Fingers crossed: Teachers strike is over and city is better for it
Chicago’s schools came back to life Friday and even with the freaky Halloween snow still on the pumpkins, the city felt like itself again.
The teachers strike was over. The parking lots in my neighborhood schools were once again full. Students were back on the sidewalks lugging their giant backpacks. Yellow school buses clogged the morning traffic. Walking down a street, I heard kids shouting and laughing. All of it made the neighborhood feel like a neighborhood again.
After 11 days of the Chicago Teachers Union strike, Chicago is mostly back to normal, and, fingers crossed, slightly better for the fight.
“Whose side are you on?” was a question I heard a lot in the past two weeks, as if the strike were a team sport, a neat contest that required every citizen to cheer one team and boo the other.
Team Teachers vs. Team Mayor. Or “Rookie Mayor,” as Lori Lightfoot was sometimes referred to in the media, a term that suggested that a mayor who’d been in office more than five months would have handled the fight more deftly, which is not necessarily true.
Every time I was asked “Whose side are you on?” my answer would be “Whose side are you on?” Like a lot of people, I didn’t have a tidy pick, and, besides, it was more interesting to listen.
One striking teacher I respect explained the perils of schools without nurses and social workers, and the frustrations of having little time to prepare for classes.
A Chicago Public Schools parent I respect explained how frustrating it was to have the kids out of class, missing tests and athletic events. And how much, she wondered, would the teachers’ demands cost us in taxes?
And, of course, everyone I talked with said that what they wanted was what was best for the kids, though which kids was rarely entirely clear.
The same arguments played out on the radio and TV, in the newspapers and in the cesspool of cynicism known as social media, where, in the spirit of outrage that dominates that medium, the team sport devolved into insult competitions.
But even in the midst of the argument, something useful happened during the strike. This was Chicago in action, a city made more real to itself by hearing and seeing teachers, students, parents, support staff, assorted taxpayers and, yes, the politicians.
True, it may be easier to appreciate the drama of the past two weeks if you weren’t directly involved. If you weren’t picketing in the snow. If you weren’t trying to balance a city budget. If you weren’t worried about your income while you were on strike. If you weren’t trying to figure out how to get to your job and babysit your kids.
And it has been disappointing, if inevitable, to see the cheap vilification of the teachers by some members of Team Mayor, the cheap vilification of the mayor by some members of Team Teachers, and the cheap vilification of both by the cranks who enjoy hating on everything with the word “Chicago” attached.
But in the end, Chicago’s teachers and its children, including the ones in the most disadvantaged schools, stand to be a little better off because of this strike, and that’s good for the city.
The city won some concessions, including a five-year contract, two years longer than the teachers
This was Chicago in action, a city made more real to itself by hearing and seeing teachers, students, parents, support staff, taxpayers and, yes, the politicians.
wanted, which means that if the full union approves the deal, the teachers won’t be back on strike soon. But the teachers won a sizable raise. They were guaranteed a nurse and social worker in every school. Money was set aside to address the problem of overcrowded classrooms.
“These and so many other gains,” a relatively happy teacher posted on Facebook Friday, “would never have been possible without days marching in the rain, our songs to heaven for positive change, and, yes, our sacrifice of time, money, sweat, and emotion. It was worth it. If we had not fought for these children, who would have? Not the uber-rich of Chicago and its glittering suburbs.”
The strike came with harsh talk, hard feelings and political repercussions yet to be calculated.
“If Lori didn’t feel like the mayor before,” a guy I know said Friday, “she probably does now.”
And she’ll be a better mayor for having come up against the force of the teachers, just as Chicago is a better place for the voices we’ve heard and the faces we’ve seen during the strike.
Working for a better Chicago, even when it’s hard, is who we are.
Children return to Yates Elementary School in Chicago on Friday after a strike by teachers that spanned 11 school days.