Voices from the Chicago Teachers Strike

September 13, 2012

Students learn about what unions and strikes are, then read and discuss different perspectives on the 7-day strike by Chicago Teachers Union strike, which ended on September 19, 2012.


Learning Objectives:

  • Students will learn what it means to strike
  • Students will learn what role a union plays in work actions like strikes
  • Students will learn about some different perspectives on the Chicago Teachers Union strike
  • Students will reflect on and analyze the different points of view.



Chicago Teachers' Strike

On Monday, September 10, 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike.  The strike, which lasted seven days, involved 30,000 teachers and left 350,000 children without classes.  On September 17, teachers suspended their strike and went back to work after union leaders came to a tentative agreement with the city. The agreement includes compromises on both sides.

This was the first strike by Chicago teachers in 25 years, and the first teachers' strike in a major city in six years.  The strike followed months of difficult negotiations over a new union contract between teachers and the Chicago Board of Education, part of the administration of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The mayor has pledged to make the most comprehensive reform in the Chicago Public Schools in a decade, including specific reforms that many teachers oppose.  The conflict in Chicago reflects a debate over education policy that is happening all across the country. 

Key issues in the strike included:

  • How teachers would be evaluated, and how much their students' achievement would affect their evaluation.
  • How teachers who did not get good evaluations would be treated. 
  • Whether teachers who had been laid off would have priority in new hiring. 
  • What kinds of classes would be taught during the longer school day the city had mandated. 
  • A longer school year. 

A summary of key points in the agreement are below. (Adapted from Education Week: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/teacherbeat/2012/09/chicago_delegates.html)



  • Teachers' salaries will increase by 3 percent in the first year of a new contract and by 2 percent in each of the succeeding two years,.
  • Measures of student-achievement growth will count for the minimum 30 percent in teacher evaluations, as required under state law, though the district and union could jointly agree to a higher threshold in later years. Teachers will also be able to appeal their ratings.
  • In the first year of implementation, the teacher-evaluation system will not carry consequences.
  • Principals will have to hire staff from a new "hiring pool" for teachers that will include at least half laid-off and half new teachers. Teachers displaced because of school closures will be permitted to follow their students to other schools.
  • The district will hire approximately 600 additional teachers for arts and enrichment classes.
  • The school year will be lengthened by 10 days.



What is a Strike?

Ask: What does it mean to strike?  Do you know anyone who has ever experienced a strike?  What did they say about it?  What is your impression of workers who strike?

A strike is a work stoppage caused by the mass refusal of  employees to work, usually organized by a union (see below). During a strike, the employees get together and decide to stop working (and stop getting paid) as a way to demand what they view as fair pay and working conditions. This can include benefits like health insurance, but can also include many issues about how workers are treated on the job, and how jobs are organized. Strikes often happen in the course of union contract negotiations, as in Chicago - but not always. For instance, sometimes workers go on strike to express solidarity with others they feel are facing an injustice.

When strikes happen in private companies, they usually reflect competing interests of workers and the corporation they work for. The corporation wants to maximize profits, which it believes it can do by reducing workers' wages and benefits. Workers want to maintain or improve pay and benefits.

Strikes became important during the Industrial Revolution, when large groups of workers began working in factories and mines. Strikes are very uncommon in the U.S. today. For workers, they are a last resort.

More information on the history of strikes and labor in general.

What is a union?

Ask: What is a union?  Do you know anyone who is in a union?  What do they say about being in a union?

A union is an organized group of workers who come together to make decisions about the conditions of their work. Through union membership, workers try to maintain or improve their wages, work hours, benefits, workplace health and safety, and other work-related conditions. Under U.S. law, workers of all ages have the right to join a union. Having support from the union to ensure fair treatment in the workplace is one of the key reasons people join. 

Many of the benefits and protections workers enjoy today came about as a result of union efforts. These include the minimum wage, Social Security payments for seniors, an eight hour day and weekends, overtime pay, the American with Disabilities Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act which requires employers to meet safety standards for their workers.



