The Fight for Safety is the Fight for Equity – An Interview with Members of the Chicago Teachers Union Dennis Kosuth (right) and other CTU members outside of their school

The Fight for Safety is the Fight for Equity – An Interview with Members of the Chicago Teachers Union

This week Chicago Public Schools (CPS) began forcing some of their teachers and staff back into school buildings and classrooms, building towards a more complete school reopening at the end of the month. This is after many months of unclear safety plans based on shoddy science, broken promises, and a refusal to bargain in good faith with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

On Monday, January 4th, a group of CTU members took collective action and refused to enter school buildings with inadequate safety measures and PPE. They opted instead to teach and work outside, rather than risk infection in a city with rapidly rising COVID rates. 

Kirstin Roberts, a Pre-K teacher, and Dennis Kosuth, a school nurse, were two of the CTU members who participated in this action. They took an interview with Jordan Weber, a member of Chicago DSA’s Labor Branch and fellow educator at City Colleges of Chicago, to discuss the action and the ways in which the struggle for safe workplaces intersects with the struggle for equity in our city.

Jordan: Kirstin, you were among the teachers at Brentano Elementary school in Logan Square on Monday who decided to teach outside in freezing winter weather to protest an unsafe push to reopen Chicago Public Schools. Can you tell me more about the demonstration and who took part?

Kirstin: Well to start, while it was just a few teachers who chose to teach outside, we weren’t alone because half of the teachers being forced to report back to these unsafe classrooms did not report back and continued to teach from home. Instead of staying home, a number of teachers choose to hold their virtual classes outside of Brentano Elementary, where I teach, instead of entering an unsafe building. And it wasn’t just the teachers, it was staff and clinicians, too, like our nurse and our social worker. Throughout the day we were joined by teachers across the school system, as well as some of our students and their families, who chose to show solidarity with us.

And Dennis, has now for the entire week been working outside at different schools—because CPS schools still don’t have full-time nurses—refusing to enter these unsafe buildings.

Jordan: And what motivated you to take this action?

Kirstin: I did it to protect my health and safety first and foremost. Every day I don’t go into a building that has improper ventilation, a building that is not properly cleaned, a building that doesn’t have the PPE we need. Every day I don’t do that, is another day I don’t bring COVID home to my family or spread it in my community. So that was the first thing. 

But we also thought it would demonstrate to the community in which we teach that teachers are not going along with CPS’s rushed reopening plan. The Chicago Public Schools, our bosses, are saying, “Trust us! Everything’s fine. You’re going to come in here and you’re going to be fine. No problem.” And we don’t believe them! We don’t trust them, and we have a long history fighting the CPS—over our working conditions, cuts to school budgets, and more—that has taught us that we shouldn’t trust them. 

We have also seen hundreds of thousands of workers in this country get sick and die because they didn’t have proper PPE, because their bosses cut corners on safety and rushed them back to work. We’re not stupid. We wanted to protect ourselves, and we also want to demonstrate in a public way to our community that the schools are not ready to be reopened.

Jordan: I’m sure you have a close relationship with many of the parents in your school. What have you been hearing from them about reopening and also about this demonstration?

Kirstin: I’ve been hearing a lot of support for the work teachers have put in this year, and for the action we took, but also a lot of fear. It’s been an incredibly hard year for our students and their families. Far too many students have had family members pass away from this disease. I just had a four-year old tell me that her whole family just got tested because they were exposed, and she feels really scared right now. The trauma that children have experienced because of the pandemic and the economic recession is something that teachers have had to help their students manage all year. 

On top of that, a lot of parents are also being forced back to work, and there’s nobody to watch their kids because it is so difficult to afford childcare in this country.

Dennis: The families I’ve talked to recognize the severity of this disease and want their kids to be safe. They are just looking for the best way to do that. But the behavior of the administration has made that really challenging. 

I mean, the administration has this doctor from the Chicago Department of Health, who works for the city, that will come up to stand at a press conference with the Chicago Public Schools CEO, who also works for the city, to tell us how safe schools are. And they’ll make broad claims about all these factors supposedly in place, while the teachers and staff who have re-entered classrooms have seen with their own eyes that they aren’t!  Then CPS will go on about how this is about equity, about meeting the needs of Black and Brown students struggling with online learning. But, when you look at the numbers, it just doesn’t match up. The majority of these families have made it clear they don’t want to send their kids back into unsafe schools.

