Bernie Sanders rallies with Chicago teachers as strike vote gets underway

“I think that the Chicago school board should be very nervous,” the Vermont senator said as he took the stage in a room packed with hundreds of cheering teachers.

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Presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) waves with Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates after speaking at a rally at the CTU headquarters, Tuesday evening, Sept. 24, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) waves with Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates after speaking at a rally at the CTU headquarters, Tuesday evening, Sept. 24, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

As Chicago teachers began voting Tuesday on whether to strike over their contract demands, Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) rallied with them to help spark the unified energy that had yet to surface in public view.

“I think that the Chicago school board should be very nervous,” Sanders said as he took the stage at the Chicago Teachers Union’s Near West Side headquarters in a room packed with hundreds of cheering teachers. “What we see is teachers standing up and fighting for justice.”

The rally was a boost to the union’s efforts as it tries to persuade its members to vote in favor of a work stoppage to put added pressure on Mayor Lori Lightfoot in negotiations that have lasted all year.

Presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) speaks at a rally at the Chicago Teachers Union headquarters, Tuesday evening, Sept. 24, 2019.

Presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) speaks at a rally at the Chicago Teachers Union headquarters, Tuesday evening, Sept. 24, 2019.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Sanders urged Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools leadership to accede to the demands of the CTU and SEIU Local 73, which represents more than 7,000 school support staff workers who have already authorized a potential strike.

“I am so proud to be here with you tonight to say to the city of Chicago, ‘Sit down with the CTU, sit down with the SEIU, and negotiate a good faith contract that is just, that is fair, that treats the teachers and staff in this city with the dignity and respect that they deserve,” Sanders said.

Joining Sanders at the rally were actor John Cusack — who praised the senator for his support of organized labor — and several City Council members: Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa (35th), Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th), Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) and Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd).

The CTU’s three-day strike authorization vote, which began Tuesday and will conclude Thursday, needs at least 75% of teachers to vote in favor of a walkout. If it passes, the union’s House of Delegates is expected to set a strike date at its meeting next Wednesday, putting the CTU one step closer to a work stoppage that would be the first at Chicago schools since a one-day walkout in 2016 and a historic seven-day strike in 2012.

Though the earliest a walkout could happen is Oct. 7, indications from the CTU are that a strike would come closer to mid-October.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, meanwhile, was asked Tuesday whether the city, the Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Park District and other agencies of local government are preparing contingency plans to keep students safe and occupied in the event of a teachers strike.

“Well, we’re always gonna be prepared. We owe that to our students,” the mayor said. “But, what our primary focus — both at the mayor’s office and CPS — is on [is] getting a deal done. That’s where we’re spending most of our time.”

The mayor’s plans, however, may have taken another hit Tuesday evening when Park District workers, who are also represented by SEIU Local 73, announced at the rally that they have voted in favor of a strike.

The city has offered both the CTU and SEIU school staff a pay and benefits package that includes 16% raises over five years, and Lightfoot said again Tuesday that she would be willing to sit at the CTU bargaining table herself to hammer out a deal.

Lightfoot said she’s not at all surprised that Sanders decided to appear at the CTU rally to show his solidarity with teachers or that challenger Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has also shown her support.

“It’s not a surprise to me that Democratic contenders for the presidency support working families and support teachers. So do I. It’s part of who we are as Democrats,” Lightfoot said.

After voting to authorize a strike Tuesday, Katie Roznai joined hundreds of other CTU members at the Sanders rally. She said she was energized to see Sanders showing solidarity with their fight.

”I think it definitely shows some weight to be like, ‘Yeah, this isn’t just your teachers complaining,’” said Roznai, 28, a chemistry and computer science teacher at World Language High School in Little Village. “It shows a validity that these are real workers looking for real working conditions. ... We need to fight for our students and our students’ families.”

Roznai echoed what union leaders have said for weeks: The union’s contract demands aren’t all about money. Class sizes, teacher preparation time and staffing shortages have been main focuses of bargaining.

”These are our children and our future. The best learning conditions for them happen to be the best working conditions for us,” Roznai said. “But nobody came into teaching to be like, ‘Oh, I want to make more money.’ It’s not about that.”

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