Stand and Deliver: A Historical Perspective on Chicago’s Teachers Union Strike

Elizabeth Todd-Breland is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Her research interests span the history of education, 20th-century American urban and social life, and African-American history. Todd-Breland earned her doctorate from the University of Chicago and completed a Mellon ACLS Early Career Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities at Northwestern University. 

Elizabeth Todd-Breland, Assistant Professor University of Illinois at Chicago

Overall, labor union membership has been on the decline in the United States. What trends do you see with regard to public sector unions, like the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU)?

Particularly among teachers’ unions, you see a similar trend. Maybe not the degree or the dramatic decline you have seen in private sector unions, because public sector unions are one of the places where you see a lot of union membership in terms of their proportion to the workforce. But for teachers’ unions in particular, there has been a decline in membership for a number of reasons.

One reason is that states are laying teachers off and cutting back on the size of the workforce. Naturally, reducing the size of the teacher workforce and thus the amount of union membership.

You also see a decline because some states are putting in place laws that make it far more difficult for teachers, and public sector employees more generally, to organize and to have collective bargaining rights. So that also cuts into the rate of unionization among public sector workers.

Finally, there is the expansion of charter schools. Especially in urban areas, traditional public schools are being shut down to make way for charter schools. Most often, charter schools are non-unionized or have a non-unionized teaching force. This also contributes to some of the decline in teacher union membership.

Historically, what have been some of the main factors behind striking among educators? How does the most recent CTU strike fall within or outside of this pattern?

When you look at the history of teachers’ unions, there has been tension between teachers as professionals and teachers as workers—even more so in terms of how they organize and the main issues around which they organize. So there are always things teachers strike for that are related to wages, compensation, and workplace conditions.

What I think makes teachers different is that their workplace conditions are also students’ learning conditions. It makes teachers strikes, and some of the issues they organize around, a little different than a traditional private sector union or even some of the other public sector unions. The difference is in the nature of the spaces and the type of care they provide for young people.

What distinguished the CTU strike was the way the CTU explicitly articulated the grounds on which they were striking. To some extent, they were confined by an Illinois law that made wage concerns the central thing that teachers are now even allowed or able to strike on. Even given this, they expanded this strike to really have an impact on the national discourse. I really do think the CTU strike was a referendum on the national movements we have seen in school reform: movements to increase the number of charter schools, to privatize parts of the educational apparatus, and to take money away from public schools.

In addition to striking back against what would be called neoliberal education reforms, the CTU also brought up the issue of poverty. I feel that in our broad political discourse, people do not talk about poor people. But if you look at the populations being served, particularly in urban public schools, these are largely poor and working class families. So I think the CTU brought up the issues of inequality and really put these issues on the front page in an important way that is not part of our broader political discourse, let alone just within the field of education.

How do you think teachers’ unions will respond to the increasing fiscal pressures faced by state and local governments? Is it the responsibility of these unions to ensure their demands fall within the realm of what’s economically feasible?

This is a difficult question, and it makes me think about another law just put in place in Illinois. This law says that in order for Chicago teachers to strike, the teachers union needs over seventy five percent of its members to vote in favor of a strike. I think the question of what is feasible is largely constructed in terms of these laws that are being put in place. Are there some basic financial issues and challenges all cities and municipal governments are facing? Absolutely. But when these particular types of laws are enacted, they are more about politics and union-busting than they are about what is best for students and education.

Furthermore, I would say that it also depends on how you look at education. If we think of education as an investment in the future of our country, then it should be a priority that we invest in schools in an equitable way- including urban public schools serving low-income students of color. So you reallocate other resources to do that. Unfortunately, it is very rare that we have the political will to do that. I think that there actually is more money out there than we give credit for, and I think a massive reordering of priorities is part of what the teachers union was pressing for.

Historically, how have teachers’ strikes in major cities affected the national conversation? Does this strike have the potential to galvanize action from other unions across the country?

It’s funny. People kept mentioning that it has been twenty five years since the CTU had been on strike. It is important to note that strikes were actually something, not just among teachers but also among society more broadly, that happened far more frequently in the past. Over the course of the last twenty to thirty plus years, and going back further than that, you see a lot of legislation being put in place to limit the ability of unions to strike or to limit collective bargaining rights. Currently, we think of striking as this phenomenon that rarely happens, so it is this big to-do when it does happen. And it is. But I think that the longer history of the United States tells us that striking was a frequent part of labor negotiations.

So, when I think of the impact of the CTU strike, I think it has the potential to have a larger impact on the national conversation. I think we are already seeing their residual effects, and not just within the field of education. For labor folks around the country, it has been inspirational to see the CTU stand up to the powers that be and not get crushed. It’s a powerful moment.

It would be reasonable to expect that, in the future, charter school teachers may in fact start to organize and unionize. You do see some of the very conditions that CTU teachers were complaining about happening in charter schools as well.

More broadly, I hope that this can serve as an opportunity for us to have a more open and honest conversation about the conditions in urban schools, and about what we need to do to serve all children—not just children in the few charter schools that are successful and in the few selective enrollment schools that are providing far higher quality education than what you see relative to the rest of the public school system. The fact that we are even having conversations again about class size—about resources such as books, facilities, and social workers and paraprofessionals in buildings—I hope this is something that generates a more robust conversation nationally.


Feature Photo: cc/ (BLPerk)'
Elc Estrera
Elc Estrera is a staff writer for The Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. He is interested in education policy and health policy.

One Response to “Stand and Deliver: A Historical Perspective on Chicago’s Teachers Union Strike

    p. farrell
    ago5 years

    Enjoyed reading Todd-Breland’s remarks. Another interesting circumstance here in California is the rank-and -file teacher backlash to Proposition 30, the Governor and California Teacher’s Association (CTA) endorsed tax to fund public schools. Many teachers, disillusioned by how much of their dramatically reduced budget already goes to state and county administration instead of to the classroom, do not support their own union’s recommendation. Many would rather vote no on Prop 30 and suffer a reduced school year and the accompanying reduction to their own retirement, than vote for a tax that in all likelihood will go disproportionally to an already top-heavy organization.