All along Addison Avenue on Chicago’s northwest side were striking public school workers. Picket lines had popped up on every single block for multiple miles. It was Monday, the third day of the strike by educators and staff in the Chicago Teachers Union and Service Employee International Union Local 73, who stood out in the rain to demand better schools and stronger communities.
Sarah Howland teaches in a second-grade bilingual program at an elementary school in the Irving Park neighborhood that has about 900 students, 70 percent of whom are Latino, and 25 percent of whom are designated for the bilingual program through third grade. She began teaching in Chicago at a nonunionized charter school in 2012, when the CTU went on strike for seven days, and has been at her current school since last fall. In a conversation on the picket line, peppered by honks from passing cars, she discussed her strike experience with Midwest Socialist’s Devin Schiff.
DS: The unions are demanding holistic improvements—they’ve got things like salaries and sufficient staffing to affordable housing and sanctuary schools. How have the issues you’re fighting for manifested in your school?
SH: They manifest directly for my students, the housing ones, because our neighborhood is gentrifying. And that gives us some really good opportunities, because that means we have these income-integrated and racially integrated classes. Now we’re going to have, instead of a bilingual program, a dual-language program where kids who speak English at home and kids who speak Spanish at home are all working toward both English and Spanish literacy. So that’s awesome.
But it also means that the families who have been going to our school for a really long time, these immigrant families, can’t afford to live there anymore. My personal class is very small: I only have 20 students, which is a great size. But it’s because, every year, the kindergarten class is bigger, and they move out. The first grade class is a little bigger than mine, and they move out. My class is really small.
DS: Is that program something you’re fighting for in the contract?
SH: Dual language is an initiative that CPS has intentionally rolled out in more schools. Bilingual, which is the state-mandated right for kids who speak another language at home, is something where we are fighting to have protected translation time and a staff member whose job is to do the coordinating, so that, for example, I’m not pulled out or using my unpaid time to be translating stuff.
DS: What was the process for gathering demands, organizing them, and then putting them into a contract? How much input do you have on the teacher and school level?
SH: I don’t know everything about it, but I know that there are caucuses within CPS of teachers. There’s a Latino caucus, and they’ve been working really hard, for example, on all these bilingual demands. Anyone is welcome to go to their meetings, and some members of that are now at the bargaining table. I know that similar things exist between parents and teachers for special ed demands. The other thing is that people tell their union delegates what our hardships and the areas we need help in, and the union delegates report back to the union and the bargaining team.
DS: We’ve seen mass mobilization of educators and supporters at rallies, right here at picket lines, and also this weekend at the Lincoln Yards protest. What’s your strike experience been like so far?
SH: It’s been really cool to be out with the other staff from my school because we don’t necessarily engage in political stuff together normally. It’s really cool to be out here talking about the issue [with] people you didn’t know had these strong opinions, or explaining the talking points of the union. And it’s really fun and energizing to be on a corner and have people cheering and honking. It feels like people understand, and the city is with us.
And then the stuff downtown is so cool because it’s huge. It’s a sea of people. The part where we were on the two bridges and could see each other across was amazing. I didn’t go to the Lincoln Yards thing, but I’m really glad that people are making that connection. Even our union delegate sent us a text saying “Go here now if you can.” It’s not so much on the fringe now. It’s becoming more central.
DS: Do you think that there’s a difference between now and 2012 — more engagement, more acknowledgment of policy, or more of a connection between the conditions in schools and direct policies by the city?
SH: I think for sure the tenor of the political thing has changed. In 2012 we could all see that Rahm — Rahm had that personality of being really confrontational. But now, it’s like, “Lori Lightfoot seems like a friendly person, she campaigned on this school improvement platform” — but then so much of the city is seeing that’s empty rhetoric. Just talking about this stuff is not going to change these problems that have persisted for so long. I think people understand their power really works more now.
