Socialist Alternative

Chicago: Lessons from the Fight Against Lori Lightfoot’s Reckless School Reopening

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By Melissa Vozar – CTU member writing in personal capacity

The latest school reopening battle waged by educators, parents, and students in Chicago has come to an halt as students were rushed back into unsafe buildings earlier this month. It was an heroic battle waged against a plan which was wildly unpopular to all but the ruling class.

Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, was hell bent on keeping schools open at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and is now relentless in her pursuit to get kids back into the classroom. It is no surprise that a mouthpiece newspaper for business, Crain’s, is calling this a win for Lightfoot and the corporate interests that she is beholden to. 

Progressive media outlets like, In These Times, are also claiming this as a win by quoting education policy expert Brad Marianno who said that the reopening agreement​ is “most comprehensive agreement for reopening schools that we have seen around the country” and that it could set ​“a new standard for other districts.” 

It is not a win for the educators returning to unsafe buildings. It is not a win for the majority of the students who chose to stay remote, as their learning will be negatively impacted by the effects of simultaneous teaching. And it is not a win for the working class parents whose only option for childcare is for their children to return to unsafe and underfunded school buildings. 

Chicago educators were well organized, ready to fight, and had the support of their parents and community who were jumping into the struggle. Over 70% of Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) membership voted to stay remote when Lightfoot unveiled her reopening plan in December, and to take strike action if necessary. But the union leadership demobilized the fight by not building on the bold tactics and organizing of educators and parents that were ready to take action. 

Ultimately, the CTU leadership negotiated a rushed agreement to reopen schools that is inadequate and unsafe. It was a mistake and a missed opportunity for CTU and SEIU 73 to not take the struggle forward by using the power of a strike and instead making concessions at the bargaining table. Nearly 7,000 of 20,000 CTU members total voted ‘no’ on the agreement in spite of the fear and confusion about taking strike action, a clear indication that a substantial mood existed to carry the struggle forward.

Educators around the country are facing similar pressures to return to unsafe schools. As we look to the lessons from Chicago, we can see that the establishment’s plans are unpopular, and educators, parents and students are willing to fight. We can win if rank-and-file educators continue to organize, and force our union leadership to step up.

Educators and Parents Fight Heroic Battle for Safe Schools

Lori Lightfoot forced a rushed and unsafe school reopening plan to serve the needs of her big business interests with educators, parents and students being the major opponents leading the fight. The bold actions and tactics of rank-and-file educators, parents, and students built the momentum to push back some of Lightfoot’s corporate-backed, undemocratic reopening plans to go to full in-person learning for pre-k through 8th grade as quickly as possible.

These actions delayed the reopening date by a month, won an increase of ADA accommodations, air filters for classrooms and the call for safety committees. However, more could have been won if leadership had fought harder. 

There were teach-ins and sickouts by workers beginning in early January, with Pre-K and Special Education teachers, who were the first called back, in particular playing an important role by refusing to return to unsafe buildings and acting as a spark for future actions. Lightfoot locked these educators out of their Google Classrooms, unable to teach their students, threatened with disciplinary action, and their pay was withheld. 

Car caravans and protests took place outside the homes of Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson, Lightfoot, and members of the Board of Education. Educators, including Socialist Alternative rank-and-file members of CTU and SEIU 73, held weekly meetings with their colleagues and parents after school hours to expose the truth behind these unsafe plans and organize for united demands. Students were involved in the struggle too every step of the way, attending car caravans and outdoor protests, and even organizing their own protest outside of the CEO’s house. 

Educators found massive support from parents. Polls showed eighty percent of parents rejected the reopening plan and organized alongside educators to bring letters to their Local School Councils stating their opposition. Hundreds of Local School Councils voted to publish these letters and send them to Lightfoot and the CPS administration. Parents, including a Chicago SA member, organized a social media campaign that received attention on many major news networks. They organized solidarity actions with educators, participated in car caravans and helped organize a student sick out. 

These actions pushed sections of the Democratic Party to reject Lightfoot’s plans out of fear that a wider struggle could develop. Forty two out of the 50 Chicago Aldermen signed a collective letter in opposition to the plan. Twenty five Illinois state officials signed a similar letter urging Lightfoot and CPS to grant accommodations for CPS staff who live with vulnerable household members, create a vaccination plan for educators, and a phased-in return to in-person school. Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and union allied progressives pushed to get more signatures. 

