The longest Chicago teachers strike in 3 decades is over

The months of negotiations and weeks of exhausting rhetoric that left Chicago captivated and on edge have come to an end.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday, discussing the deal reached with the Chicago Teachers Union that has halted their strike.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday, discussing the deal reached with the Chicago Teachers Union that halted their strike.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Take a deep breath. It’s finally over.

The months of negotiations and weeks of exhausting rhetoric that left Chicago captivated and on edge have come to an end.

It was a two-hour meeting Thursday at the mayor’s City Hall office that put the finishing touches on the contentious saga and sent 300,000 kids back to school Friday, suspending Chicago’s longest teachers strike since 1987 just as all patience had run out.

While the battle over the teachers contract painted the clearest picture yet of the new mayor’s political will, it also placed on display the divide between the city’s privileged schools and the under-resourced ones.

The agreement that pushed the deal over the finish line came in the form of a compromise on the final sticking point — how much lost classroom time and teacher pay would be made up. The mayor wanted zero days, and the union wanted 10, so they landed on five of the 11 missed days. The school district still needs to figure out when those days will be added to the calendar.

It all happened a day after the Chicago Teacher Union’s 700-member elected governing body approved a tentative agreement with Chicago Public Schools on a five-year deal.

Stepping out of her fifth floor office to announce the agreement, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she was “glad that this phase is over so we can get back to work.”

“In the interest of our students and our parents who have been suffering, it was important today to make sure that we got our kids back in class,” Lightfoot said. “In the spirit of compromise, we agreed. It was a hard-fought discussion.”

Asked what she won in the deal, the mayor shot back that she doesn’t “think about this in terms of wins personally.”

“I refuse to even talk about this in terms of winning and losing,” Lightfoot said. “Frankly, given what the hardships of our students and our families have endured, it’s an offensive term. Nobody wins in a circumstance like this.”

The mayor said she invited Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey to appear with her at a joint news conference, but he declined.

Chicago Teachers Union president Jesse Sharkey (red sweatshirt) and vice president Stacy Davis Gates (blue cap) at a news conference after the 2019 teachers strike ended.

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey (red sweatshirt) and union vice president Stacy Davis Gates (blue cap) discuss the end of their strike.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Speaking instead on the first floor of City Hall, Sharkey looked relieved the ordeal was over but said “it’s not about me or the mayor.”

“I think that this has been a tense last two weeks,” he said. “Frankly our members are still out there on the picket lines today. And they don’t need to see me smiling with the mayor. ... I just didn’t feel like doing a celebration lap with the mayor right now.”

Sharkey acknowledged the strike was difficult for students, parents and teachers, yet said the end result was worth the pain.

“We have a labor accord, and we’re pleased about that,” Sharkey said. “This is something which was the result of a lot of people’s work and people made some real sacrifices.”

At least one of those sacrifices is lost pay. Though their last paycheck came in full, teachers will have seven days of pay missing when they’re paid next Friday, and the paycheck after that will have four days docked. But the makeup days allow them to earn back some of the money, and they also won’t lose health insurance for November by being in school Friday at the start of the month.

The CTU’s 25,000 members also still have to ratify the contract and have until the middle of November — 10 school days from when the tentative agreement was reached — to do so.

Union vice president Stacy Davis Gates praised the “wins” in the contract but struck a more frustrated tone, saying she was upset that Lightfoot only agreed to make up five days.

“I’m proud of my members. And I’m deeply disappointed in our mayor,” Davis Gates said. “Because of a grudge match, it seems like she’s punishing them.”

Davis Gates said it was “mean” that Lightfoot decided to dock teachers pay for more than half of the days missed.

“I believe that our mayor has taken out retribution on members who have fought for and won social workers and nurses every day in their school communities. It is unfortunate that she does not see this as a win-win.”

Still, Davis Gates hailed new resources such as nurses, social workers, lower class sizes, sanctuary schools and coordinators for homeless students all as a “win for Chicago and the Chicago Public Schools.”

“These are particularly substantial wins for our city and the students that are in them,” she said.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), a frequent and vocal supporter of the CTU and a critic of the mayor, said the agreement is a “historic contract” that offers necessary supports for students.

”I’m so proud of our teachers for fighting so hard for sticking it out for 11 days. It took longer than it should have, Mayor Lightfoot, but our teachers won,” said Ramirez-Rosa, the head of the City Council’s Democratic Socialist Caucus.

Schools chief Janice Jackson, appearing with the mayor at her news conference, said she was glad “to get back to what’s important, which is having them in school so they can get a high-quality education.”

“We’re happy that we were able to come to an agreement with our partners at CTU and make sure that our kids have a return to normalcy,” Jackson said.

“This feels really good and we’re happy to say that our kids will be back in class tomorrow.”

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