Melissa Vozar – CTU Member writing in personal capacity

Chicago Public Schools have been thrown into chaos by an inflexible insistence on the part of  Mayor Lori Lightfoot to return to in person learning. Early childhood and some students with special needs have already been ordered back. And on January 27th, Lightfoot’s plan requires the return of all K-8 elementary school educators and staff, with students to follow on February 1st. Under current circumstances, the mayor’s plan is not safe. Period. 

Struggle against Lightfoot’s reopening began in earnest after the holiday break. Parents, and unionized educators with the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU 73 are fighting to maintain the system of remote learning until safe conditions can be achieved. CTU leadership have responded to weeks of rank-and-file organizing by calling a vote to remain remote, and strike if necessary to respond to CPS retaliation. They correctly did not back down to CPS threats to come after the union for an “illegal strike.” SEIU 73’s leadership needs to follow this positive example and fight to protect their members. 

The vote passed over the weekend and it has pushed CPS to move the return date from the 25th to the 27th for most educators. At 71%, the vote to remain remote itself was relatively low compared to past strike votes, though it’s happening under unprecedented conditions. The situation is fast moving. Special education and early childhood educators already ordered back remain in danger of being singled out. With this vote our movement and union leaders need to fight to ensure all are able to teach remote starting this Monday. Educators and the wider community are energetic about fighting for a safe reopening, and there are discussions planned later today to discuss next steps.

School reopening should be democratically decided by parents, educators, and students. We can win this battle. There is enormous, impassioned opposition to Lightfoot’s plan. Only 37% of Chicago parents signed up for the limited in person learning, and only 1 in 5 students eligible to return have actually done so. However, we can have no illusions that the establishment will back down easily. Lighfoot has played hardball already, locking out teachers who have tried to remain remote, outraging the vast majority of parents who have chosen to not return their students. We have to be prepared for an all out fight that will require educators, parents, and students moving into decisive action together and appealing to social movements and the wider working class for support. 

Socialist Alternative members are active in this fight as both parents and union members. We stand in solidarity with the demand to remain remote until we can reopen safely.

To build maximum unity we should consistently connect our demand to remain remote to a commitment to fight for a transformation of education, and also wider demands of working people facing the pandemic and economic devastation. CTU has taken a good step by adding housing demands like rent forgiveness to their reopening demands. A victory against Lightfoot’s reopening needs to be a step towards a movement for a massive increase in funding and staffing, and quality education for all. Such a victory could offer a powerful example of how working class people could shape a far better reopening plan than big business and the political establishment.

CPS & Lightfoot Ignore the Facts

The lack of in person learning is not anyone’s ideal and is undoubtedly causing massive difficulties for working parents and students’ development. With the reduction of the virus, vaccinations, the right protections, and a democratic process we can and should reopen schools. However, the fight against Lightfoot’s reopening has brought forward heaps of compelling evidence showing why it is a danger at this time. CPS safety preparations have already been shown to be a disaster, with school officials admitting that although vaccinations are on the way, it will be months before the teachers who are now being ordered back to work will get vaccinated.

The unions have taken a clear position in favor of vaccination. CPS officials, against all reason, insist that the “vaccination plan unveiled Friday is simply one piece of the mitigation puzzle” as though there were some other way of protecting people from catching COVID-19. This flies in the face of numerous studies, including the largest contact tracing study to date which was conducted by Princeton University, which clearly show children play a major role in spreading the virus.

European countries like Portugal, which were touted as a model for keeping schools open while maintaining a low infection rate, decided to shut down all schools on January 21st, citing rising cases and the new, more contagious strains of the virus.

Despite the absence of comprehensive, reliable data, in itself an indication of the criminally negligent response of governments to this pandemic, several school districts in Illinois have reported mass outbreaks. The tiny district of Mulberry Grove had 52 recorded cases among students and staff as of January 8. A stunning 172 cases were reported as of January 22 in Clarendon Hills (District 181), a tiny, relatively affluent suburb where presumably fewer parents and families are exposed than the children of essential workers. 

