School’s out: Chicago teachers strike, first day deal unlikely

CHICAGO (AP) – Striking teachers marched in picket lines outside hundreds of Chicago schools on Thursday after their union and city officials failed to reach a contract deal in the nation’s third-largest school district, cancelling classes for more than 300,000 students for the duration of a walkout that seemed likely to head into a second day.

The strike in the nation’s third-largest school district came after the Chicago Teachers Union confirmed on Wednesday night that its 25,000 members would not return to their classrooms.

It follows months of negotiations between the union and Chicago Public Schools that failed to resolve disputes over pay and benefits, class size and teacher preparation time.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said the strike will continue into the weekend as a result of the impasse, and the school district cancelled a second day of classes. Picketing teachers said on Thursday the walkout was about getting more resources and smaller class sizes for students in the cash-strapped district, not about putting more money in their pockets.

Outside Smyth Elementary, a predominantly black and low-income school on the city’s near South Side, art teacher John Houlihan said “we’re not fighting for paychecks and healthcare. It’s the kids.”

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates, other union officials and their supporters lead thousands of striking union members on a march through the Loop in Chicago. PHOTO: AP

“It’s ridiculous to say that you can put these kids who are dealing with profound poverty and profound homelessness in classes of 30-40 kids,” said Houlihan, who picketted with about 20 other teachers and staff as drivers passed by, honking their horns. “That’s not manageable and it is not an environment for learning.”

The strike is Chicago’s first major walkout by teachers since 2012. And just as that strike inspired unions in Los Angeles and other politically left-leaning cities to walk off the job and protest over issues such as class size and student services, unions nationwide are today watching closely to see how parents respond to a walkout based on a “social justice” agenda.

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey joined teachers picketting outside Helen Peirce International Studies school, where he said every kindergarten class has at least 30 students.

He said there’s “pent-up frustration” among union members about conditions in the schools, and the union wants some of those longstanding issues addressed in their next contract.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she was disappointed by the union’s decision to strike.

“We are offering a historic package on the core issues – salary, staffing and class size,” she said.