DS: Is there a deliberate effort by union leaders and more engaged people to get other people in the union who may not be as engaged or on board with the demands? How do you keep up solidarity?
SH: We have two delegates [who] have been very informed about what it is we’re fighting for, and they explain it really clearly to us, and they make themselves available to answer questions. We’ll have a meeting and all talk, but then they’ll always say “I’ll be here after” so people who are feeling more skeptical can come up and talk to them.
Being in DSA I kind of knew what this contract was going to be about, but then I hear those same more in-depth analyses being said by the union reps and by colleagues. I feel like it’s gotten out really clearly, the message.
DS: One crucial piece of this strike is the solidarity with CTU and SEIU Local 73 backing each other’s demands. What’s it like having SEIU involved and standing alongside another union at the picket lines?
SH: It’s really great. I think it also wakes us up to what the people who are in SEIU do at our school every day and how terrible their working conditions are. We all meet together at the beginning at our pickets and there are some of them out here. [gestures to group across the street]. I hope that this solidarity will translate, not just on the picket line but into the school building, and we’ll see the ways that their contract is violated sometimes, like they’re pulled to cover class or do an extra recess when they’re supposed to be with an individual kid.
DS: Having people out here has been more eye-opening.
SH: Yeah, exactly. Because I think every day you just think, “Oh, well, maybe that’s what’s in their job title,” but now we’re talking to them and they’re saying, “Well, I had to do this and this and this, and I’m supposed to only do this.”
DS: The CTU’s public campaign has been fairly explicit in calling out privatization, austerity and other policy decisions. Would you like to talk more about drawing connections to conditions in schools?
SH: In 2012, at least, I remember people talking about TIFs [tax increment financing], but I don’t remember there being a clear “look, the city chose to prioritize this.” And now, all the teachers’ signs talk about TIFs. Everybody’s discussing how the city is choosing to bankrupt schools and prioritize developers. It’s more explicit now.
DS: What sort of lessons can this strike and the CTU’s activity over the last decade offer to the labor movement?
SH: I hope that this will really help public-sector workers of all kinds, because I think that it shows that people are ready for the message “How is this municipality or this state spending its money?” People are ready for that information. It’s not too wonky. I think there’s this sense more and more in our country that people who are receiving public services are not being prioritized, and they see, however, that allegedly the economy is booming. And people are ready to make connections and talk about that. And when I say people I don’t just mean union members — I mean the public, the people who are responding to this strike.
DS: How can we see socialist values and political objectives manifest in this labor action?
SH: There are huge disparities in this city. My school on the north side, we have 20 percent white students. We have a full-time nurse and a full-time social worker, which we’ve been building up to. This is the first year where they’re both full-time, but those people had both been in our school to different degrees. When we were talking about this strike among us as a staff we were talking about how kids on the west side and the south side have nowhere near that.
We realized that while there are certain things about our working conditions that could improve, the real fight is for the kids in poverty living in other parts of this city, and not benefiting even from having economic integration in their school. So it’s giving people the sense that we all fight together. Our fight can help other people who are in worse conditions, and also we’re obligated to band together with people who are also laborers to improve their working conditions.
DS: If we do see these demands enshrined in a contract, what are the next steps, and what would a CPS that has benefited from them look like a couple years?
SH: Once it’s in the contract we’re going to need to fight for their enforcement. It’s not just going to happen overnight. I do think kids’ test scores will improve. I think that we’ll have better success with our social and emotional programs, because when a teacher is able to deal with under 30 kids at a time you can just give so much better attention and better instruction to them.
And I think also it may stem the tide of people moving out, because it’s going to make schools more stable. A thing that doesn’t get reported a ton is that the far northwest side, where schools have higher percentages of white students, are ones where they’re really overcrowded, and i think it’s because of refusing to redraw boundaries. But some of those people, those middle-class people, might move out. And if they can see that their kids can stay in the school system in reasonable class sizes, they’ll stay, and that’s also a stabilizing force.