Unions in two other suburbs, Cicero and Elmhurst, are also fighting against reopening. In Cicero’s case the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board has issued an injunction stopping the schools from opening, while denying a similar injunction in Chicago and delaying a decision in Elmhurst. These cases show that the CTU is far from alone in refusing to go to work under unsafe conditions. 

School Reopening Weaponized by Lightfoot & Big Business 

Lightfoot and CPS administrators have been unmoved by rational arguments from parents and educators. This is because the Mayor’s plan is first and foremost about cementing her reputation with big business in the city. She is doing all she can to prematurely reopen the economy to please major corporations. Not just schools, but restaurants and bars too. While Lightfoot and CPS administrators shed crocodile tears over “learning loss” and “equity,” her business supporters are gearing up to use reopening as yet another means to try and strike a blow against our unions and public education. An op-ed in the Chicago Tribune urged ”…it’s time to break the union-dominated, monopolistic public education system by providing all parents with real educational choice.” 

We can have no illusions Lightfoot will “come to her senses.”  

A quality and equitable education for all is what our unions and education movement stands for. It has been Lightfoot, the Chicago Democratic establishment and the top down CPS administration who have stood in the way again and again. 

In 2019, when my union CTU joined SEIU 73 on strike we faced a Mayor who rejected the idea that all schools deserve a nurse and librarian, that no education workers should be paid poverty wages, and that class sizes should be capped. That the pandemic has taken a toll on our children’s mental health and learning is not in doubt. But we need a safe reopening first and foremost, and the danger now is simply far too great.  

Lightfoot is following a playbook used by establishment politicians across the country: set our school communities against each other in order to push school reopening plans forward. Undoubtedly there are challenges to finding solutions that address the needs of everyone. But the reopening plans these politicians develop represent the narrow interests of the corporate elite to which they are beholden.

Fight for Democratic Control – Unity with Working Class Parents is Essential

Democratic committees of educators, parents, and health experts can best grapple with the array of issues tied up in whether or not schools should reopen. To cut across Lightfoot’s two-faced attempts to represent the wider community, it’s essential these committees take up the wider questions facing working class people during the pandemic. 

For example, the establishment’s lack of a safe reopening plan has forced millions of working class parents to stay at home. This has been especially devastating to working class women, who lost an additional 150,000 jobs in December compared to men. Furthermore, millions more renters are taking on debt to make ends meet. 

While Biden’s stimulus makes big promises, it has to make it through a thoroughly corporate friendly Congress, and it’s not scheduled to be voted on until March. Taking up wider demands like cancelling debt, paid parental leave, and emergency healthcare – paid for by an immediate Lasalle Street Tax on billionaires, can be an essential tool to mobilize the wider working class in support of the strike.

Of course Lightfoot has no intention of letting a democratic process play out. She is defending her top down approach in the name of parent “choice” and a minority of parents and educators who want to return. Recently she successfully lobbied against the implementation of an elected school board — the only concrete issue she supported during her mayoral campaign. Despite her banner of equity, it is working class, black and brown families that are most strongly opposed to the current reopening plan. 

Democratic discussion is the real way confidence in school reopening can be built. Right now, we should use it to help us clarify many of the understandable reasons some workers and parents want schools to open now, or are fearful of action. With a patient approach and the willingness to fight for those struggling in difficult circumstances, we can win many more parents and workers to the majority demand that remote learning is the only safe option at this time. 

Lessons from Chicago’s 2019 Education Strike

As we take on this new fight against Lightfoot, we can look at the 2019 Chicago Education Strike for lessons and warnings for the education movement. The 2019 strike stalled when the mayor refused to back down and the massive social support for the struggle went unorganized and without a clear escalation strategy from union leadership. CTU leadership called an end to the struggle with limited victories when many members rightly wanted to escalate and keep fighting. As in the West Virginia education strikes, rank and file union members need to be ready to stand up to union leaders if they are not willing to do what’s necessary.

