A teacher and CTU member makes the case for rejecting the unsafe reopening plan put forward by CPS and building on the brave actions that teachers have taken to reach this point.
Today, the rank and file of the Chicago Teachers Union will vote on whether or not to accept the tentative framework for the resumption of in-person instruction in school buildings. This framework is the hard-fought result of months of tense negotiations between CTU leadership and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s unelected school board.
The outcome of this referendum vote will determine the way forward for more than 23,000 teachers, PSRPs, and clinicians who serve in Chicago Public Schools. The membership of my union has a crucial and excruciating choice to make, one which holds life-and-death consequences for ourselves, our students, and the school communities we serve.
After attending hours of online meetings, CTU webinars, and participating in one-on-one discussions with fellow educators, I will be voting not to accept the current framework. Here’s how I came to make this decision and why I feel there is still more to be won should we decide to reject this plan and launch a safety strike to keep fighting at the bargaining table.
I empathize with CTU members who feel they must vote to accept this plan. We fought for everything in this framework and if the bargaining ends here we will all move forward together. But when I ask myself if this framework goes far enough to truly protect our safety, I cannot vote to accept a plan that puts too many lives at risk.
Background: CPS’s Divide-and-Conquer Plan
Heading into the 2020–2021 school year, CTU members fought tooth and nail to resist the inhumane and unsafe reopening proposals put forward by Lightfoot and CPS. Perhaps the biggest challenge CTU members have faced during our fight for a safe reopening plan is our employer’s insistence on dividing school staff into different groups, or waves.
Clerks and paraprofessionals were among the initial wave of staff members to be pushed back into unsafe buildings, a measure against which many courageously pushed back, ultimately winning the right to work remotely for four out of five days a week in November.
When CPS finally announced their plans to return teachers and students to school buildings, pre-k and cluster teachers who teach the youngest and most vulnerable student populations were placed at the front of the line, now known as Wave 1. K–8 teachers, who make up Wave 2, would return in the next phase. Even now the return for most high school teachers is still yet to be negotiated.
Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of CPS parents elected to continue with remote learning rather than in-person instruction, CPS bulldozed ahead with its premature timeline to return teachers to classrooms during the height of a deadly global pandemic.
CTU’s Safety Campaign: What We Have Achieved
Since August, CTU has led a powerful safety campaign to counter CPS’s goal of a rapid school reopening regardless of health metrics and CDC guidelines. Our three demands are simple and powerful: Safety, Equity, and Trust.
The framework we will vote on today represents months of struggle and sacrifice led at every step of the way by rank-and-file leaders in the schools. With Lightfoot and CPS leadership being deeply isolated and unwilling to acknowledge that schools are a site of Covid transmission, every single concession at the bargaining table was the outcome of pressure built from the school level.
Over one hundred Local School Councils passed resolutions expressing concern and disapproval of the original CPS return plan.
Educators and staff organized near-weekly car caravans, online meetings with parents and community members, Zoom rallies, and countless efforts to educate ourselves and the public about our fight.
Teachers across the city have held outdoor teach-outs in the middle of January in Chicago, a tactic that galvanized us further and won continuing support and sympathy for CTU from parents and community members.
Roughly one hundred CTU members were ultimately locked out of their CPS accounts when they chose to exercise their legal right to refuse unsafe working conditions by working remotely. These actions in particular set the tone for the next stage of the safety campaign when CTU members voted overwhelmingly to refuse to return to in-person instruction in defiance of CPS’s timeline.
These actions yielded important gains, including increased vaccination, Covid testing, and guidelines for cleaning and ventilation. The question of whether or not we should accept the framework on offer is a question of whether we think we can win more by escalating with a strike.
Why I’m Voting No
Nothing about this framework can be characterized as a “win” such as what we experienced during 2019 or any previous strike. In the context of the pandemic, we are fighting for our lives against a public school system and a city with a long history of devaluing its teachers. As CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates has described, no one is taking a victory lap here.
My sticking points with this framework are these:
- The timeline for pre-k and cluster teacher and student return to the building is this Thursday. This would not even allow sufficient time for the establishment of school safety committees.
- While we have achieved considerable movement on vaccination, the framework does not provide adequate time for staff members to receive two doses of the vaccine before returning to in-person work.
- CPS may still deny ADA accommodations for some staff who live with or care for household members considered high-risk for severe Covid complications. No one should have to choose between their loved one’s life and their livelihood.
- No substantive commitment by CPS to improve remote learning for the vast majority of students. Remote learning will actually decrease in quality due to simultaneous instruction of in-person and remote students.
There are countless other criticisms to be made of this framework. And to be sure, no reopening agreement reached with CPS was ever going to guarantee us all that we need to work safely. But what our safety campaign so far has shown is that CTU has the overwhelming backing of Black and Latinx parents, community organizations, and elected leaders. Our solidarity has been put to the test by this fight, but we’ve been able to revitalize and strengthen the networks of community support that were instrumental during the 2019 strike.
Together we have already pushed Lightfoot and CPS to concede far more than we could have imagined one month ago. Their multiple so-called final offers after refusing to bargain in good faith prove that our collective action to continue working remotely forced the boss’s hand when nothing else could.
A strike following a rejection of this framework would absolutely be unlike anything we have experienced. The risks of striking, including the threat that CPS could try to sue the union for striking “illegally,” are real and cannot be brushed aside.
But we are not alone. Teachers in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles are coming up against the same obstacles. Essential workers around the country are standing up for demand basic safety and dignity. As one of the most influential unions in the labor movement today, a CTU safety strike would project the hope and power of educators and the entire working class to demand safe and equitable working conditions while Covid rages on. With all eyes already on Chicago, our decision will have ramifications far beyond the walls of our own classrooms.
Our Fight Continues
To be clear, no matter the outcome of the referendum, the fight for safe schools can’t and won’t end at the bargaining table. CTU leadership has rightly fought to empower union members to ensure that our contract is enforced through school-based committees. LSCs will continue to push the district to center the needs of students and families. The tentative framework would establish safety committees with the ability to shift schools to remote in the event of a Covid outbreak. We know that going forward, any safety measures promised by CPS will only go as far as our ability to hold them accountable.
Moving forward, CTU members have to reject divisions in our workplaces that CPS has tried to capitalize on. Despite being unfairly targeted by CPS, the bravery of pre-k and cluster teachers has been a driving force of the safety campaign and cause to consider what it means to be part of a union that represents the voices of so many types of educators and school staff. Whether we decide to strike or accept this plan, CTU members will continue advocating alongside our school communities and in partnership with CPS parents to make school buildings safe and learning humane for all.
Lauren Bianchi is a teacher in Chicago.