Chicago mayor: Teachers union made us a ‘laughingstock’

Chicago is the largest district in the country to close and the only major one that has been closed by an industrial action.

It’s unclear whether the union’s move will inspire educators elsewhere to follow suit, as their own members contract the virus that has already caused minor closings. But many elected Democrats across the country, who spoke out in favor of closings at the start of the pandemic, insist that K-12 schools must remain open during the Omicron surge – a repositioning that has created tension with teacher unions, a major one Constituency of the party.

Right now, die-hard teachers’ unions in New York, Los Angeles, Washington and Sacramento are not calling for school closings like the educators in Chicago. The powerful California Teachers Association issued a statement with Governor Gavin Newsom last month pledging to “keep our classrooms open” in a state where campus has been closed from the pandemic longer than almost anywhere in the country. Democratic leaders, from President Joe Biden to New York City Mayor Eric Adams, are giving a bigger voice to the social and academic problems facing students at home – and recognizing that parents have little patience to return to online classes.

Tensions in Chicago are particularly high for Lightfoot, a sharp-tongued reformist Democrat who pledged in 2019 to challenge the party’s political machine, which relies heavily on workers’ groups. She also does not suffer from niceties and values ​​the directness of her allies and critics.

When a public record inquiry last month revealed how it routinely e-mailed its staff and critics, the city’s voters and political class barely blinked. Even allies are used to the mayor’s tone. “The mayor and I have always had a bluntly honest working relationship,” Councilor Brendan Reilly said in an interview at the time.

But for some of those who work with her or negotiate with her, Lightfoot’s openness has made their dealings with CTU – a group that also annoyed its predecessor, Rahm Emanuel – unmanageable.

And during a press conference on Wednesday night, Lightfoot, a former prosecutor, did what Chicagoans expect: she buried herself.

“I will not let them take our children hostage,” she said of the teachers’ union. Their concern is for the many CPS students who come from underserved communities where access to the Internet or computing devices is not always available and whose families depend on children getting two or three meals a day at school.

Teachers scheduled to return to the classroom on Wednesday are concerned about safety after numerous reports of post-holiday covid tests gone wrong and photos from FedEx dropboxes overflowing with test packages.

And union officials have blamed the mayor for the standstill that is keeping the roughly 330,000 students in the city’s public schools away from their classrooms.

“The Lightfoot administration was an enemy of public education here in Chicago,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said in an interview on Wednesday.

But even some of Lightfoot’s most staunch critics stand on their side when it comes to keeping schools open.

“I don’t think CTU will give Lightfoot an inch even if they give them everything they wanted,” said Chicago-based Alderman Raymond Lopez, who blamed the mayor on everything from public safety to emergency powers, in an interview. “You are on a mission to obstruct this government in ways that embarrass me. I can tell when she’s doing something right and they refuse to do it themselves. “

Since her landslide election over CTU’s preferred progressive candidate nearly three years ago, Lightfoot has dealt with the teachers’ union at every turn. There was a 14-day strike during her first year in office, followed by constant disagreements over how students should stay in school when the 2020 pandemic broke out.

The CTU and the administration of Lightfoot have been negotiating for months without having anything to show for it.

“Anyone who thinks this teachers’ union is just a union is not paying attention,” Lightfoot told POLITICO. “They believe that they are a political movement or political party and that is the lens through which we have to see their every action.”

And during her press conference on Wednesday evening, the mayor said that teachers who did not return to their classrooms on Friday would not be paid.

“We are not going to pay you to leave your posts and your children at a time when they and their families need us most,” she said. “It won’t happen on my watch.”

Lightfoot said “hundreds of millions” of dollars were being spent keeping Chicago schools safe for students and school staff during the pandemic. Ventilation systems have improved and schools have HEPA filters and masks, as well as social distancing procedures, she said.

The teachers’ union insists that the improvements do not go far enough. Gates said the city was holding back too much federal dollars – Chicago Public Schools received approximately $ 2 billion in federal Covid aid – to be spent on schools.

“I can’t stress this enough: We have billions of dollars to help us overcome Covid that we don’t see in our school communities,” Gates said. “We don’t see widespread testing. We don’t see any vaccination clinics, especially in the zip codes of this city, that have suffered. “

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez admitted that the city “agrees” that more needs to be done to step up Covid testing. District officials said Wednesday evening that they must prioritize tests on symptomatic and unvaccinated students given limited supplies.

However, Lightfoot doesn’t think the friction between her office and the teachers union has anything to do with politics or her leadership. She’s not the first Chicago mayor to deal with educators, after all. There was also a teachers strike during Emanuel’s tenure.

“Anyone in this seat, considering who CTU is, would be in the same place as me. This is not about personality. This is about the ego, ”said Lightfoot.

Leave a Comment