Jordan: Let’s keep talking about this issue of equity, because that’s something that CPS has said time and time and again that reopening is all about. They point to the difficulty that Black and Brown students, less advantaged students have had with remote learning. And they claim that this is the reason they’re pushing for reopening. When CPS talks about equity, what’s your response?

Kirstin: For CPS to say that—in the middle of a pandemic that has so grossly impacted Black and Brown people more than anybody else in this city—that pushing students into unsafe schools is about equity, is really galling. 

CPS hasn’t been willing to talk to any of the people who have been most directly impacted by this virus to develop a plan. They haven’t asked them what they need in terms of education, how to make remote learning better, or what would make them feel confident about sending students back to schools. They didn’t reach out to parents in the same way they have refused to bargain in good faith with our union through the entire course of this disease. 

At the same time, the educators in this city have done some pretty amazing things to make online learning work and figure out how to support our students through a really traumatic process. We have not for one minute been supported by the Chicago Public Schools in that effort. But they want to talk about equity? What a joke.

Dennis: Like I said before, it just doesn’t add up. CPS parents were given a choice whether they wanted their children to return to in-person learning or continue with remote learning. The schools that have the highest ratio of students who opted to return to in-person are the whitest schools in the most privileged neighborhoods in the city. This is in a school district where 80-percent of students are Black and Brown.  

The reason that African-American parents and Latino and Latina parents are keeping their kids home is because they have seen firsthand the impact of this disease. They’ve seen their family members get sick. They’ve had family members on ventilators. They’ve had family members die. These families are at greater exposure to this disease because they make up the working class of this city. They are the essential workers. CPS parents work at post offices, and they work at warehouses, and grocery stores, nursing homes and hospitals. They’ve been keeping this city running and they are also the people most at risk.  They’re already being impacted the worst from this virus and that’s why the majority of them are keeping their kids home. 

This also points to another reason we are fighting reopening, because it’s clear that it’s going to make education worse. CPS keeps saying remote learning is so terrible, but they haven’t discussed what in person is going to look like. Classrooms will only be part full, so teachers will have to teach in-person and online simultaneously. If a teacher has to teach three students in person and twenty-seven that are remote, how’s that going to work? Educators and students have just gotten their legs under them, working 60-hour weeks, busting their butts to get remote learning working and now CPS is throwing this all up in the air. It’s just ridiculous. 

By trying to push kids back to school now, they’re destroying remote learning for the majority in order to give in-person learning to the very few. That’s not equity.

Jordan: And how do you see the inequities built into the rush to reopen, reflected in the deeper, more systemic inequality in Chicago?

Dennis: The leadership of this city has failed Chicagoans, and in particular African-Americans, in particular Latino, Latina people for such a long, long time. This pandemic has been a cruel continuation of that. 70 percent of deaths in this city are African-American when they only make up 30 percent of the population. That is a complete outrage.

But, supposedly it’s the teachers and school workers fighting to keep themselves and their students safe who are getting in the way of equity. Let’s go back and review who’s been fighting for equity, who has been fighting to keep schools open on the South and West Sides. It was the CTU that went on strike for 11 days in 2019 to put a nurse in every school, every day. CPS didn’t do that.

If this city cared about these students and their families, they would have been doing so many things different— not just throughout the pandemic, but for decades. But they haven’t. This is the same city which is letting Mercy Hospital, a safety-net hospital, close down. It is the same county that has cut health care to Chicago’s South Side and other Black neighborhoods, closing clinics, cutting nurses and services provided. Yet they’re telling us that schools are safe. Why people would have any trust in any level of government at this point is mind boggling.

Jordan: If it isn’t about equity, then why do you think CPS and Janice Jackson and the rest of Chicago’s unelected school board are pushing forward with this reckless plan?

Kirstin: I don’t think it’s that different from the rest of the political and economic elites in our country. They want to get the economy moving again. That means schools need to be open because, to the elite, schools are not just about learning they are also about child care. Without schools to house children, how do you get people back to work? How do you get profit flowing? 

I also think the leaders of this city would very much like to punish the Chicago Teachers Union, and make us pay because we’ve been a thorn in the side of the politicians and big business. Our union, parents, and students have fought long and hard to create the kinds of schools that families in this city deserve. We’ve consistently called out our bosses for their greed and bargained for the common good. They would love to see us get disciplined.

Jordan: And what about the rest of the political class in Chicago? Lori Lightfoot, the mayor, ran as a progressive Democratic, but fought the CTU tooth and nail in the 2019 strike and is leading this push to reopen. How has this strike displayed her true colors?

