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40 years later, Chicago’s second female mayor facing labor troubles just like the first

A teachers strike also could damage the national reputation Mayor Lori Lightfoot is starting to build and undermine her local popularity just as her honeymoon with taxpayers is about to end.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot talks to reporters at City Hall.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot talks to reporters at City Hall the morning after two unions — the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Local 73, which represents school support personnel and Chicago Park District employees — set an Oct. 17 strike date.
Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

The first woman ever to serve as mayor of Chicago began her tumultuous term with three strikes in rapid-fire succession — by teachers, firefighters and CTA employees. It was a setup for the one-termer Jane Byrne turned out to be.

Now, 40 years later, Chicago’s second female mayor faces a simultaneous triple-strike threat by 35,000 government workers.

Having Chicago Park District employees and school support personnel join Chicago Public School teachers on the picket lines won’t be nearly as disruptive or dangerous to the city as the CTA and firefighters strikes.

But the political risks for Mayor Lori Lightfoot are high, nevertheless.

A protracted strike has the potential to disrupt recent educational gains, sending parents running for the hills — er, suburbs — and fleeing a school system already hemorrhaging students.

Depending on how long a strike lasts and how it ends, it could be seen as a sign of weakness by police and fire unions still negotiating with the city.

A teachers strike also could damage the national reputation Lightfoot is just starting to build and undermine the new mayor’s local popularity as her honeymoon with taxpayers is about to end.

Six days after the Oct. 17 strike date, Lightfoot will deliver her 2020 budget address to a Chicago City Council that’s already pushing back. She’ll reveal what taxes she plans to raise and services she plans to cut to erase an $838 million shortfall.

“She promised basic educational support. She promised racial equity. She promised to transform neighborhood schools. Those were three things she ran on that we agreed with. We want to see those promises show up in writing in our contract,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said.

“A decent amount of [her] credibility will get judged by this. … Politicians are judged on whether they keep promises. People will ask, `Is she for real? Does she stand on what she promises?’”

Former Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th) was the longtime chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee and floor leader for then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Chicago both endured and avoided many teachers’ strikes during his 36 years on the council.

If there is a strike, O’Connor expects it to be a “short one.” And he argued the biggest risk is on the union side.

“If the teachers go out with the offer they have on the table, they run the risk of having people not being totally supportive of `em the way they were before,” he said.

Former Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), longtime chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee. | Brian Jackson/Sun-Times
Former Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), longtime chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, expects any strike to be short.
Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

By “before,” O’Connor means the 2012 teachers strike Emanuel literally brought upon himself — by canceling a previously negotiated 4% pay raise for teachers, offering bounties to individual schools to immediately implement his longer school day and persuading the General Assembly to raise the strike-vote threshold to 75%.

Chicago teachers were so incensed, they blew past that benchmark: 90% voted to strike, and teachers remained on the picket lines for seven days.

“She’s gone down a different path. She’s given them an offer that is significantly generous from the standpoint of what other bargaining units get. But she’s got the money to do it. Mayor Emanuel didn’t,” O’Connor said.

“She’s definitely trying to get this thing done,” he added, because she knows if people blame her more than the union for a strike, “that stays with you for a long time.”

Lightfoot is trying to “get ahead of the blame game,” O’Connor said, with a website outlining the city’s offer.

Lightfoot initially offered the teachers a 14% raise over five years. She sweetened the offer to 16% to match the recommendation of an independent fact-finder.

The CTU is fighting over more than money. It wants the mayor to write into the contract — not just the school budget — the union’s demands for smaller class sizes and the hiring of more nurses, librarians and social workers in schools.

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey speaks outside the Chicago Public Schools headquarters in June.
Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said the union wants certain commitments written into a new contract because “we’ve seen CPS break enough promises.”
Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

“Sodexo has a contract to clean the schools. Police have a contract. Lincoln Yards has a contract. People make contracts for what they value and prioritize. We’re just asking for the same thing,” Sharkey said.

“We’ve seen CPS break enough promises.”

Another sticking point is the union’s demand for a half-hour of paid preparation for elementary school teachers at the start of the day.

Lightfoot has said she won’t shorten the school day or “retreat” from Emanuel’s signature educational achievement of a longer school day and school year.

The new mayor is also playing hardball by promising to keep school buildings staffed by administrators and by threatening not to make up any instructional days lost to a teachers strike.

That would be unprecedented, cutting both teacher pay and the classroom time Lightfoot is striving to preserve.

