on into work, help patients with their daily needs. Even though you have a transmissible disease in your system. That’s the position of the ruling class in this country. They don’t like it when workers oppose that publicly.
EL: Right, the CDC guideline changes are just pushing people to the brink.
DK: Well, it’s now been adopted in schools. Initially, the Illinois State Board of Education was like, we’re going to stick with the original ten-day quarantine period, pending further information from the CDC. Then, they were like, we’re also going to go with the five-day quarantine period in schools across the state.
EL: Right, because so many teachers have left. They don’t have anybody to work–the Great Resignation–and there’s not a plan to figure it out. It’s the same thing in the hospitals.
KR: Studies now show that kids with COVID-19 are two and a half to three times more likely to get diabetes. [That includes] children and young adults who have had COVID-19, even mild COVID-19, and they’re controlling for race, weight, all that, because we already know Black and Latinx children are more likely to get both COVID-19 and diabetes. So, they don’t care about kids. Let me put it this way. They don’t care about the kids who go to schools in Chicago.
DK: The public schools are eighty percent to ninety percent Black and Brown kids. The racism that underlies all this stuff is absolutely disgusting. This has been the case from the beginning. Over seventy percent of the deaths in Chicago [due to COVID-19] are African Americans, who only make up about thirty percent of our city.
It’s not because there’s some melanin-linked gene which makes them more likely to die from COVID-19. It’s because of the lack of proper healthcare, working essential jobs, living in multigenerational households, using public transportation, having higher incidences of conditions of poverty, including asthma, diabetes, obesity, all those things have led to a higher death rate. And yet, this city has been given resources to supposedly mitigate some of that suffering and has done nothing that we can see to ameliorate it.
KR: The racism in this is fundamental. We have failed our children, particularly our Black children living in poor communities. There’s a high school in the Chicago public schools that has a less than ten percent vaccine rate for its students. This is unlike any other major city.
So, when we say we are scared for our children, we mean it. We are scared for our children’s health. That’s why I think you’ve seen such strength and unanimity and resolve among Chicago Teachers Union members. They’re calling us all kinds of names in the press. I mean, we get hate tweets. We get death tweets and emails and messages from people who don’t live in our city. We’ve taken all of that and we’re saying, you know what, call us whatever you want to, but we’re scared for the young people of this city, and we will continue to fight. We’ll continue to fight for safety for as long as we can.
DK: One of the schools where there was a coronavirus outbreak was Jensen Elementary. It’s near the West Side of Chicago and predominantly poor and African American. It’s literally walking distance from the largest concentration of medical care in the world, the Chicago Medical Center. They’ve got UIC Hospital, Rush Hospital, Stroger Hospital, the Veterans Administration Hospital. All kinds of healthcare is available within walking distance. Two parents passed away from COVID-19 at a school where COVID-19 was raging. This is before Omicron, this was before this latest spike, and vaccination, testing, and access to health care just doesn’t exist for so many people who live in this city.
The medical apartheid, which predates this pandemic, has been exacerbated by this disease. It is completely outrageous that the people who run the city and the public health director, Dr. [Allison] Arwady, talk about how safe things are. This is the same person who, when Rahm Emanuel shut down half of the mental health clinics, signed off on that. It’s not surprising, but it’s equally disgusting.
EL: One of the arguments right now about keeping the schools open is that they are safe. But the Illinois Department of Public Health has a pie graph showing that schools are the places with the highest likelihood of contracting COVID-19. It’s crazy.
There are other arguments that the media and the ruling class in this country are throwing at you. There’s the argument about how traumatic this is for children and that they need to be in schools. What do you say to that?
KR: We agree that shutting down schools is really the last response you would possibly want to have. It’s just such a shocking indictment of our whole system that we would be in this place, again, because of their complete negligence to make the schools in any way safe for children. I mean, what a failure.
I don’t want this forgotten. On December 31, Lori Lightfoot hosted a massive fireworks’ New Year’s Eve display in Downtown Chicago, while all around the country, the headlines were screaming, “Omicron surge” and “hospitals filling up.” She was hosting a party in Downtown Chicago and telling everybody, “Come on down. It’s safe and the bars are wide open.” There was no vaccine requirement. Anybody could walk into any bar or restaurant or dance club or anywhere they wanted to go and party down in the middle of this surge. That’s what she was doing, and then it was mad when we got back to school three days later and saw the effects of this surge. Someone had to step up to protect our communities.
They want to pretend everything is back to normal. Get that economy pumping. It’s like that movie that’s been very popular recently, “Don’t Look Up.” Don’t look at the COVID-19 tracker. Don’t look at the nurses who are begging us to try and limit our social contacts because they literally cannot do their jobs. There are too many people who are sick, filling up our hospitals. Don’t look at any of that. It’s a sick, sick thing that our politicians are trying to do to us.
