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CTU vice president says Lightfoot barred her from meeting that ended teachers strike

Stacy Davis Gates said she was stopped at a City Hall elevator by the mayor’s security team.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates (left) and CTU President Jesse Sharkey talk to reporters Thursday in the lobby of City Hall.
Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates (left) and CTU President Jesse Sharkey talk to reporters Thursday in the lobby of City Hall.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said Friday she was stopped at a City Hall elevator by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s security team and barred from participating in the final round of negotiations that ended the strike that saw teachers out of school for 11 days.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey and the union’s longtime attorney, Robert Bloch, persuaded Lightfoot to drop her longstanding opposition to compensating teachers for days spent on strike and agree to five paid makeup days.

When it was over, Lightfoot announced the back-to-work agreement with three African American women standing behind her: Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson, Deputy Mayor for Education and Human Services Sybil Madison and Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade.

What the mayor failed to mention — and the reason why Sharkey refused to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Lightfoot — was a fifth African American woman, Sharkey’s partner, had been denied entry.

“I couldn’t even go with Jesse or our attorney to complete the return-to-work agreement. I was stopped at the elevators by her security and [told] that I couldn’t go to the fifth floor and be a part of those return-to-work negotiations. I’ve been at the table for everything, [including] the meeting we had with her … earlier in the week, but was refused entry. It was kind of shocking,” Davis Gates told the Sun-Times.

Lightfoot “was offended that Jesse said that he didn’t want to stand with her. [But] Jesse took the high road in that moment [by not mentioning it]. ... She refused his vice president, his co-negotiator entering into the last part of our negotiations. It is shocking that she would be shocked that he wouldn’t stand with her in that moment.”

The CTU vice president said the irony and hypocrisy of the move was not lost on her.

“One of the things that folks have tried to pull a thread on is the ‘black girl magic,’ as they call it. ... It was five black women. Why was one denied [entry]?” Davis Gates said.

Lightfoot: ‘We came together’

During an interview with NBC-5 Chicago, Lightfoot said she asked for a meeting with Sharkey to seal the deal and end the strike. It wasn’t about barring Davis Gates. It was about getting kids back in school, the mayor said.

“This was intended to be a principal-to-principal discussion. He’s the president of the union. I’m the mayor of the city,” Lightfoot said.

“We came together. We [each] had our counsel in the room. That was it,” Lightfoot told NBC-5.

The mayor’s office also issued a statement that at least appeared to be an attempt to drive a wedge between Davis Gates and Sharkey. It noted that Sharkey and the union’s attorney agreed to the arrangement.

“We cannot speak to CTU’s internal decision-making process,” the statement said.

Sharkey said Chicago was forced to endure its longest teachers strike since 1987 because Lightfoot approached the negotiations like the former federal prosecutor that she is.

“One thing we learned is that Lori Lightfoot is prone to saying sort of unwise, provocative things in public, which then put her in a corner in negotiations she’s subsequently required to back out of,” Sharkey said.

“She said that class size and staffing didn’t belong in a labor contract. Class size and staffing are in a labor contract. She said that she wouldn’t put any more money into the labor contract. Well, she put a lot more money into the labor contract. She said she wouldn’t make up any school days. This is a pattern.”

And what exactly is that pattern?

“She approaches policy debates the way a prosecutor would. She makes a very strong advocacy argument. She states it in absolutist terms. And doesn’t leave herself ... room to maneuver. … Experienced politicians or deal-landers don’t talk like that.”

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates and CTU President Jesse Sharkey lead thousands of striking union members on a march through the Loop, Thursday afternoon, Oct. 17, 2019.
Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates and CTU President Jesse Sharkey lead thousands of striking union members on a march through the Loop, Thursday afternoon, Oct. 17, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Sharkey said the strike “took a year off my life,” but teachers “showed the city what it means to care, to put yourself forward, sacrifice and achieve something.”

What they achieved, in negotiations leading up to and during the strike, was a 16% pay raise over five years; more nurses, social workers, librarians, case managers and clinicians; $35 million to reduce overcrowded classrooms; and increased staffing for special education.

Special ed gains

Davis Gates pushed back hard against those who claim the special ed gains do not go nearly far enough.

She said former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and schools chief, Forrest Claypool, “destroyed special education — to the point where there is a state-mandated monitor. What we were able to do with this contract was rebuild infrastructure,” she said.

“The limitations of collective bargaining smacked us in the face with respect to the special education program. The special education program was defunded. It is going to require more funding from the state and from the Chicago Public Schools to rebuild. What we did with special education probably far outweighed most of the gains in this contract.”

Can city afford deal?

The CTU leaders sloughed off concerns about how a school system that was on the brink of bankruptcy just a few years ago can afford such a generous contract.

“In comparison to the rest of the state, we still have less staff. This fight for 10 days was significant because we’re at the minimum,” Davis Gates said.

“So to hear this discussion arise about, ‘Oh, my God. It’s gonna cost too much money.’ No. quite frankly, it should be costing a lot more money.”