Web Chart:
Why do you think the teachers went on strike?

Write the words "Why did the Chicago teachers strike?" and put a circle around it and ask:  Why do you think the teachers in Chicago are striking?  Record their responses. 

When you're finished, ask:

  • What do you notice about the web? 
  • Is it positive or negative? 
  • How do you think teachers feel when they are striking?

Talk with students about some the key issues in the strike.



Voices from the Chicago Teachers Union Strike

Tell student that you'll now read and discuss a few quotes from people with different points of view about the strike. They include the union, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a teacher, and two Chicago students. 

You might note that some of the statements raise very complex questions that deserve further exploration.  

Read some or all of the statements below aloud and after each one, ask students: 

  • What is that person/organization's point of view? 
  • Does their opinion surprise you?  Why or why not?
  • Who do they represent? 
  • How do they feel? What do they need? 


1. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, after the strike was suspended

"The key is, we are trying to have people understand that when people come together to deal with problems of education, the people that are actually working in schools need to be heard. And I think this has been an opportunity for people across the nation to have their voice heard."

"The issue is we cannot get a perfect contract. There is no such thing as a contract that will make all of us happy, and we're realistic about that. The other issue, do we stay on strike forever until every little thing we want is capable of being gotten. We don't think that."

"This idea of corporate efficiency that's been pushed toward schools, that's a problem for us. It's not good for kids. I think people don't understand that. If kids are in chaos, their lives are in chaos. Where is the stability?"

"And from the very beginning, we didn't actually fight [Mayor Rahm Emanuel]  on this longer school day, because the law gave him the opportunity to impose it. But we wanted to make sure it was a better school day. And a better school day for us included a broad, rich curriculum for our students. We were concerned that the direction of school reform is about standardized testing, so it's about math and reading all day, which doesn't engage children. So we wanted to make sure they had art, music, PE, world languages. These are the kinds of things that also stimulate critical thinking. And we wanted to also bring the joy of teaching and learning back into the classroom."


2.  Mayor Rahm Emanuel,  after the strike was suspended

"This settlement is an honest compromise. It means returning our schools to their primary purpose: the education of our children. It means a new day and a new direction for Chicago Public Schools."

"In past negotiations, taxpayers paid more but our kids got less — this time, our taxpayers are paying less and our kids are getting more. Because of past contracts, teachers and principals had to make false choices about where they spent their time because there was so little of it. This contract is a break with past practices and brings a fundamental change that benefits our children."

"We have been discussing the need for more time for over a decade but lacked the ability to achieve our primary educational goal. ... Each time it was postponed or rejected because the changes were too difficult. Today, that era and those false choices come to an end."

"The agreement also provides our principals the freedom they need to lead their teams. Principals will have the responsibility they deserve and the accountability for results that we demand."

"For the first time, teachers will have a meaningful evaluation based on a system designed by their fellow teachers. Our evaluation system has not changed in 40 years — while our students, and the world, have. This is in the best interest of our students, who need the very best teachers." 


3.  Chicago Public Schools Teacher Xian Barret

When you make me cram 30-50 kids in my classroom with no air conditioning so that temperatures hit 96 degrees, that hurts our kids.

When you lock down our schools with metal detectors and arrest brothers for play fighting in the halls, that hurts our kids.

When you take 18-25 days out of the school year for high stakes testing that is not even scientifically applicable for many of our students, that hurts our kids.

When you spend millions on your pet programs, but there's no money for school level repairs, so the roof leaks on my students at their desks when it rains, that hurts our kids.

When you unilaterally institute a longer school day, insult us by calling it a "full school day" and then provide no implementation support, throwing our schools into chaos, that hurts our kids."


4. Chicago Public School Student Kasey Carlson, sophomore at Whitney Young Magnet School, during the strike

"The Chicago Teacher's Union strike is not what students need, and it's not what students want —at least not this student.

