Anyone who has followed Chicago Public Schools in recent years knows Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union is beyond repair.
When the mayor accuses teachers of holding their students “hostage” by demanding safer working conditions, and the union president calls the mayor “relentlessly stupid” — two moments that made you cringe during their latest standoff this month — it’s clear there’s little chance of reconciliation.
But with bitter disputes having interrupted all three school years the mayor has been in office — leading to 16 missed school days, countless postponed or canceled sporting and after-school events, a delayed return to in-person classes and hours of lost special education support — students, parents, teachers and principals wonder:
When will the next dispute between CPS and CTU unfold? Will their disagreements over working and safety conditions again boil to the point that learning is disrupted?
At least for the short term, labor peace is guaranteed through this summer — the agreement teachers approved earlier this month will be in place until the fall. And Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said last week the city appears to have passed its Omicron variant peak, so the risk of transmission at schools will hopefully improve over the next few weeks or months.
But from there, between the unpredictable pandemic and an upcoming mayoral election in which the union has made clear it will try to unseat Lightfoot, it’s anyone’s guess.
“It’s hard to be certain,” said Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois who has studied CPS-CTU negotiations and wrote a book on the 2012 teachers strike.
“One would expect that you’re going to have fight after fight after fight.”
‘They never learn’
Hints of the relationship’s cyclical toxicity have been there for all to see over the past three years — especially during the third consecutive fight that seemed to take a nearly identical path as before.
First, the CTU asks for certain school improvements, and the two sides typically don’t start that far apart. But the mayor and CPS brush off most concerns until the union threatens a work action. Then the mayor says there’s no reason for teachers to walk out even though she hasn’t met their demands. The union goes ahead and walks out — or refuses to report in person.
Negotiations finally get serious, but they take days or weeks to resolve — and all the while leaders on the two sides hold dueling press conferences featuring attacks that further stir emotions. And even after an agreement is reached, the shots against each other continue.
“It’s like they never learn,” Bruno said. “There’s a constant institutional relearning about each other, and it ends up usually in the same place: There’s a big fight, and there’s a resolution.”
Bruno said he has “high regard” for the agreements the district and union eventually come to because they benefit school communities in great ways. But there are missed opportunities for the two sides, both believing they’re working in the best interests of students, to collaborate before going off a cliff and sending stress levels for everyone from students to parents and educators through the roof.
“What really creative solutions have they not been able to come up with because of this deep animosity they have for one another?” Bruno asked.
In this latest dispute, it was no secret the CTU had been looking for a safety agreement since the fall — the two sides were meeting regularly. But COVID cases were generally low at CPS and in the city, so there didn’t seem to be an urgency to get a deal done.
Then came the Omicron surge in late December, and CTU President Jesse Sharkey warned the school board at its meeting that month the union was ready to take action if new safety measures weren’t enacted. Even still, a source close to the mayor’s office said City Hall didn’t expect the union to take prolonged action.
That was until the district’s plan to have thousands of students tested for COVID before returning from winter break failed miserably.
Photos of FedEx drop-boxes overflowing with at-home tests that CPS had given to families circulated on social media and in news coverage, making for a highly visible and embarrassing failure by the district. Teachers and families started questioning if returning to school after break would lead to a huge spike in cases transmitted at schools and whether the district was ready for the new reality of a more contagious variant.
But CPS announced it was moving forward with plans to resume in-person schooling on Jan. 3 with little to no additional precautions.
Within two days, after nearly a third of students missed the first day of class and CPS scrambled to find subs for missing teachers, the union voted against in-person work. If the mayor wasn’t going to meet CTU’s demands, many teachers thought it was at least reasonable to assume the district would agree to remote learning for a week or two until the latest surge subsided.
But that was a non-starter for Lightfoot, despite a recent $39 million purchase of 100,000 laptops bringing the district close to one device for every student they could presumably use at home.
The mayor’s office saw three reasons against remote learning: Public health officials didn’t believe it was necessary; the union couldn’t be allowed to dictate how the entire district would run; and agreeing to move classes online would result in the city losing any leverage to get teachers back in school buildings.