I think that’s why we’re trying to stand up, because we have an organization that helps us to do that. We have a union. They’re going to force us to oversee public health? Okay.
DK: I think what you’re raising goes back to how public education is structured in our society. The myth is that this is the country of opportunity, and anybody can become Jeff Bezos and shoot themselves into space. If you just work hard enough at your school, you can get there someday and be just like Jeff.
But as we know, the reality is much different for the majority, and education is set up partly to provide childcare so that workers can go make profit for the bosses. It’s also partly to train people to become workers in this society and to be present and productive members for the profit system.
It also serves as a place for people who don’t get enough food at home. It serves as a place to get some semblance of health care if you don’t get enough healthcare in your community. For some people who don’t have access to a loving environment in their home because of the way our society is so jacked up, it’s a place to get a semblance of a relationship with their classmates or teachers. Schools serve purposes that our society has failed to provide because it’s based on a profit system, not based on meeting people’s needs. It is true that taking that away is damaging, but I think it calls into question capitalism, which doesn’t really have caring for people in general, and for children specifically, at the center of its project.
I think the more this goes on, the more it’s being exposed that the profit system, the system of capitalism, is the actual problem. We must get more people attuned to that and move towards fighting for a society where people’s needs are centered, not the needs of people like Jeff Bezos.
KR: COVID-19 has also been extremely traumatizing. People are rightly concerned about isolation, that remote schooling and lock downs in general are impacting mental health amongst children. I think that’s true. We need to be really concerned about that and, again, question a society that lets this disease rip through in a way that makes those kinds of lockdowns and remote schools necessary instead of preventing the spread of COVID-19 more effectively.
But I will also say that COVID-19 itself, the actual disease, has been incredibly traumatizing to children’s psyches and to their bodies. I think the CDC reports about 140 to 150 thousand children have lost a caregiver and [many] have been orphaned by COVID-19. That is trauma. We have children who themselves are very ill.
DK: The number of deaths in this country is 800 thousand and in Cook County it’s 13 thousand. It sends the message that those who run our society don’t care about the people who are struggling to live through this and the people who have lost their lives because of their negligence.
Billions of dollars and resources to get the economy moving and get vaccines in people’s arms. Yet, when we’re talking about remote learning and trying to support families who are struggling financially, whose jobs are impacted when their kids stay home from school, it’s laughable. We know the resources exist. It’s just that the people who hold the purse strings, the people who have been given billions of dollars and resources, are not putting them where they belong.
It makes them even more upset when organizations like the CTU say that out loud and their collective membership does something about it publicly. That really gets up their nose. That’s why Lori responded the way she did.
EL: CPS parents’ support has been critical in your fight and became a political football in the mainstream media. What has been the response of parents and students to your action?
DK: Part of it is I think they voted with their feet. The parents of students who have significant health issues didn’t send their children to school on Monday and Tuesday after winter break because they watched the news. They know the impact that this disease has on people with diabetes, immune compromised systems, asthma, etc.
I also think there’s been a lot of positive support out there from parents who understand the impact that [COVID-19] can have, and not just on their kids. Maybe it is milder for them, but it comes down to numbers. If there is an exponential increase in the number of people who have Omicron, even if it’s a smaller group of people who get very sick, that is still more people in hospitals, in the ICU, who can often, as we’re also learning, get long-term diseases from this infection.
I think a lot of parents have had a positive response to what is going on. Hopefully, they are seeing for themselves the actions members of CTU are taking, because they also have jobs. They also have employers. They also have unsafe working conditions, and can say, “Hey, why shouldn’t we also do something about these dangerous conditions and take collective action?”
KR: I think there is polarization in Chicago politics, just like there is polarization around the country. Lori Lightfoot speaks for a certain class of people in Chicago. She speaks for upper-middle-class, by and large white, but not all white, Chicago.
I think that’s who the CDC and Biden are also aiming at in these questions and debates. There are some people here in Chicago who want nothing more than to see Lightfoot force us back to work and put an end to the CTU and our pesky antics, as we try to organize and give voice to Black and Brown students and parents and community organizations.
There’s polarization, but the demographic who makes up Chicago Public Schools is eighty percent Black and Brown and low income. They are with us. They are with us because they are scared, and they are the ones who were the most inconvenienced by this.
I get tons of messages, like “We really hope remote learning can start. We really hope to see you again, even if it’s just on the computer for a little bit, but what you’re doing makes sense. Good luck.” Those are the kinds of messages we get from parents. They want remote learning to start. It is not okay for their kids to just sit around. They want to at least be able to connect and get some comfort from their teachers. This is a stressful time.
DK: Lightfoot is trying to portray this as teachers who don’t want to work, who don’t want to educate children, and yet they are the ones who locked people out from providing remote services.