“A 16 percent raise is something we can afford. But it wouldn’t be responsible for us to commit an extra $1 billion on top of that, which is what CTU’s demands would have us do — at least,” said Mike Frisch, senior counsel and legal adviser to Lightfoot and a member of the mayor’s negotiating team.

“Yes, we’re in way better financial shape than we were in 2012 and in 2016. The brink of insolvency and all that. But we still are not out of the woods yet. ... We’re borrowing money to make payroll every year.”

Striking Chicago school teachers march after a rally in September 2012 in Chicago.
Striking Chicago school teachers march after a rally in September 2012 in Chicago.
Associated Press

A notorious grudge holder, Lightfoot hasn’t forgotten the CTU was among vanquished mayoral challenger Toni Preckwinkle’s biggest supporters and campaign contributors.

But the new mayor has kept her temper in check and more than delivered on her promise not to, as she put it, “lead with my middle finger” in dealing with the CTU.

The diplomatic, “I’m-not-Rahm” approach should not be seen as a sign of weakness, she said.

“For me, it’s not about caving or not caving. It’s about doing something that’s right that honors the hard work and sacrifice of our teachers,” the mayor said, maintaining her disciplined approach.

“We have 360,000 children who depend upon CPS every single day to learn, to play, to grow and to be fed. When we think about a work stoppage, think about what that does for them. That’s what I think about every single day.”

Frisch, who was Lightfoot’s right-hand man at Mayer Brown LLP, was singing from the same hymn book.

“Trying to make important decisions, in some ways, was really easy because, for her, it’s just, ‘Do the right thing.’ She doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the political ramifications of this or that,” Frisch said.

“She’s not stubborn because of some personality trait. She has strong convictions. She’s gonna hold her ground. ... For her, it’s not about political pressure. It’s about doing what’s right for schools and kids.”

In 2012, Emanuel was forced to cut short his triumphant trip to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte to tend to a strike that undermined his then-vaunted reputation as a political powerhouse.

Thousands of striking teachers dressed in a sea of red union T-shirts had taken to the streets of Chicago in an intimidating show of force.

Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, addresses a union rally in September 2012.
Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, addresses a union rally in September 2012.
AP

They were led by a charismatic union president, Karen Lewis, whom Emanuel had insulted with a profanity-laced tirade in one of their earliest meetings. Lewis would have challenged Emanuel in 2015 and might have beaten him. But a brain tumor forced her to drop out of the race.

Sharkey is not the charismatic leader Lewis was. And Lightfoot is no Rahm Emanuel.

“I don’t think we can find a boogeyman. It’s a very different dynamic,” Sharkey said.

Back then, “Rahm had all the political momentum. He had the legislature lined up. They had a law they thought would hamstring the CTU. There was a pension crisis looming on the horizon,” he said.

But “the legislature put $1 billion in additional funding in CPS” in 2017, Sharkey noted. And now, “we have a mayor who ran on a number of promises for the schools. And we think the union is in a lot stronger position. We’re very much looking to take that perfect storm and translate it into real benefits for students and schools.”

If Sharkey is right, the ghost of the 2012 teachers strike is dead and buried. But the ghost of Jane Byrne and her tumultuous, triple-strike start still looms.

Mayor Jane Byrne at a press conference during the firefighters’ strike that occurred early in her one term in office.
Mayor Jane Byrne at a press conference during the firefighters’ strike that occurred early in her one term in office.
Sun Times file photo

“With the Byrne strikes, particularly the firefighters strike, it was much more fundamentally contentious. Firefighters saw her as trying to break the union,” said former Ald. Dick Simpson (44th), an early Lightfoot supporter now advising the mayor on ethics reform.

“Lightfoot doesn’t disagree with teachers on fundamental issues. Their problems are trying to figure out how to accomplish it within the budget limits that are available.”

Simpson acknowledged a “long-lived” strike would be “a problem” for the Lightfoot administration. But, he noted, “even Rahm got a second term.”

“She faces a lot of challenges right at this point in time, with particularly the city budget being introduced later this month” and the potential strikes.

“But every chief executive faces serious challenges,” Simpson added. “It’s really how they deal with them that determines whether they’re reelectable or not.”

Lightfoot said she’s well aware CTU and SEIU Local 73 are “trying to bond together to try to leverage us.”

But, she said, “We’re gonna take these issues [separately] because they’re not all the same. Some of `em, we’re close on. Others, we’re a little further apart on. But fundamentally, we have three different teams that are working night and day to try to get a deal done.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot discussed contract negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union during a press conference at Daniel Webster Elementary School.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot discussed contract negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union during a press conference at Daniel Webster Elementary School in August.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times