CTU’s mayoral candidate lost. Now it would rather strike than deal with the winner.

Mailee Smith

Staff Attorney and Director of Labor Policy

Mailee Smith
/ Labor
October 19, 2019

CTU’s mayoral candidate lost. Now it would rather strike than deal with the winner.

Chicago Teachers Union backed Toni Preckwinkle for mayor of Chicago, donating nearly $300,000 to her campaign. But Lori Lightfoot won – and now CTU is on strike for the third time in seven years despite her generous offer.

Chicago Teachers Union and its political action committee donated over $291,000 in 2019 to mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle, according to Illinois State Board of Elections records.

Of that amount, over $164,000 came from CTU itself, and not from funds its members donated specifically for political activity.

The union gave nothing to candidate Lori Lightfoot.

But CTU’s candidate lost, and now it won’t take a generous deal offered by Mayor Lightfoot. Instead, it walked out on students to press not just for legitimate contract issues such as higher compensation, but also for city action on unrelated issues such as affordable housing for students.

In July, a neutral fact finder – chosen by both CTU and Chicago Public Schools – evaluated the school district’s proposals as well as the union’s, taking into consideration the district’s financial ability to fund the proposals as well as the present and future general economic conditions of the city and state, per Illinois law.

Lightfoot said her administration would match the fact finder’s recommendations – including 16% pay raises and a 1% increase in health insurance premiums over a five-year period. CTU rejected the deal.

Now the union is on strike to push its demands, which include 15% pay raises over three years, reduced health insurance premiums, lower class sizes, 55 new community schools, thousands of additional support staff, the affordable housing and much more. The extra salary expense, additional support staff and new community schools alone could cost the average property taxpayer at least $235 more, compared to the mayor’s offer costing $13 more, if the new contract were solely paid through property taxes.

Nearly 60% of college-educated Chicago workers earn less than the median Chicago teacher salary of $75,000, data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows.

CTU likely expected Preckwinkle to win and then capitulate to its demands during negotiations this summer for a new teachers’ contract.

But the extraordinary power Illinois law gives to public unions means that even though CTU’s candidate lost, the union can hold out for its contract wish list by going on strike.

Illinois is the only state in the region that explicitly sanctions teacher strikes. Most of its neighbors – Wisconsin, Iowa, Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan – prohibit teachers from striking. Missouri also prohibits some or most government workers from work stoppages, although there is no explicit prohibition for teachers.

Similarly, teacher strikes are illegal in eight of the top 10 largest school districts in the United States. And while strikes have occurred in Los Angeles – the second-largest school district – there is no statutory allowance for strikes in California.

A government worker strike is different than a strike in the private sector. When government worker unions threaten to strike, they are threatening to shut down government functions and deprive residents of necessary services. It isn’t the party sitting on the other side of the negotiating table, such as the mayor or a school board, that directly bears the harm – it is the residents themselves.

In 2012, CTU went on strike, causing students to miss instruction time and students’ families to scramble to make alternate arrangements during the strike, which lasted seven school days. Thousands of students had no place to go during the day.

The 2012 strike also had longer-term effects. In the months after the strike, CPS had to close 50 schools and lay off thousands of employees. Research shows that teachers’ strikes can permanently harm educational achievement for affected students.

CTU’s current strike is just the latest example of a union power play in Illinois. CTU is flexing its political muscles against a new mayor it didn’t support.

But it didn’t walk out on Lightfoot – it walked out on 360,000 students and their families, leaving them in the lurch.

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