AT LAST!: Chicago Breathes Sigh of Relief As Teacher Strike Ends (Column)

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By Will Foster ’20 – Columnist & Editor-in-Chief  

The strike ended the same way it began, with Lori Lightfoot standing in front of a gaggle of reporters in downtown Chicago.

Three Wednesdays ago, when the mayor announced school was cancelled the next day because of the Chicago Teachers Union’s planned walkout, few in this city would have imagined that by the time students returned to school there would be snow on the ground.

Yet here Lightfoot was at City Hall, early on Halloween afternoon, saying the strike was finally over as snow fell faster and faster outside.

We’ve missed 11 school days. Apparently five will be made up. It’s not clear when, or whether those added days will be enough to catch up in our AP classes. But we can worry about that later. The strike’s over, we’ll be back in class tomorrow — that’s all that matters. Even the least academic among us had to admit they were missing school just a little bit. The grind continues tomorrow, but this time we might actually savor it.

As the strike wore on, the school cancellations went from exciting to surreal to just plain boring. By this week, it had become part of the daily routine. We all reposted the evening announcements on our social media out of a sense of obligation, not because we were surprised anymore. Another day, another robo-call. “This is Janice Jackson with a special message from Chicago Public Schools…” Yawn.

On Monday, this strike exceeded the length of the 2012 one, which had lasted seven school days. That made this the longest CTU walkout since 1987.

The negotiations between CPS and the union followed a winding path filled with fiery rhetoric and false hopes. Mayor Lightfoot knew her school district was billions of dollars in debt, but she was also largely sympathetic to the CTU’s lengthy list of demands, from higher pay to smaller class sizes to nurses in every school. The balance that was ultimately struck tilted decisively in favor of the union, as the city made major concessions in an attempt to get teachers and students back in their classrooms.

For most students, though, the enduring memories of these two weeks won’t be about what happened at the bargaining table. Instead they’ll be about the CTU picket lines, and the rallies which covered downtown Chicago in a sea of red. They’ll be about the heartbreak of sports teams that had to forfeit their playoff games. They’ll be about the stress of not being able to turn in college applications on time.

This strike will reverberate, make no mistake, and some things it took away from students will never be given back. One Payton senior was so frustrated to have been prevented from competing in her final cross-country regionals last Saturday that she decided to run the race anyway in protest. She made it partway before getting pulled off the course.

The success of this strike will likely have ripple effects throughout the nation, as the 2012 one did, spurring social activism under the guise of collective bargaining. This was a test of how far union power could go, and the answer turned out to be: Quite far. Even though Illinois state law only allows Chicago teachers to strike over salary and benefits, the CTU managed to extract concessions on issues like staffing increases and class sizes.

Many questions remain. Will this half-a-billion dollar deal eventually force CPS, already drowning in massive pension obligations, to beg for further increases to the city’s sky-high property taxes? Will the resources the city has promised in this contract actually make it to schools — and will they improve teaching and learning conditions, as hoped? How will students catch up on the coursework they have missed?

But for now, in Chicago, there was just relief. Everything’s back to normal. The Google Classroom notifications are popping up again, reminding us we have quizzes to study for tomorrow. I’ve still got that Computer Science test on Monday.

The strike is over. Several hours after Lightfoot’s announcement, the reality was finally setting in. The snow kept falling as an early dusk fell, and the nation’s third-largest city was at ease, at last.

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