This time around we can organize and build our support with nightly online school-based rank and file and parent meetings. At many schools, joint union meetings and parent-teacher collaboration have been happening for weeks. For instance, there has been widespread solidarity at the rank-and-file level between SEIU 73 and CTU members, while coordination at the leadership level has been shamefully lacking, causing anger and confusion and leaving SEIU 73 members in a terrifying limbo. School based solidarity should be expanded into school based committees that can organize democratic discussion, mobilize to stop Lightfoot’s recklessness and fight back against retaliation. Proposals from union leaders can be communicated, discussed, and debated with great speed. We need to build a movement powerful enough to force Lightfoot to keep learning remote!

The fresh victory of restored bargaining rights for Chicago education unions, passed in the Springfield legislature, has raised hopes Governor Pritzker’s signature will push Lightfoot back into negotiations and delay the reopening. The partially restored bargaining rights are indeed a big victory for our education movement. However, Pritzker has not signed the legislation since the January 11 passage and it is unclear if he will. Also, Lightfoot will try to work the legal process so that reopening is only delayed for a short time. Even in places where unions have the right to bargain reopening they are being pushed into unsafe schools by establishment politicians. 

We need a united, working class movement to make sure schools are safe. We cannot wait for establishment politicians like Pritzker, whose delay is already disgraceful. If we win a return to bargaining, CTU should fight to open it to parents and include credible public health experts. But what’s critical now is for union leaders to prepare the movement for extended, bold and disruptive action that will directly hurt Lightfoot’s big business supporters. This will require some innovation in tactics due to the pandemic.

Parents and Union Members Fight Back, CTU Votes on Action – Join the Struggle for Safe Schools 

The heroic actions of parents and rank-and-file educators in the past weeks have built popular momentum against Lightfoot’s reopening and pressure on union leadership for strike action. Even sections of the Democratic establishment and CPS administration have deserted her — a stunning 42 alderman out of 50 have signed a joint letter disapproving of her plans, and only 16.5% of principals and assistant principals polled by the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association believe the district is prepared and ready to open schools. Some aldermen have gone further. Democratic socialist officials have joined organizing efforts and been the sharpest with the mayor. 

We can force Lightfoot to back down! Already, there have been a fantastic series of actions that in most cases go beyond the preparations that were made before the 2019 strike, and have involved more rank-and-file members, parents, and the wider community. 

There have already been numerous actions that highlight the support behind the fight for a safe reopen. Over 98 local school councils have passed resolutions opposing the current reopening plan. Parents filled up comment sections of school boards meetings and listening sessions, and parent organizations have issued strong statements. Students organized a protest at the home of the CPS CEO. Educators have brought massive attention to this fight by conducting remote learning outside their schools in protest. Critically, hundreds of educators have stayed out of the buildings after being ordered in. On January 15 hundreds of educators from both unions conducted a sickout in solidarity with those forced back in. 

The Stakes Are High – All Out To Win!

As we look ahead, now is the time for union leaders to step up and use the full power of the organized labor movement to back up rank and file action. In addition, we need to bring health experts, parents, and students into the struggle by engaging them in the planning process, and fighting for wider demands like immediate paid parental leave, cancelling rent, municipally owned broadband, and expanded unemployment benefits – paid for by taxing big business and the billionaire class.

What happens in Chicago will shape the outcome of struggles around safe reopening across the country. If Mayor Lightfoot doesn’t back down, we should push for national days of action against unsafe reopenings. There is a mood to fight back. Already educators in Arizona organized a one day sickout earlier this month. Eight teachers unions in Ohio are fighting back against Governor Mike DeWine’s reckless reopening plans. Many more struggles are taking place. 

Winning a safe reopening against entrenched government officials and profit hungry corporations would also boost working class people’s confidence to fight for a safe reopening for the wider economy. This would include demands for Medicare For All, on-demand free testing and PPE, massively expanding vaccine production and distribution under the control of health experts and essential workers – not corporations and corrupt politicians.