What Chicago Can Expect From a Long Teachers' Strike

During a 19-day strike in 1987, teachers eventually set up temporary classrooms.

Image
Reuters

Monday marked the first time the Chicago Teachers Union has gone on strike in 25 years — shutting down over 600 schools and forcing parents to get creative about last-minute childcare for the 350,000 students out of class — a situation that's brought back a flood of memories for longtime Chicago residents.

When the last CTU strike, which lasted 19 school days (from early September until early October) in 1987, first began, Sarah Karp was 14, just about to enter high school. She didn't start for nearly a month.

"I had bought the outfit that I was going to wear on my first day of school, laid it out on my bed, but never got to wear it because by the time I went to school it was October," says Karp, now deputy editor at the education journal Catalyst Chicago.

Karp recalls spending her days in the library, once even challenging herself to read an entire shelf. "There weren't a whole lot of options...no one can take 19 days off." Today, she and her husband are juggling a similar childcare dilemma. On Monday, her 7-year-old and 12-year-old went to their babysitter, and on Tuesday her husband stayed home. "I don’t know what's going to happen tomorrow," she says.

Students play in the street near Hans Christian Andersen Elementary School during the 1987 Chicago teachers strike. 

(Courtesy of James Iska)

The 1987 strike concluded a period of nearly 20 years of on-again, off-again strikes — to the point that the city became accustomed to them. "Chicago isn't used to it anymore," Karp says. "It's not that much different than a summer, but we’re out of practice." According to a Los Angeles Times article from that year, "The Chicago Tribune calculated that an incoming Chicago high school senior has lost 49 days of school — virtually 10 full weeks — since entering kindergarten because of teachers' strikes." The longest prior strike was in 1983 and closed schools for 16 days.

"Strikes were really quite routine in the 1970s and 1980s," says Linda Lenz, a colleague of Karp and the publisher of Catalyst Chicago. Lenz, who covered the school system for the Chicago Sun-Times during the 1980s, says today's strike "is entirely different. My sense of it was really meat and potatoes, for the 1987 strike. Now it is over how teachers are treated…a lot of bigger, amorphous issues."

Chicago Teachers Union has made several demands (see their official press release here [PDF]), including pay increases, benefit protection, training, and a "reasonable timetable" for installing air conditioning in classrooms. Wednesday marks day three of the current strike, and the latest reports indicate no clear resolution in sight.

Paula Baron, a retired high school teacher and former union representative, says CTU president Karen Lewis "is raising issues that we've been raising for 50 years...they were talking about air conditioning then."

Strikes of 1987's magnitude are rare. There hasn't been a teacher strike in a major U.S. city since Detroit in 2006. That one lasted for 16 days.

Critics of the Chicago strike have argued that such work stoppages disproportionately affect low-income students (87 percent of the district's students last year were from low-income families), the same families also most affected by childcare issues. A recent blog post by two Brookings Institution fellows argues that "the consequence of being out of school is to increase the already unacceptably large achievement gap between low-income students and their affluent peers." 

The school district and community organizations have made efforts to accommodate families without childcare. The city has 144 "Children First" district-organized care sites, as well as over 50 "Safe Haven" sites. The Chicago Children's Museum is offering free admission to students this week, with paid adult admission for every five students. Other local organizations are also offering special camps during the strike. The YMCA of Metro Chicago extended hours to accommodate 1,500 students. Chicago Public Library tweeted that it's reserved computers for CPS students who need to complete online course work. The Chicago Transit Authority is providing free rides to any student with proper ID, and the Chicago Police Department has extended hours for tactical units and placed additional uniform officers on the streets.

The strike also has ripple effects for city residents outside the schools, as other labor union members are torn between crossing picket lines or not getting paid. The Chicago Tribune reported that some members of the Service Employees International Union Local 1 may join the strike. The SEIU 73, which represents some CPS-contracted workers, posted a note on its website:

Our members are expected to work at their job if the CTU goes on strike, however we are encouraging our members to wear CTU-produced stickers supporting them in their fight.  Strong public schools are critical for working families in Chicago. ... If one of our members chooses not to work on Monday, September 10, 2012, they will not be paid that day.  Use of vacation and sick time will not be permitted except for documented use of sick time with their personal doctor and physician.

There's a potential for unity amid the scramble. If the strike continues for several more days, parents and teachers may be forced start to looking for longer-term alternatives, instead of the day-to-day patch of this week. During the 1987 strike, teachers eventually set up temporary classrooms. From a September 28, 1987 Associated Press story:

As negotiations continue, frustrated parents and some school officials have set up classrooms in public plazas and homes.

"We shouldn't have to do this, but we want to draw attention to the politics and the struggle that's going on," declared Kathryn Kemp, dean of girls at Chicago Vocational School, who spent Monday morning teaching fractions in a makeshift sidewalk class downtown.

Wearing a Crane High School Cougars cap, counselor Joyce Oatman said she joined the group in front of the State of Illinois Center to teach chemistry, her major field of study.

"I'm tired of staying home and watching soap operas," said Ms. Oatman, "so I thought I'd come and see if anyone wanted to talk about atoms and protons."

The Caucus of Rank and File Educators of the Chicago Teachers Union and Labor Beat produced a documentary this summer looking back at CTU's strikes between 1969 and 1987. As James Daniels, a retired teacher, says in the video (at the 5:22 mark below), "The first day of a strike, it's always optimism. We don't think we're going to be out long. But then day after day after day, when the school board was digging its heels in, there were people who would start to weaken. But with the support ...people were able to hold out. I think the union brought many of us closer together. I talked to people during the strike that I hadn't talked to on the telephone ever before."

For now, it's a waiting game for Chicago residents. John Lyons, an associate professor at Joliet Junior College who wrote about the early years of the CTU, says that he and his wife — a CPS teacher — turn to the evening news each night to find out if she will go to "the classroom or the picket line."

Chicago Public Schools students return to school on Oct. 6, 1987. (Courtesy of James Iska)

Top image: Jeff Haynes/Reuters

About the Author