The thing that’s so mind boggling is that there is a school in Chicago called the Virtual Academy. A hundred percent of those students have a medical condition. They already have been establishing remote learning for hundreds of these students who are so sick, they shouldn’t be inside of a school building.
Guess what? They also shut down the Virtual Academy teachers.
In addition, there are dozens of classrooms on any given week that are also remote because a staff member or educator tested positive, meaning that all the students in that class are participating in education through a screen.
Guess what? All those classrooms were also shut down because of the actions of the mayor. Make it make sense. It doesn’t make sense, right?
KR: It only makes sense from the point of view of punishing children. It’s like a bad divorce where one of the parents decides to punish the child to get at the other parents. That’s Lori Lightfoot. She’s punishing our kids to try and get at us.
DK: It doesn’t take convincing parents that coronavirus is bad, that it kills people, that it needs to be taken seriously. This is the same experience everyone in the city has been having. Last Friday was the first anniversary of my uncle’s death from COVID-19. He didn’t have to die. He was weeks away from getting a vaccine.
But this isn’t unique, with 800 thousand people dead. That means 800 thousand family members who’ve lost somebody in this country. The difference is that we’re trying to do something about it. We’re trying to keep our community safe and put forward an idea that we can’t depend on the government, private businesses, or the privatized healthcare system to meet people’s needs.
We must fight for that tooth and nail, and it is outrageous that we have to spend energy on top of our jobs to do it. It doesn’t make any sense that the people who have the resources, have the power, have the coordination, have the ability, the bird’s-eye view of what’s happening, aren’t doing that. It is pretty messed up that you have regular people trying to fight for a society that meets people’s needs. But so be it.
EL: When Trump was in office, there was a lot of outrage around his response to the pandemic and when Biden took office, he made promises to change the lack of substantive COVID-19 response on the part of government, but now he seems to be walking away from any meaningful response to Omicron. What do you think about that?
KR: We talk about this a lot in our thinking and strategizing about the struggle. Lots of people are paying attention to the political moment we’re in and are very aware of how hard it is to stand up, because we’re bucking a trend. It isn’t just about crazy Republicans who deny science.
I think in other cities, people could fight, organize, and get a hell of a lot more. I would like them to try, anyway. We’re bucking a trend politically in this country that has been ushered in since the Biden election. I just want to be ready for it. I want lots of people to be thinking that through and strategizing around that, because the Democratic Party’s response to this disease has not been to deny the science the way Trump did with bleach and ivermectin.
Instead, what the Democratic Party does is look at the science, look at the number of cases and deaths, and say, “We’re not going to let that stand in the way of the economy.” So, union workers, non-union workers, school students, everyone, all of us must get used to life with risk. That’s just going to be part of what it means to live in this country. You will be assuming risk when you walk out of your house, into your jobs, and into your schools.
I think that’s important for us to think about, because the only way out of this is we can’t rely on them. People who we should be relying on, public health departments, etc. in Democratic cities are not doing it. We’re the only ones we can rely on. We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for. Nobody’s coming to rescue us.
There are some Democratic politicians who are behaving differently, and people should also strategize around that. Our governor, who is a Democrat, J.B. Pritzker, has a different approach. He’s a little more cautious than Lori Lightfoot is. He’s a little more concerned about his union base than she is. But he’s still allowing the Illinois Department of Schools to take us down to only a five-day quarantine based on the CDC recommendations, which are all about keeping the economy running.
At the end of the day, it’s turning back to us and to what we can do to organize.
DK: I think whoever was waiting for Biden to do something that was categorically different than what Trump had been doing has obviously been disappointed. I mean, we had this whole Build Back Better plan that we were sold as a reason to vote for Biden. People wanted paid leave when they had a child. People wanted more healthcare. People wanted more resources to help them during these difficult economic times.
It’s important to underline that the two-party system in this country is built around maintaining control by the people who profit from this system. I think this whole process for those who are paying attention is having an effect on them. Undoubtedly, the politicians who say they’re for a certain kind of relief system have not delivered. We saw some of the same things last summer, with the movement against police brutality, where people also said, wait, what is the interest of this government that excuses police violence and murder that disproportionately affects Black and Brown people? I think that we will see more struggles as people get their heads around this. It’s different under Biden, but it’s also the same. We must continue to organize and fight.
The fact that CTU is organizing this under a federal administration, which is House, Senate, President’s Office run by Democrats, I think this is worth talking about more, and figuring out how we push beyond this kind of electoral picture through other means, through taking collective action.
KR: It would be good to get some support from organized voices within the Democratic Party who are socialists and who are more aligned with the labor movement. It would be good to organize unions to speak out in support of the CTU and all workers who are standing up for safety right now. The Socialist Caucus in the Chicago City Council supports us. I would love to see Bernie Sanders come to Chicago and have a rally for us. That would be wonderful. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) could say something and do her social media blasts. There are politicians inside the Democratic Party who have shown a lot of interest in workers’ struggles in the past. I would sure like to hear them speaking up for us right now.
