Chicago Teachers Union president Jesse Sharkey | Charles Edward Miller from Chicago, United States [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]
Even though they have already been promised big pay raises over the next 3-5 years, Chicago’s public school teachers continue to strike, with representatives of both the city and the Chicago Teachers Union meeting to hash out a new contract to restart classes.
However, the union's demands have appeared to extend beyond the topics typically covered in collective bargaining agreements, touching on issues like requiring the city and Board of Education to support more affordable housing in the city and other political questions under the umbrella of what progressives call “social justice.”
But collective bargaining agreements may not necessarily allow the CTU or any other union to compel the city to take any political actions beyond things like teacher’s pay, benefits and school conditions.
Carlos Arévalo | Photo courtesy of SmithAmundsen
"These efforts go beyond mandatory subjects of bargaining," said Carlos Arévalo, an attorney focusing on labor, employment and local government law at the firm of SmithAmundsen. "The city does not have to bargain and agree to include language that the Board of Education will compel initiatives and tax measures to bring about affordable housing.”
Pushing for social justice issues aren't traditionally part of a collective bargaining agreement, Arévalo said.
"Generally CBAs are intended to address wages, hours and other conditions of employment," he said.
However, in a number of cities in the country, and particularly in cities and states in which the left wing of the political spectrum dominates, a movement has arisen in recent years to use public worker union contract talks to advance progressive policy goals.
Calling itself Bargaining for the Common Good, the movement has assembled a coalition of unions, community groups, "racial justice organizations and student organizations" working for broader demands beyond the traditional wage and working condition improvements, according to information on the organization's website.
"Unions that have the right to bargain use contract fights as an opportunity to organize with community partners around a set of demands that benefit not just the bargaining unit, but also the wider community as a whole," Bargaining for the Common Good’s website says. "These are campaigns for investing in our communities, not just settling a union contract."
That cause has found particularly fertile ground among teachers unions. In 2016, for example, teachers in Los Angeles inked a new CBA which included provisions to provide greater assistance to lower-income students and families, particularly through creating new staff positions and enhancing programs.
In the years since, Bargaining for the Common Good has sought to increase its gains. In Chicago, for instance, in August, the CTU was urged to fight against “developers” in Chicago’s housing market.
About two months later, teachers took to the picket lines. Much attention has focused on what is often seen as core contract issues, such as salaries and benefits, but talks have also included a host of other social issues.
"The CTU’s effort is the most recent example of this," Arévalo said. "These efforts admittedly go beyond wages, hours and other conditions of employment and seek to address social reform by looking to incorporate contractual obligations on such issues into the CBA."
Just before the strike began, CTU President Jesse Sharkey told the Chicago Tribune that he couldn't "recommend postponing the strike" because Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s bargaining team hadn't come close enough to meeting the union's demands.
"I have to tell the people of Chicago ... that we have not achieved enough in these negotiations to say we are done fighting," Sharkey was quoted in the Oct. 16 Tribune story.
At that point, the city had offered CTU a deal to keep 32,000 teachers and support staff and teachers on the job and the city’s 300,000 school students in class. That deal included a 16% raise, which would be in addition to the usual step increases most teachers receive each year. By the end of the five-year deal, average teacher pay would exceed $100,000.
Union demands have included a 15% pay raise over three years, but what may be CTU's most brow-raising sticking points have little to do with pay and benefits. In addition to more attention paid to class sizes and increasing the number of social workers, counselors and nurses on staff, CTU also wants affordable housing provisions to be included in a new contract, something strongly opposed by Lightfoot.
In a report published by Chalkbeat, Lightfoot said “the CTU collective bargaining agreement is not the appropriate place for the City to legislate its affordable housing policy.”
Under Illinois law, teacher unions in Chicago and elsewhere enjoy some of the most lenient teacher strike rules in the country.
"Chicago has the most lenient strike provisions of any major U.S. city," said Mailee Smith, a staff attorney and Director of Labor Policy at the Illinois Policy Institute.
Teacher strikes are illegal in eight of the nation's top 10 largest school districts, Smith said.
"But CTU is the outlier, with state law sanctioning teacher strikes that allow for circumstances such as this," Smith said.
Smith declined to discuss specific CTU contract demands.
But Smith said: “… Illinois law provides few limits on what can be negotiated between the parties. It is exactly that leniency that is allowing CTU to push the limits with its demands and this strike."
The Chicago Board of Education " is not capable of bringing" social justice change on its own and "there are too many players involved,” Arévalo said. “The city cannot accomplish affordable housing without participation by all interested groups.”
"And you can certainly expect opposition by property owners and developers," Arévalo continued. "I do not believe the city is in a position to guarantee delivering on obligations to address affordable housing, so I doubt they would agree to include it to begin with."
Even if the city and board of education agreed to any social justice language, "it would probably not do enough to actually effect change and then the question is still open as to what would be the deliverable," Arévalo said. "Bringing about affordable housing is not as easily definable as a potential 16% pay increases over five years."
Arévalo said he believed "dealing with social reform may be an appropriate issue for unions in their lobbying efforts (instead)."