The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have spent the last two weeks negotiating the conditions for reopening public schools in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. As last weekend approached, it looked as though progress was being made. But that changed abruptly on Friday evening, when mayor Lori Lightfoot and Janice Jackson, the CEO of CPS, held a press conference attacking the CTU. The mayor’s untempered hostility was a surprise to the union and to CPS insiders alike. Both sides had been planning to work through the weekend to finalize an agreement. But the press conference threatened to bring negotiations to a halt.
Hours after the press conference, the teacher’s union tweeted:
Nope, nope, nope. We were well on our way, working toward an agreement around all key components with the people who are actually at the bargaining table (much like what’s happening in other cities) . . . In the last hour, the mayor has wrecked it all.
A similar view was held by at least one CPS official working on negotiations. Education journalist Sarah Karp tweeted late Friday, “A Chicago Public School source says that the mayor’s remarks launching into CTU leadership calling them ‘failed’ and causing chaos takes the progress made at the bargaining table ‘a step back.'”
From a certain point of view, the mayor’s attack on CTU was not uncharacteristic. Lightfoot has opposed the union ever since it backed her electoral rival, Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle, for the mayor. And as CTU president Jesse Sharkey has suggested, the mayor might be seen as continuing to negotiate the 2019 strike contract. But even so, there was something surprising about Friday evening’s press conference: the mayor was willing to undermine the efforts of those who are bargaining on behalf of CPS. This raises questions about her underlying motives. Just what is she trying to accomplish?
One might think that she was trying to seize the pandemic as a welcome opportunity to break the teacher’s union. The Mayor has sowed confusion about the reopening of CPS, and she has blamed the CTU for inequities in the education of Chicago’s Black and brown students. Recently, she has claimed that the union isn’t fairly negotiating, even going as far as to accuse CTU of “moving the goalposts.”
Breaking the union would almost certainly require classifying their collective action as an illegal strike, a move that seems uncertain at best, after a Cook County judge struck down Cicero’s School District 99’s attempt to declare a similar action by its teachers illegal. While Lightfoot threatened escalated tactics during the press conference, she refused to state whether that meant locking out teachers or declaring their actions a strike, seemingly aware that doing so would be a massive gamble resting on shaky legal ground.
And although the editorial boards of Chicago’s big newspapers have attacked CTU and are pushing to reopen schools, there is little support for reopening among the general public. Over the last few weeks more than 100 Local Schools Councils have written letters against reopening. And in a development that can only have humiliated the mayor, President Biden, the leader of her party, publicly sided with the CTU when asked about the current standoff: “The teachers, I know they want to work. They just want to work in a safe environment, and as safe as we can rationally make it, and we can do that.”
Even many now-unionized charter schools have been able to sit with the CTU and negotiate conditions for reopening. CTU Vice president Stacy Davis Gates told the Chicago Sun-Times, “They have been able to get agreements based on safety and humanity” with demands similar to those asked of CPS. “The only block in this, the only person choosing a lockout of educators is the mayor and the Chicago Public Schools.”
It may be that the mayor’s push to reopen the schools is less about breaking the union than it is about scoring points with Chicago’s white liberal voters, who have overwhelmingly supported her policies, and who are a base of support she is counting on for her next mayoral run. Though the mayor defends her push to reopen schools in terms of equity, a CPS survey found that only 37 percent of students said they would return. The survey also found that only 34 percent of Black and 31 percent of Latino students—who together make up 80 percent of the CPS student body—would return, while 68 percent of white students planned on physically being back in classrooms. When school doors did reopen, only 20 percent of students opted for in person learning. According to Chicago Public Radio:
About half of the preschool and special education students whose parents had said they would attend in person actually came when the first wave of in-person learning began January 11. Of those 3,200 students, about 22% are white; 40% Latino and 32% are Black. . . . Among all students, 11% are white, 47% are Latino and 36% are Black.
At Coonley Elementary School, a group of eleven parents, all doctors, released a letter in support of reopening. The letter states, “Based on a multitude of data, the rate of cases and the rate of spread in school will be no higher than in the general population, and with strict implementation of control measures, it may even be better.” Unsurprisingly, Coonley Elementary is located in a wealthy northside neighborhood that has already undergone a rapid gentrification process.