None of this was enough to get Lightfoot and big business to back down. Rather than lead the fight and organize all of this support into the kind of movement that was needed to win, at almost every turn the CTU leadership shied away from confrontation, sapped the confidence of those willing to fight, and demobilized the struggle. 

Despite these bold actions of rank and file educators and parents, we ended up with a deal that is deeply inadequate and unsafe. The main demands of our movement were defeated. The reality we face is that the overwhelming majority of parents rejected this plan yet it will be implemented with limited alterations. 

The CTU negotiated agreement sent some Chicago educators and children back into the buildings just days after the majority of members voted in favor, with the remainder scheduled to return within weeks. This is just too soon with COVID-19 new cases and positivity rates still too high. At the time of the agreement, according to the city’s COVID Data Dashboard, Chicago’s new cases in the last 7 days are above the highest CDC Red community transmission category. Eleven Chicago zip codes are in the high transmission and substantial transmission columns and 25 Chicago zip codes are in or beyond the CDC moderate, substantial, high transmission columns.

The original demand from educators called for school closures if the city-wide positivity rate is 3% or higher. Lightfoot and CPS’ unscientific health metric will ensure that schools remain open even despite the revised CDC guidelines for school reopening. 

The original CTU demands included a targeted vaccination plan while the agreement only calls for 1,500 vaccines per week, completely inadequate for the over 35,000 educators and support staff in Chicago Public Schools. This plan will take months to accomplish, forcing educators back in the buildings before they are fully vaccinated. Many teachers are even contemplating taking an unpaid leave of absence until conditions are safer to return.  

The other areas in the agreement around ADA accommodations, ventilation, and an improvement to remote learning and hybrid instruction fell woefully short. Educators will now have to teach remote and in-person students simultaneously. Remote learning is already an incredible strain on students, educators, and families and this inevitably will make it even worse for the majority of students. This has fueled many parents to continue organizing.  

Initially, CTU leadership put forward bold social demands like rent abatement, social-emotional supports, “councilors not cops” and an increase in support for families experiencing homelessness. These demands were quickly removed from the bargaining table as Lightfoot claimed in her press conference that she could only start bargaining if “non-education issues like defunding the police, like CTU dictating affordable housing” are off the table. 

It was a mistake to not fight for these broader demands that speak to the needs of everyone in our communities. Besides rent abatement, this should include cash assistance to families that are missing work to stay remote with their children, free, municipally owned broadband and real options for working parents like learning pods and free, quality childcare. Powerful unions like CTU and SEIU 73, along with other labor unions, can unite in struggle and make real gains for the working class. These social demands should not be “throw away demands” once bargaining has begun as we have seen in this reopening struggle and in the 2019 strike. 

We in Socialist Alternative stand with the vast majority of teachers, staff, students and families who know that CPS Schools are not yet safe for reopening. We should remain remote when the positivity rates are this high, new variants are emerging, and increased vaccination is just around the corner but far from a done deal. 

Union Leaders Demobilize the Struggle

With strike action, we could have won more. The massive support from parents and the community, and a 70% vote to remain remote and take strike action if necessary in the midst of a Chicago winter and a pandemic are clear indicators that CTU leadership squandered a huge opportunity. With mass strike action involving rank-and-file union workers and community members, we not only could have won a much stronger agreement but also set an important example nationwide for other school districts that are looking to Chicago. The impact would have been felt far beyond just educators; the working class as a whole would have been taught a vital lesson in how to fight for a safe reopening. Just as the teachers revolt of 2018 kicked off a real resurgence of the labor movement, a lead from teachers on this issue today could act as an important catalyst for other workers’ struggles. 

It was the CORE leadership of CTU that played the decisive role in holding back the strike.

Workers began taking action independent of the leadership from very early on. The record number of educators on the weekly town halls and the organizing happening at individual schools had real momentum. Educators and parents led wildcat actions like staff and student sick-outs. This was a life or death struggle, especially for Chicago’s poorest Black and Brown neighborhoods that are contracting and dying of COVID at disportionately higher rates.   

