Union representing special education aides, bus aides and custodians wins strike authorization

After more than a year without a contract, the union representing nearly 8,000 Chicago Public Schools support staff whose work ranges from working with special education students to staffing metal detectors at school entrances has voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if contract negotiations don’t move forward.

Special education aides, bus aides, custodians and security workers are all part of Service Employees International Union Local 73, which announced that 97% of members voting Saturday chose to authorize a strike. 

“When CPS needed their help they have done their part, and now they are fed up,” said Science Meles, the executive vice president of the local. “If they do not give us a contract, we will walk out.” 

Michae Washington, a special education classroom aide (SECA) at Luther Burbank Elementary in the Austin neighborhood, seeks both financial and job-quality improvements.

Washington spends most of her day working one-on-one with students who have Down Syndrome or autism. She earns around $32,000 a year.

“It would be nice to have some type of a raise,” she said, but she is particularly concerned about the difficulty of taking a sick day. 

“It is really hard for me as a SECA to get a sub to cover my position when I have to take a day off,” said Washington, who has worked as a special education classroom aide for the past decade. “There are days when I feel guilty because I know no one is there to cover for me with my one-on-one’s,” she said, about the individual attention she gives to students. 

Some teachers aides who help supervise classes and assist students with their schoolwork belong to the Chicago Teachers Union. 

Special education classroom assistants like Washington belong to SEIU. Their work is defined specifically in a student’s individualized education program that details the educational support the school must provide. 

In a statement, district spokesperson Michael Passman said Chicago Public Schools is committed to reaching an agreement with the union. “”SEIU Local 73 members play an integral role in the success of our schools,” Passman said. 

SEIU is seeking a bigger role for special education classroom aides in student instructional teams. The union also doesn’t want aides pulled from their work with a student to oversee lunchroom duties or to cover a class when a school is short-staffed. “They want to focus their time and energy with the student,” Meles said. 

Because of the varied jobs covered by the union, the proposed contract has a range of different demands — custodians want the district to get rid of its cleaning contracts with Aramark and Sodexo, security officers want more staff, and bus aides are particularly focused on pushing for a raise because the hours of their jobs make it difficult to work a second position. 

The union and the district began a formal fact-finding process this month. 

Workers could go on strike as soon as October, Meles said. 

But despite the wide range of demands, Washington said she’s confident members will band together if a strike is called.
“I am just hoping that our new mayor [Lori Lightfoot] is going to stick to what she said when she was campaigning,” Washington said. “It’s a new Chicago, and I hope we can come to a happy agreement for both parties.”