In a city as large and segregated as Chicago, those who share the zip codes and the tax brackets of the doctors at Coonley Elementary are typically unaware of the difficulties that most Chicagoans endure. Chicago’s legacy of racial segregation in schooling and housing has only deepened during the Covid-19 pandemic. Those in Chicago dying from Covid at the highest rates are Black and brown while the white demographic, which accounts for just over 30 percent of the Chicago’s population represents 50 percent of those who have been vaccinated.
To understand Lightfoot’s approach to the present crisis—and to governing more generally—it is helpful to remember what she did before she became mayor. Among Chicago activists, Lightfoot is often described as a “cop,” not only because, as mayor, she has steadfastly refused to implement police reforms, but also because she is a former prosecutor, and because she once lead the now defunct Police Accountability Task Force, where she acted as an attorney for police facing litigation. But Lightfoot’s professional background is not that of a typical cop. She comes from a world of corporate attorneys, where she earned around $1 million a year as a senior equity partner with the Chicago-based law firm Mayer Brown LLP. According to the Chicago Tribune:
Lightfoot’s career with the behemoth Chicago firm Mayer Brown shows that she has represented corporate clients accused of racial discrimination, as well as police and prosecutors accused of the kind of misconduct she has criticized as a candidate. Lightfoot also has made millions of dollars working at a firm whose attorneys have represented tobacco companies and other corporate clients accused of egregious wrongdoing. Lightfoot often entered cases near the end and helped work out payouts from her clients to people who had alleged misconduct or discrimination.
There are rumors of discontent within the administration amidst a steady turnover of staff. David Greising of the Better Government Association warned of a “revolving-door” pattern within the mayor’s office, even questioning Lightfoot’s ability to manage a major city. According to Greising:
Sometimes turnover can be good if you have the wrong people in places. But when you see sort of a never-ending round of turnover, it begins to raise questions — either about your judgment about people when you hire them or your management of those people when they’re in the job. We just see how she operates in public. Not always owning up to her accountability. Talking about how tough she is on her staff. We have no idea what it’s like to work for her. But we can imagine it’s not easy. And after a while, people are gonna find other opportunities.
Lightfoot’s rise to power is almost accidental, having been the most viable candidate for mayor as a result of the least amount of ties to Alderman Ed Burke whose federal bribery charges arrived just in time to shape the last municipal election cycle. Lightfoot’s governing style is more akin to Rahm Emanuel’s “fuck you” approach but without the strong ties to the national Democrat Party apparatus. The long-term operating of a city on a scorched earth policy will be tough while lacking Rahm’s deep connections or ties to a weakened Chicago political machine. Resting hopes on Chicago’s “lakefront liberals” is a gamble given their limited loyalty and ability to switch allegiances to the next politician favored by the city’s ruling elites.
At bottom, Lightfoot’s approach to the CTU is no different from her handling of the police raid on Anjanette Young’s home or the removal of the Christopher Columbus statue last summer. In the case of Anjanette Young, the mayor’s law department refused to hand over the police body cam footage of the raid which left Ms. Young naked and handcuffed for over forty minutes as she pleaded with officers on the scene that they were in the wrong home. Lightfoot initially denied knowing about the raid until emails were released showing phone conversations with the mayor and her staff regarding the incident in late 2019. The debacle from the mayor’s office is now the subject of an Inspector General investigation.
As in other cities across the country, activists in Chicago demanded the removal of the city’s Christoper Columbus statue in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. Lightfoot refused until a police riot ensued in Downtown Chicago, leaving many activists injured. The photo of a young Black woman, Miracle Boyd, bleeding from the mouth after having had her teeth punched out by a cop quickly become the symbol of why the statue needed to come down. Much like the CTU, activists and victims were asking the mayor’s office to do the right thing, and in both cases they were met with resistance until each became a media disaster outside of the mayor’s control.
The fight with CTU is Lightfoot’s current obstacle, but her standard operating procedure guarantees more roadblocks ahead. At the midterm of her tenure, the transparency and progressive reform that she promised during the campaign have already come to nothing. With ongoing police scandals, an already austere city budget devastated by the Covid pandemic, poor relations with the press corps, and a management style that alienates even those inside the mayor’s office, the remainder of her term promises to be even more difficult.