It feels scary and lonely to be locked out of work during a terrible surge in a terrible pandemic. Please comment and help us out. We would welcome support from anybody and everybody, but especially the folks that our movements have helped elect.
EL: A tentative agreement was reached on January 11 after Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Lori Lightfoot had locked Chicago Teachers Union members out from teaching remotely for five days. CTU rank-and-file membership voted on the tentative agreement on January 12, with 55.5 percent in favor and 44.5 percent opposed to ending the job action and returning to school.
What are your thoughts on this and potential next steps for your fight?
KR: We have engaged in three job actions in two and a half years. Those who have been on strike know the energy expenditure as well as the gains earned in these moments—gains that cannot be measured solely in collective bargaining agreements and contract language.
CTU members and leaders have been engaged in continual and bruising fights with the city from October 2019 (a ten-day strike that got us modest wage and staffing gains, but cost us five days’ pay) until today. Five months after the conclusion of that strike, we were thrust into a battle with the city over lock down and remote education. We have not stopped organizing around COVID-19 safety, improving remote learning, and improving in-person learning under pandemic conditions ever since.
Understaffing was at the heart of the 2019 strike. While we won real gains, the problem of chronic understaffing and overcrowding continues, and in some job categories, is even worse than 2019. Certainly, the needs of students are greater as the pandemic takes its toll on children and youth. Working conditions are more difficult than ever before and most teachers report the first few months of 2021-22 school year as their most punishing ever. Comforting crying co-workers is now a regular part of most school workers’ daily lives.
Political isolation is real. Biden seems to have backed Lori Lightfoot during this most recent battle. It seems increasingly clear that the profitability of the U.S. economy, no matter what the cost, has moved from the “conservative” wing of U.S. politics to the center of U.S. politics and is a bi-partisan consensus above all others. Opening schools during Omicron surges, ignoring overcrowded hospitals, normalizing high death counts, and shaming workers who resist as “hysterical” or “selfish” is part and parcel of this return to normal. The extension of limited amounts of cash assistance and other supports to working class people in the first year of the pandemic (unemployment, bans on evictions, etc.) left a very sour taste in the mouth of big business, and they are making sure no one gets any ideas that there is any alternative to the dangerous world of work in this moment. The labor movement broadly doesn’t look capable of mounting much of a struggle against this dismal reality.
In the face of this isolation, there is a lot of evidence that CTU was speaking for more than just themselves when they stood up for safety on the job and for our students this past week. For example: Most students and parents—despite a few rich white parents who sucked up a lot of media oxygen nationally—stood by us and supported our struggle. Their support was evident even though our job action had working class parents scrambling to figure out care for their children.
Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73, which represents a lot of CPS workers, was a vocal supporter of the action, but did little to prepare workers in schools to take job actions alongside CTU. Despite this, many schools showed impressive solidarity and lower-paid SEIU 73 staff stayed out alongside their CTU colleagues. National Nurses United and the Illinois Nurses Association were also vocally supportive of CTU and provided a lot of moral and medical authority for our action.
The socialist aldermen played an important role in spreading our struggle’s message and helped make it clear that in this battle, Chicago was once again polarizing between Lori Lightfoot’s corporate-backed conservative base and the working-class, particularly working-class communities of color, who are demanding safety on the job. It came out during this fight that Lori Lightfoot chose to pay off bankers with COVID-19 relief funds, and there are increasing demands for a federal investigation into this misappropriation.
Despite all of this, we didn’t win this round of action with much to show for it besides the slight flattening of the spike in COVID-19 cases, some improvements to COVID-19 testing, and some improved PPE. Lori Lightfoot would not budge on allowing remote learning and once it became clear that she “would not relent” on this issue, CTU members’ confidence in their ability to win more eroded pretty quickly. The close vote to accept the agreement with the Board of Education shows how unhappy members are with the agreement, but mostly how unhappy they are with the state of our schools.
The decade of struggle by Caucus of Ranks and File Educators (CORE), which has led CTU from 2012-2022, has produced a certain kind of internal culture and a political dynamic in Chicago politics that makes it hard to generalize on a national scale. Yet, clearly, education workers and the labor Left around the country look to CTU as a source of inspiration and leadership. We need more conversation amongst school workers and education activists nationally to draw out key immediate lessons.
The CPS student walk-out last week, Friday, was an inspiration and points to what the struggle can and should look like with our high school students leading the way. The fact that Chicago Tribune ran this [headline] on its front page is a sign this battle is far from over and many voices that haven’t yet been heard have something important to say about what our collective futures hold.
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Elizabeth Lalasz View All
Elizabeth Lalasz is a registered nurse and steward with National Nurses United. She is a member of the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America Labor Branch and the Tempest Collective.