Bernie Sanders Joins Chicago Teachers Union as They Prepare to Go On Strike

September 25, 2019, 2:39 PM UTC
Sen. Bernie Sanders Joins Chicago Teachers Union Rally
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks at a rally in support of the Chicago Teachers Union ahead of an upcoming potential strike on September 24, 2019 in Chicago. With Chicago teachers demanding increased school funding, pay raises, and more healthcare benefits, the Vermont Senator praised teachers' work and called for dramatically increased support for public schools nationwide. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)
(Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

“Chicago is a union town!” Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa said to a crowd of hundreds of cheering teachers and public schools’ support staff at a labor rally Tuesday night.

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the Service Employees International Union Local 73 (SEIU), which includes special education classroom assistants, bus aides, security guards, and custodians, attended the rally at CTU headquarters in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, where they celebrated the city’s long history of organized labor ahead of a possible strike.

“Weʼre the hometown of the labor movement,” said Chicago Federation of Labor President Bob Reiter.

CTU members are voting from Tuesday to Thursday to authorize a strike. If they receive 75% of the vote, a walkout could happen as early as October 7, though it would likely start closer to mid-October.

The unions were joined by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has been championed by some as the presidential candidate of the working class. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the other progressive contender in the 2020 presidential race, also expressed her support for CTU and SEIU workers.

Sanders’ visit to Chicago will likely give the union a welcomed boost in their efforts to organize another strike.

“I think the Chicago school board should be be very nervous,” Sanders said to cheering teachers as he took the stage.

CTU has been in contract negotiations all year with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot demanding better pay, smaller class sizes, and for the city to address its staffing shortages. The bargaining team’s demands also include: one librarian for every school; more social workers, nurses, counselors, case managers, and psychologists; and for the more than 300 special education vacancies to be filled.

“You are standing up for a change in national priorities at a time when great, experienced teachers are leaving the profession because they canʼt make an income to support their families,” Sanders encouraged the teachers.

He later urged the city to sit down with CTU and SEIU to negotiate “a good faith contract that is just, that is fair, and that treats the teachers and staff of the city with the respect and dignity they deserve.”

In the bargaining process, the city offered both unions pay and benefits packages that would raise their wages by 16% over five years.

“It’s not a surprise to me that Democratic contenders for the presidency support working families and support teachers. So do I. It’s part of who we are as Democrats,” Lightfoot said Tuesday.

The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Speakers at Tuesday night’s rally included Chicago Public School teachers, local representatives, and community organizers, who spoke of crowded classrooms, a need for more nurses and psychologists, and for sanctuary schools, as students are concerned about the presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in learning spaces.

“And we want it in writing,” said Norma Noriega, a bilingual teacher at Stevenson Elementary School.

CTU last went on strike in 2016, shutting down the third-largest school district in the country when 27,000 employees walked off the job.

Teachers’ strikes have swept the U.S. in the years since.

Right now, employees of Oregon’s public universities represented by SEIU Local 503 say they’ll go on strike if they don’t receive a fair contract. The union represents 4,500 workers at the state’s seven public universities who have been in contract negotiations since February.

In West Virginia, 20,000 teachers and public school employees went on strike in 2018—and again in 2019—shutting down schools in all 55 counties. The United Teachers Los Angeles union also went on strike earlier this year, with 30,000 employees picketing for six days with demands of better wages and more school staffing.

“We were a bit ahead of our time,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said of the union’s 2016 strike.

Following Tuesday’s rally, Sanders made his way to Detroit where he will join the picket line with the United Auto Workers (UAW) union on Wednesday. The strike against General Motors entered its second week on Monday, making it the longest strike in the country since 1970.

“All across America, millions of working people want to join unions because they know that alone they canʼt negotiate anything, but when you stand together you get decent wages and decent working conditions,” said Sanders, whose campaign has supported striking workers nationwide.  

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