Teachers’ Strike Tests Chicago Mayor on the Issues She Ran On
CHICAGO — Lori Lightfoot swept into office as Chicago’s mayor this year promising to end inequities that have long divided the city. She would invest in struggling neighborhoods, she pledged, and put badly needed librarians, nurses and social workers in schools.
Five months later, the mayor has found herself in a thorny spot: facing off against tens of thousands of striking teachers who are demanding action on some of the very issues she promised to solve.
The teachers’ strike, which has canceled two days of classes for more than 300,000 public school students, is the most significant test so far of Ms. Lightfoot’s leadership. Standard strike issues, like pay, have certainly come up, but they have been eclipsed by the Chicago Teachers Union’s calls for more counselors for students, some of whom live amid daily violence; affordable housing for students in a city where home prices have forced residents to move away; and smaller class sizes than the ones some teachers said had swelled well over 30.
Ms. Lightfoot, a Democrat whose progressive agenda had won her a stunning sweep of all 50 of Chicago’s wards in April, was suddenly featured in chants outside schools on Friday: “Get on the right foot, Lori Lightfoot.”
Downtown, teachers carried homemade signs calling her “Lie-foot” and claiming, in a harsh but Chicago-specific insult, that the mayor “puts ketchup on her hot dogs.” A radio ad from the union said Ms. Lightfoot’s “campaign promises don’t mean a thing unless she tells Chicago Public Schools to make good on them.”
“Our South Side communities, our West Side communities are littered with broken promises, unkept commitments,” Stacy Davis Gates, the vice president of the teachers’ union, said this week, alluding to Ms. Lightfoot. “This contract has to represent something different for the city of Chicago — it has got to represent something different. And she ran to do that. Period.”
For Ms. Lightfoot, a lawyer and parent who cast herself as an outsider when she ran in a crowded race to replace Mayor Rahm Emanuel this year, the challenges are complex. Chicago, a city of 2.7 million people, faces a strained municipal budget with a looming deficit, a serious pension crisis and a school system that has struggled with its finances (though in recent months they have stabilized somewhat, largely because of increased state aid).
“The fact is, there is no more money,” Ms. Lightfoot said on Friday morning, after she and her wife handed out Cheerios to a roomful of students who — with no school — were gathered at a community center southwest of downtown. In negotiations, the city has offered teachers a 16 percent raise over five years, while union leaders called for increases of 15 percent over a shorter three-year term.
In an interview, Ms. Lightfoot dismissed suggestions that she was turning her back on her campaign pledges related to equity. Like union leaders, she said, she wanted more nurses in schools, more counselors, more social workers. But she questioned whether the city’s affordable housing policy should be set as part of one union’s contract negotiations, rather than in a broader conversation across the city.
Being at the other end of the strike, she said, did not mean she had walked away from her overarching goal of ending the sense that there are two Chicagos — divided along lines of race, wealth and neighborhoods.
“I’m a kid who grew up in low-income circumstances, whose parents struggled every single day, and I live those values,” Ms. Lightfoot said. “I hear people telling me every single time that I’m in some neighborhood on the South or the West Side — or really all over the city — that they’ve never met a mayor before, they’ve never seen a mayor who’s present and listening to them.”
The Chicago Teachers Union backed an opponent of Ms. Lightfoot in the election, and union leaders have said her approach to labor negotiations has irked them. Her representatives, too, have voiced frustration at the pace of negotiations and what they view as a lack of urgency by the union.
Still, relations are nowhere near as tense as they were between union leaders and Mr. Emanuel, who led the city through a divisive seven-day teachers’ strike in 2012; closed dozens of schools, many in black and Hispanic neighborhoods; and was known as “Mayor 1 Percent” by some critics.
After Ms. Lightfoot took office, many teachers said they had been hopeful about the chances of a favorable contract and were optimistic even as a strike date drew nearer. But the standoff at the bargaining table, and the resulting scramble by parents to take off work or enroll children in day camps, left some in the city re-evaluating their opinions of the new mayor.
“I’m seeing just a stubbornness: I think that she is mistaking intransigence for strength,” said Maressa Spinak, a special-education teacher who marched past City Hall on Thursday with a sign that said “I voted for change, but what I got was a Rahm in sheep’s clothing!”
Other teachers seemed more willing to give her time to reach a deal. John Johnson, a broadcasting teacher at Westinghouse College Prep on the city’s West Side, said he believed that Ms. Lightfoot respected teachers.
“I’m hoping that it’s going to be a day or two because I think that both sides are, like, right here,” Mr. Johnson said on Thursday.
Karoline Towner, who teaches middle school science, said she generally liked the mayor and was waiting to see whether she had learned from Mr. Emanuel’s struggles on schools.
“She’s kind of stern,” Ms. Towner said. “I think we’re trying to see who’s going to blink first.”
Even in a heavily Democratic city where support for labor unions is strong, Ms. Lightfoot faced conflicting messages on how to proceed. The editorial boards of Chicago’s two main newspapers, The Tribune and The Sun-Times, focused on the city’s bleak fiscal outlook and urged her to stand tough against some of the union’s demands.
But for many moved by Ms. Lightfoot’s campaign promises about neighborhood investment and equity in schools, the lack of a deal was discouraging, confusing and highly inconvenient.
Juliet de Jesus Alejandre, who lives in the Northwest Side’s Logan Square neighborhood, joined teachers and school support workers on the picket line on Thursday with her 8-year-old twin sons. She said she planned to take off work part of that day to look after her sons.
Ms. de Jesus Alejandre, a community organizer, said that she hoped the union would get a fair contract, including for school support workers, and that she was disappointed in Ms. Lightfoot’s handling of the situation.
“We have two Chicagos: There’s a Chicago of workers and longtime residents,” said Ms. de Jesus Alejandre, who did not vote for Ms. Lightfoot. “And then there’s a Chicago that’s getting much more love and attention from politicians, for the rich and the elites who don’t use our public resources.”
The dispute with the teachers was, in some ways, a microcosm of the broader challenge facing Ms. Lightfoot: how to lead a city with limited cash and entrenched financial problems, while trying to create equity in a place that has struggled with segregation and disinvestment for decades.
The Rev. Marshall E. Hatch Sr., a minister on the city’s West Side, said he had not seen significant improvement in struggling neighborhoods in the few months since Ms. Lightfoot’s inauguration. “But the fact that the mayor is talking about it, that the teachers’ union is banging the drum about it, probably means that we’re in a better place,” he said. “We’re having the conversation.”
Kerry Kasper contributed reporting.
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