Threat of strike forces Chicago to cancel school re-opening plan
Teachers across the country have been authorized by the national AFT to do anything, up to and including strike if they must, to resist reopening plans that endanger the children and themselves. | Rick Bowmer/AP

CHICAGO—The Chicago Public Schools have backed down from their plan to reopen school buildings in August despite the coronavirus pandemic.

City Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the reversal in a morning press conference on August 5, citing health recommendations and parent and teacher concern as her reasons.

City schools will hold remote-only classes for the first quarter of the year, through November 8, she said.

The city had planned on forcing teachers to return four days a week, and students twice weekly. That led the Chicago Teachers Union, AFT Local 1, to schedule a potential strike authorization vote during the week of August 10. Now the union won’t have to do so.

“Congratulations to the mayor for being willing to listen to the concerns of families, educators, community groups and health professionals,” union President Jesse Sharkey said. “Now that she has stepped away from a dangerous Trump/DeVos scheme to force in-person learning this fall, we hope she will embrace guidelines set forth by real public health experts.

Just before he launched an August 3 car caravan protesting the plan, Sharkey declared that re-opening of school buildings without adequate protective measures for teachers, children, parents and staff will trigger out-of-control community spread of the virus.

The car caravan was only one of 35 carried out by teachers. Parents, students and school staff from coast to coast across the country.

Strike votes and militant action are in keeping with CTU’s history. The city forced the union to walk out and stop teaching students in the nation’s third-largest school district twice in the last decade. It’s also tussled with Chicago’s Mayor Lightfoot and her school board over keeping cops in the schools.

Both prior CTU strikes involved pay and benefits, particularly for low-paid paraprofessionals in the increasingly stratified, expensive, city. But bigger issues were preserving community schools, the reason behind the first strike first strike, and increasing the number of librarians, counselors, nurses and other support staff in the schools.

Those reasons, plus community causes, such as demanding a city commitment to build affordable housing teachers, staffers and students can live in, led to the second strike, at the start of the 2019-20 year.

The potential Chicago strike also comes just days after AFT President Randi Weingarten told her union’s “virtual convention,” held via zoom teleconference due to the coronavirus pandemic, that AFT locals would strike as a last resort if school systems didn’t protect teachers, students and staff against the coronavirus.

It’s also notable because CTU has been out in front of other unions in both striking over community causes and in mobilizing the public behind them. The first CTU strike was a precursor of subsequent teacher strikes in West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, Los Angeles, Denver and Indianapolis, among others.

Those teachers, with wide community support, won gains for their students, especially in GOP-run West Virginia. There, AFT and National Education Association member teachers literally shut down every school in the state until the government agreed to stop cutting health care and pensions and to give teachers their first raise in a decade.

Lightfoot, her appointed school board and city schools CEO Janice Jackson came up with a hybrid plan which apparently satisfies nobody else but them. It calls for students to attend in person two days a week and distance learn via computers and zoom the rest of the time, except for students with special needs. They, and the teachers and staff, would have to be in the buildings four days a week.

But parents also could opt out of the schools’ scheme in favor of total distance learning, though they faced an August 7 deadline to decide. The whole mess led CTU President Jesse Sharkey and his bargaining team into tough negotiations with Jackson and her aides.

Even before the talks began, dissatisfaction was apparent. CTU led the “car caravan” from its offices down to the CPS offices in the Loop on August 3. Before that, CPS hosted five community teleconferences, notable for parent concerns and complaints about the CPS plan.

“There were 500-600 cars in our caravan, and hundreds of freedom fighters on foot downtown,” CTU tweeted. “Once again, we are put in the position of having to save ourselves. And once again, we WILL save ourselves.”

“It’s not appropriate to have in-person learning in an environment with raging contagion, and our union won’t stand for it,” another said.

Chicago is in the midst of a new beginning. We are determined to win for students, families and communities. And we won’t do that by asking nicely.”

“Not asking nicely” showed up in some of the home-made signs teachers carried. “Why risk our lives? Go remote,” one read.


And a black car in the caravan, labeled “funeral” added on its door: “We want to teach not die. Queremos ensenar no morir!”

Another sign caricatured Trump regime Education Secretary Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos, a fierce advocate of opening all brick-and-mortar schools, come hell, high water or the corona-virus pandemic. Her boss, GOP President Donald Trump, fully agrees. AFT and NEA don’t.

That sign portrayed DeVos, known for her hatred of public schools and their teachers, unions and students of color as the black-clad, skeletal Grim Reaper, wielding a scythe and standing in back of a pile of skulls below. Two rose-colored coronaviruses floated, one above her and one next to the skulls.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).