Chicago’s teachers union and city reach a deal, ending 11-day strike

The Chicago teachers strike has ended, on its 11th day.

Schools will reopen Friday.

In a nearly two-hour session Thursday, union leaders and Mayor Lori Lightfoot hammered out a deal for teachers to earn back about half of the pay that they’ve forfeited while on strike. Lightfoot, who described a “hard-fought discussion,” in the end offered to add five workdays to this school year, despite previous pledges to deny compensation. 

Chicago Teachers Union leaders reluctantly agreed.

“We were pushed up against the wall. Our members want to return to work, make sure their students get their instruction days,” union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said.

The deal came a day before striking union members would have lost district-paid health care.

The agreement still requires ratification by the union’s full membership, according to the group’s constitution. That vote must happen within 10 days. The union’s 700-member House of Delegates voted 60% to 40% Wednesday night to accept the tentative agreement that union leadership had recommended, but made its agreement contingent on Lightfoot agreeing to make up missed school days. 

The logistics for when the five days will be made up are still being finalized, the mayor said.

Lightfoot said she changed her mind on offering makeup days Thursday morning. “We need to keep the focus on the kids. That’s what was on my mind when I woke up this morning.”

Leaders of the city and the teachers union did not announce the deal together. After the mayor finished speaking outside of her office, President Jesse Sharkey and Davis Gates spoke briefly with reporters five floors down in the lobby of City Hall.

“It’s not a day for photo ops or victory laps,” Sharkey said.

After accepting the deal, Davis Gates had strong words for the mayor. “Today should come as no surprise that she has taken out her anger on our members and only provided five days back,” she told reporters.

“It took our members 10 days to bring these promises home. And now, because of a grudge match, it seems like she’s punishing them.

“But I want to tell my members: They have changed Chicago.” 

Earlier, Lightfoot said the negotiations had been much tougher than she expected. 

“I’m grateful it’s over,” said the mayor, who was flanked by schools chief Janice Jackson and two key members of the city’s negotiating team, Deputy Mayor Sybil Madison and district’s No. 2 LaTanya McDade. “I think I need a moment to reflect. It’s time to move on and focus on our kids.” 

She said she didn’t view it as a win. “I don’t think this is a win for me personally,” she said. “This has been a hardship for way too many people across our city.”

Jackson, the schools chief, said her focus now was on thinking about how to unify a district divided.

After its leaders forecasted a “short-term” strike earlier in October, the union led a walkout that lasted 11 school days, eventually winning $1.5 billion worth of concessions from the city across a five-year contract. Those include raises for educators and support staff alike, hundreds of new staff positions, and $35 million annually to help reduce overcrowding in some schools. 

In marathon bargaining sessions that sometimes lasted until the wee hours of the morning, the union won other concessions that had not been part of the public discussion until the strike began, such as stipends for athletic coaches and naps for preschoolers. 

But energy, and public support in some quarters of the city, started to dampen.  

While the union turned out thousands of protesters for a downtown march Thursday morning, the crowd was considerably smaller than in previous demonstrations, and members’ enthusiasm for continuing the strike had markedly waned. The rainy, near-freezing temperatures clearly discouraged many from venturing out, but privately more and more teachers were acknowledging the strike’s toll.

Some worried about losing any more pay. Some were pressed by the need to get their children back in school. And some figured that they had gotten the most they could wring out of a city facing a $838 million budget hole.

“It’s really difficult, especially with a mayor that, from the get-go, didn’t want to budge an inch,” said Juan Padilla, a math teacher and delegate for Curie Metropolitan High School. “But this gets us to a better plateau. We can get some financial stability we needed so we can think about the future.

“This is not over,” Padilla added. “This is just one battle. The war continues.”

Padilla said he was a little surprised by the Wednesday delegate vote that approved the contract offer, but understood that many teachers were weary from long days on the picket line. 

“Especially with the weather turning on us, they were really battered down,” Padilla said. As for the rank-and-file vote to come, “whatever they decide, we’ll support it,” he said of the delegates.

Another delegate, Ed Hershey from Lindblom Math and Science Academy, said the strike didn’t win everything he hoped for, and he would have held out longer for more. “We didn’t win the schools Chicago students deserve, we didn’t win everything we asked for.” 

But, Hershey admitted, the contract still included some provisions that would help classrooms. “We won some things we would not have gotten without going on strike.” 

On a day when their children were bemoaning missing out on classroom Halloween parties, parents breathed a huge sigh of relief. The days of patching together emergency child care, play dates, camps and transportation would be over.

“I do hope that it was worth it,” parent Julie Garner said of the strike, expressing some concern about how students would readjust to being back in the classroom Friday. “It just feels like it’s been a really long time. It’ll be fine, but it’s going to be a good couple of weeks before [the students] are fully settled back in.”

Garner, a single mom whose 11-year-old son Deniro attends Ogden-Jenner, said she doesn’t expect to see big changes in how the district operates for a couple of years — but that’s OK with her.

“I know people are kind of annoyed, but I do think [the strike] was needed,” Garner said. “I didn’t think they were going to get it done without doing it this way. It had to be this dramatic strike.”

The city-union deal means a 16% increase in pay over five years, plus immediate boosts of 9% for low-wage paraprofessionals.

Other support staff represented by SEIU, who also went on strike and have settled their contract, will receive raises. 

Of the five makeup days, three are mandated by the state, which requires districts to offer 176 days of instruction in the school year. Without the make-up days, Chicago Public Schools would total only 173 days in 2019-20.

Labor expert Bob Bruno said that both sides could count this strike as a victory. The union was able to win changes to class size and staffing, while the mayor eventually put forth a contract that hewed closely to her promises on the campaign trail. “When she said it was a historic agreement, that’s right, and both parties are now really partners to it,” Bruno said.  

You can read the contract terms that the union’s 700-member House of Delegates approved in a divided vote here.