When the overwhelming majority of union membership voted to take collective action and refuse to return to unsafe buildings on January 27 with the possibility of strike action if retaliated against, Lightfoot and CPS finally took note and sat down to bargain. The fighting power of the union was evident when CPS continued to push back the start date and did not carry through on threats to lock teachers out of their Google classrooms.

This is when CTU leadership should have remained firm with their demands. However, from very early on the union leadership fixated on Lightfoot and CPS administration’s unwillingness to budge. They set a tone that there was little the union could do and claimed that this “was the hardest thing they have ever done.” Membership was told to start thinking about “realistic” wins. 

The key problem was that when CTU leaders used the term “realistic,” they meant demands that were acceptable to Lightfoot and the political establishment, not the demands educators, students, and parents actually needed and supported. If you look at the actual balance of forces: how much people did not trust Lightfoot’s reckless plan, how well organized parents and students were, and how willing rank-and-file educators were to take action, it was entirely realistic to fight for much more.

As the days of bargaining continued and CPS and Lightfoot presented their “best and final” offer, VP of CTU Stacy Davis Gates reminded members on more than one occasion just how tough the 2019 11 day strike was and that if strike action was taken, it would “at least be a 15 day strike or more” and not to forget that it is freezing cold. President Jesse Sharkey changed his stance from the start of the struggle on the legality of this type of strike, claiming it would be illegal, and teachers and the union could receive fines or have pay withheld. 

The union did go on strike in both 2016 and 2019, and in both those instances too the CORE leadership of CTU accepted agreements that came up far short of what was needed and what was possible to win by continuing the struggle. With these strikes still fresh in the minds of many rank and file educators, CORE’s capitulation at the bargaining table in 2021 has left many feeling disillusioned. Despite their origins as a left-wing, rank-and-file caucus, CORE is moving away from their fighting roots

If the union leadership fights, we can win. Winning a strike would have required a higher level of struggle, uniting parents, teachers, and the wider working class community.  CTU educators were willing to mobilize but leadership failed to present a clear strategy to win. 

If Union Leaders Fight We Can Win a Transformation of Schools

The labor movement wasn’t built through compromise and negotiation, but through powerful, fighting action and especially strikes. Rebuilding a strong labor movement today will require the same.

Chicago is being looked to as the example. If educators, students and parents fight, we can build the support, unity, and power to actually force the hand of the ruling class, but we need decisive action from our union leaders.

We need to reject the approach of national union leaders like Randi Weingarten and Becky Pringle who are cheerleading unsafe school reopening because they want to appease the ruling class and especially the Democratic Party leadership. President Biden has promised to reopen schools in his first 100 days against the interests and wishes of millions of parents and students, as well as educators and their unions. He has promised billions of dollars in federal funding, but this doesn’t solve all of the questions of reopening, and it’s just not enough. At a minimum we need all school staff to be vaccinated, and a real plan to bring down infection rates in the wider community.

On top of that, we need to completely transform our current education system and not just place a bandaid on already existing problems. Class sizes of 30 or more students; overcrowded, dilapidated school buildings; underfunded and under resourced schools in the poorest communities that don’t have nurses or support staff; and many other issues plagued public schools for years prior to COVID-19. 

Democratically elected committees made up of parents, educators, students, community members, and health experts need to create the plans for a safe reopening, and it needs to be fully funded by taxing the rich.

The CTU is one of the strongest local teacher unions in the U.S. It can and should be leading the way. Struggles like the Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama fighting to unionize are an opportunity for the labor movement to come out and make real gains for the working class. Every battle that the labor union engages in increases the confidence of workers and their ability to fight. We saw the spark of the Red for Ed movement when educators were emboldened by West Virginia, where rank-and-file educators rejected the timid approach of the union leadership, and dragged them along in a two week long battle that won real gains for not just educators, but public sector workers across the state.  

Although the real history is often covered up, socialists played a decisive role in building a fighting labor movement in the first place, and have played a vital role in rebuilding the labor movement today. This is because socialists understand that the true power of working class and oppressed people lies in our ability to collectively organize and fight for our interests, not currying favors with the bosses, billionaires, and the political establishment. Myself and my organization Socialist Alternative are still in the struggle every step of the way. Get in touch if you’re interested in joining, and either way, the fight for a safe reopening is just beginning. See you in the struggle!

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