This strike has the potential of pushing back graduation dates, cutting into ACT prep time and putting AP students behind in studying for their tests in May. Between school days lost, summer days taken away and the fact that current students will be hurt by a break from the classroom, it's hard to see how students might benefit from the strike in the future when we're only seeing the negative effects from it right now.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said this is a "strike of choice," and that there are two issues to settle: teacher evaluations and principals' ability to hire the teachers they want. I think if those are the only remaining issues, then this strike is unnecessary; these issues can be solved during the school year and shouldn't take away from our right to learn inside the classroom, especially since we've already started school.

Don't get me wrong—I love teachers—but the strike isn't the best way to solve the situation. I understand the frustration that negotiations have been going on since November of last year and not much has been accomplished, but at this point it seems neither side is doing what's best for CPS students.

This should be settled outside of school hours, when learning time is not being compromised so students won't have to feel the sting of lost school hours.

The teachers are fighting for some issues that will help students, such as providing air conditioning in schools and better textbooks, but it's gotten far beyond that. The final unresolved points that it has come down to are not about the well-being of students.

Both sides need to remember why they began caring about these issues in the first place: the students."

5. Chicago Public School student Celena Rodriguez, senior at Gage Park High School, during the strike

"As a student in CPS, I would like to share the student perspective on the ongoing Chicago strike. Some may say I don't fully understand why CPS teachers are on strike but actually, I do.

I may not understand everything to its fullest extent but I do know that our teachers are fighting for a good cause. They want us to succeed, but how can we do that when we attend a school like Gage Park High School? At Gage Park, there are brilliant teachers there who dedicate and devote all of their time to us, but the environment that is offered to us isn't what we deserve.

We are a low-income school; we have to be hot during several months during the year because there are few fans and air conditioners, and no central cooling like the other fancy schools that Rahm Emanuel keeps naming during his news conferences. Why doesn't he name Gage Park? ... Do we not count? Are we not important? Does Rahm not want us to have a good future? ...So we don't get what we ask for and need for ten years just because we aren't the kind of school that he likes.

It's part of a bigger problem--our voices as students aren't heard. Do the things we have to say not matter? In my eyes, that's exactly what I see. I see a man who only devotes his time to schools with money and doesn't take students like us into consideration.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said, ‘This is a strike of choice,' and ‘This strike never should have happened.' I agree that it shouldn't have happened. If the Mayor listened to the voices of people who work and learn in schools, it never would have.

I am concerned that I will have to make up all the missed days later. I don't want to have to give up my vacation because the negotiations aren't set up properly.

Why is it that our teachers are being blamed for this strike? It is not their fault that Rahm and his CEO Jean-Claude Brizard cannot sit down in a table and negotiate on the issues we all care about. The teachers have met with CPS for 7 months and neither thought teacher voices were important enough for them to bother to attend. Teachers are the only ones talking about the issues I care about and taking the negotiations seriously.

Finally as an aside, I don't think teachers shouldn't have to work extra for free, as no other people would do that. No one is willing to work for free, no matter their profession.

We as students must stand together with our teachers. They spent their time and money paying to get an education so they can educate us with the best education that they can offer us. But their voices are ignored too. When we stand and march with our teachers, we fight for both teachers and students voices being heard.

I'd like to close by asking the Mayor to take time out of his day to really get into our schools. Come and visit neighborhood schools for a change. We need him to see the environment in which I work hard for my education and help us make it the great educational facility that we have a human right to."

(For additional reading, consider this nuanced teacher's view of the strike.)


Class Discussion

After hearing all of the statements and discussing each one, ask:

  • What are the reasons the teachers went on strike?
  • What do you think the teachers need?
  • What do you think the city of Chicago needs?
  • What do you think Chicago public school students need?
  • Do you have ideas about solutions that could address the needs of these groups?
  • How would you feel if your teachers went on strike?
  • What is the point of a strike?  Do you think it is an effective way to get your demands met?



Ask each student say one thing they learned.