Here are the 5 big issues in Chicago’s teachers contract dispute — and where negotiations stand

At times it may seem that Chicago and its teachers union are litigating every single facet of teaching and learning in local schools during the dispute that resulted in the current teacher strike. But in fact, union officials have said five issues make up their core demands.

As the city enters a fifth day of canceled classes and rallies (follow our live coverage here), we’re summarizing where each of those issues stands — and what could happen with them as negotiations continue.


Where things stand and what’s at stake: The union wants the city to hire thousands more teachers, social workers, and nurses and to put the hiring plan into the contract. A win here would make a difference for students, if the new positions can be filled (there are shortages in several critical categories that complicate hiring). Guarantees of new workers would also position the union to grow its ranks even though the school district is shrinking.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot pledged this summer to hire hundreds more support staff and phase them in over five years, but only this week did she agree to write some staffing targets into the contract. She also promised to have a nurse and a social worker at every school by 2024, and provide a special education case worker for every school with a concentration of students with disabilities. 

What we’re hearing: Stepping back from their initial request, the union has agreed to a phase-in plan that would focus on high-need schools first. But the sides are battling over how to measure staff and enforce the plan. The union wants language that would allow it to file grievances if those goals are not met. 


Where things stand and what’s at stake: The union’s expired contract caps class sizes, but schools often exceed them with no penalty. Relief, offered through a class size committee with no budget or enforcement power, can be a long time coming, if at all. 

The union wants the district to lower class size caps and, for the first time, to compensate teachers whose classes exceed those counts — not an uncommon provision in union contracts elsewhere. 

What we’re hearing:The city’s latest public proposal did not budge on the current caps — 28 in kindergarten through fifth grade; and 31 in middle and high schools — but it did establish a pot of money to hire more teacher assistants in overcrowded classrooms through high school. The union said this was a good step, but that the funding offered wasn’t sufficient to lower class sizes 

The issue remains unresolved.  


Where things stand and what’s at stake: The city and union have gone back and forth on issues around how much time during the school day teachers get to spend on work that doesn’t involve working directly with students, and about who controls that time. Currently, the union is asking for teachers to get 30 more minutes per day for prep for elementary teachers. To accommodate that request, schools would either have to start later or the district would pay teachers an additional sum to arrive earlier. The city’s current offer is for no change from how things are now — a significant concession from its earlier demands that principals be able to direct a much larger portion of the time.

What we’re hearing: Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson have signaled that they would hold the line against shortening the instructional day. Teachers on picket lines have said prep time is a big issue in schools where educators already feel stretched thin, and unions officials say the issue could be decisive in making a deal.


Where things stand and what’s at stake: City Hall says it will only agree to a five-year contract. The union wants a three-year term. This matters because how long a contract lasts determines the timing of the next negotiations. A three-year horizon would put pressure on the current mayor to make another deal with the union right before she’s up for reelection. A five-year horizon would give her some breathing room — and more time to fund and ramp up staffing to fulfill the same agreements.

What we’re hearing: The city says it needs a five-year contract to pull off all of the changes the union is demanding. But the union says it will agree to a five-year contract only if it wins some key demands. Its request for a shorter contract is in line with labor trends: The most common length of a teachers union contract is three years, the National Center on Teaching Quality found in 2015.  So far, neither side has publicly offered a compromise (and there’s an obvious one here, mathematically, though it would fall right in the middle of the next mayoral election).


Where things stand and what’s at stake: The city has offered significant pay increases to teachers at all levels, although the city and union have different takes on just how significant. The union is still pushing for higher pay for veteran teachers and for paraprofessionals, who include teachers aides. Chicago is a district that struggles to fill all of its teaching positions. Earlier this year, the union won pay increases for paras in the contracts it negotiated for teachers at a handful of charter schools — suggesting that the issue could be a top priority for union negotiators.

What we’re hearing: The district is offering to raise salaries on average by more than 8% for paraprofessionals and school-related personnel, with an immediate 14% pay hike for hard-to-staff nurse positions. The union says there hasn’t yet been an agreement on paraprofessionals pay. It also wants higher automatic pay bumps as teachers accrue seniority.

However, pay issues haven’t been a focus at the bargaining table in “weeks,” Lightfoot said over the weekend. But that may be by design. Legally, the union can’t strike over anything other than compensation issues. Reaching an agreement on pay would make it impossible for the union to keep pressing on class size, support staffing, and other issues, so expect teacher pay to be the last issue to be settled.