Kirstin: We have had to fight like hell to survive the Trump regime over this past year, and with everything that just happened in D.C. that has been top of mind. But, it’s been pretty shocking to see how much Lori Lightfoot and her hand-picked school board have sounded like Trump as they try to get us back to work in these buildings. From the disregard for science to outright lies, it’s been shocking. 

There are differences, for sure, but both the Republicans and the Democrats in our city and country have had a common agenda of getting workers back to work— no matter what. And that meant reopening restaurants, reopening schools, reopening businesses and workplaces, without any concern for providing people what they really need to survive. And it annoys them that some of us have stood up and said no. No, our lives and our safety matter.

Dennis: I think this is similar to what we saw over the summer during the George Floyd protests. Lori’s main concern was protecting the corporations and her donors downtown, so she raised the bridges, shut down public transportation, closed highways. That was all designed to protect her rich friends in the Loop. All the while you have an incredible amount of violence from the police, the pandemic, and the recession throughout the city, which is the product of decades of disinvestment, not providing decent jobs, resources, health care.

And this is in a city that has been controlled by the Democratic Party for decades. “Progressive” Democrats have voted for this program every step of the way. They have shown no interest in going after the actual money that exists in this city— at the top, in finance and real-estate.

Kirstin: Imagine if we had an actual progressive taxation system for the rich, in this city and country. We could have provided guaranteed income for most workers to stay home throughout this pandemic, safe and inclusive child care for those who did have to go to work. And, in terms of education, free broadband internet and a laptop for every student who needs one. That is what equity would look like.

Jordan: What has this struggle taught you about your union and your co-workers?

Dennis: We have a fighting union where workers back each other up, which was very evident at the House of Delegates meeting that we just got out of, where worker after worker got up to talk about their personal fights and support the fights of their coworkers. Which gets back to what the union is really all about.

A union isn’t about how tough they talk in the media, or how many lawyers they have, or the politicians in their Rolodex. It’s about the activity of rank-and-file members who know their coworkers, who know the weaknesses of their employer, who can organize with their coworkers and exploit those weaknesses. 

That’s where the power of our union will continue to come from. And I think that’s one thing that this struggle is showing. A union that has a rank-and-file willing to take action for themselves, there is a lot of strength that comes from that.

Jordan: As you head into this fight what other workers across the country or the city have you drawn inspiration from? And what advice do you have for workers fighting similar conditions as yourselves?

Kirstin: One fight has been the farm workers Yakima, Washington, who went on strike back in the spring. They have been an inspiration. They were being forced to go back to fruit processing plants, but they were seeing so many of their fellow workers and community members suffer from COVID. They said no, we’re not going to put up with it, and organized a strike. Many of those workers were undocumented, few employee protections, many didn’t speak English. They had a lot to risk, but they were willing to fight for their lives. I went back and read about their struggle a couple of days ago when I was feeling a little low, and left me feeling very inspired to push forward.

You know, so many workers have resisted the unsafe working conditions this past year. I mean even restaurant workers and baristas who have refused to serve patrons without masks have shown us how to fight. Right now, we are all fighting to survive, and there has been a lot of solidarity between all kinds of workers, union and non-union.

Dennis: Seeing different unions organizing together and in communities has been really important for me. At UIC Hospitals here in Chicago, the Illinois Nurses Association and SEIU 73 came together for a strike. Unions have also been supporting each other in the fight against health care closures on the South Side, with Teamsters, nurses, and community members coming together. Our collective power comes from us uniting around issues that affect all of us. And, that of course also includes socialists. We need socialists involved in this fight too, getting involved in struggle in any way they can, whether they’re in a school or an unionized workplace or a neighborhood.

Kirstin: I also think about how the fights in the spring—for testing and relief and to pay health care workers—that spirit of resistance which then exploded into the movement around George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter rebellion that shook this country. I think the principle at the core of Black Lives Matter, is an incredibly potent idea. Black people in this country have been told for generations that they don’t matter, and their lives have been tossed aside. And now you have all these essential workers, who are also being told their lives do not matter and that what matters most is the economy, and making business profitable again. And I think it’s up to us, as the working class, to fight back. To say that no, our safety does matter. Our survival does matter. 

Ultimately, we are only going to survive this pandemic if we help each other, come together in solidarity, and fight against what the bosses are telling us to do.