“That would have been precedent-setting — that any one group could just impose a decision like this on hundreds of thousands of families at the drop of a hat,” said a source close to the mayor’s office who spoke candidly on the condition of anonymity. The source believes the decision not to distribute laptops and go virtual was “one reason this didn’t last long” — unlike the negotiations in early 2021 that ended up dragging on for months and kept students out of school buildings for most of the school year (though the vast majority didn’t return when schools opened anyway).
But that calculation not to even consider what some other districts in the Chicago area and nationwide believed was the safest option during the largest case surge of the pandemic — and the union’s decision to walk out of all schools, even ones with relatively low risk — left families stuck in the middle of a potentially drawn-out battle.
“How is it that it was either ‘no school’ or ‘school done my way?’ That’s disappointing,” Bruno said.
After the dispute was resolved, the mayor — who harped about extensive learning loss experienced last year — wouldn’t even agree to make up the lost school days. That decision will be up to Martinez and the Board of Education in the months to come, leaving it unclear whether teachers will recover pay for the days they were out.
“There’s always something to be proven, there’s always a battle to be won, there’s always somebody who needs to come out on top,” said a South Side principal who asked not to be named. “Schools are left in this limbo of [having] to wait until you’re done fighting to actually do our jobs.”
The principal said school administrators felt a “lack of leadership” and a “disconnect” between Lightfoot and Martinez — neither of whom has ever worked as an educator — and the conditions on the ground.
Everyone was left with little to no information or indication of what was going to happen. Principals generally first heard information in press conferences — or different plans in Lightfoot’s and Martinez’s media interviews than they had been told. CPS’ central office sent strongly worded template messages for principals to email to staff that many administrators felt uncomfortable forwarding. At most schools, principals don’t have adversarial relationships with teachers.
“I think they’re misunderstanding that we have to see people the next day and work with people,” the principal said. “A lot of principals said, ‘Yeah, I’m not sending that.’”
Another South Side principal questioned whether the situation had to turn so difficult.
“So many other schools went remote after Christmas break,” said the principal, who requested anonymity. “And I don’t know why we had to dig our heels in and create this nightmare.
“The mayor and CPS are so in over their heads, and they can’t just admit that they make some mistakes.”
Will union’s solidarity hold?
So now what?
The CTU’s five-year collective bargaining agreement doesn’t expire until July 2024. But say there’s a new coronavirus variant later this year, and the mayor again is unwilling to meet the union’s demands — will teachers be willing to take matters into their own hands after three work actions in 27 months? How will the mayoral campaign play into any decisions?
It’s no secret CTU members were angry and frustrated after voting by an unusually narrow margin to accept a deal they felt didn’t go far enough. Some have questioned whether the CTU’s unity, which makes it one of the most powerful unions in the country, will remain intact. Union President Sharkey even felt compelled to call for continued solidarity at a membership meeting to discuss the deal.
Bruno, for one, doesn’t think CTU’s resolve has been shaken.
“Even the strongest, the most loyal union members, they would prefer not to be in a constant state of struggle. They would prefer collaboration with their employer,” Bruno said. “Failing that, though, what we have seen over and over again is the membership of this union strongly supports taking strong, assertive action.”
And city officials also don’t see the CTU standing down, if only for other motives.
“There are some things that aren’t in control of CPS or the mayor,” the source close to the mayor’s office said. “If CTU a year from now, when the mayor is a month out from election day, wants to do another walkout, they’ll try to do it.”
As for the city’s part? “CPS and the mayor’s office have no interest in conflict with CTU. The goal is stability and labor peace,” the source claimed.
Meanwhile, CTU Vice president Stacy Davis Gates doesn’t feel the union is picking fights; she blames the mayor for not working to alleviate educators’ safety concerns. She points to the union’s “ability to concede” by returning to schools this past fall without a safety agreement after the previous year’s deal expired.
“We feel like Charlie Brown, and they’re Lucy with the football. And the only way that they respect us, our membership, their contributions to Chicago, is when we begin taking votes and mobilizing.”
“Peace, labor peace, the peace that we would like to see is when we are respected at the table as co-equals.”