As the Strike Approached in Chicago, Teachers Taught Labor

“I asked the kids, ‘Do you want to know what we’re fighting about?’” said one teacher. They did.

Kamil Krzaczynski / Getty

As the strike vote got closer, Anna Lane realized that she was going to have to throw out her lesson plan. Lane, a history and civics teacher at Kelly High School, in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood, was in the middle of teaching a unit about how the city funds public-education initiatives. But as labor negotiations between the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) started to make the local news last month, Lane’s students began asking questions that her original syllabus didn’t cover.

CPS and Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, had publicly questioned why the union was fighting so hard for a raise, and at Kelly, Lane heard comments from students that the potential strike was just about money. “As a teacher, you know, that’s going to make you want to address the issue,” said Lane, who is a member of the CTU’s Latinx caucus. “So I asked the kids, ‘Do you want to know what we’re fighting about?’” They were interested, so in a day and a half, Lane put together a lesson plan that covered the history of the modern labor movement, including 40-hour workweeks and child-labor laws. Shortly afterward, the CTU voted to authorize a strike the following month, the second time it has done so in the past decade (the first was a far-reaching week-long action in 2012).

The current strike is now in its eighth day of negotiations, and encompasses both the CTU and the Service Employees International Union 73, which represents the classroom aides, custodians, and other workers who keep the city’s school system—serving some 361,000 students—running. Those two unions together represent about 35,000 workers, tens of thousands of whom have been picketing this week outside their schools and flooding Chicago’s downtown center. The CTU is arguing for higher pay to keep up with Chicago’s mounting cost of living, alongside a long list of other requests, including smaller class sizes, more school nurses and librarians, funding for bilingual education, and access to affordable housing for teachers and their students, an estimated 16,450 of whom are homeless.

The city contends that the teachers are asking for more than the city can afford, and Lane says she printed out and used some of CPS management’s emails as “primary-source documents” to teach labor history and illuminate both sides of the struggle. (A CPS spokesperson said the district sent out an email to families the day before the strike noting the deal that management was offering, in addition to issuing other updates about the strike; the leaders of individual schools may have sent out their own messages in some cases.) Lane also showed video clips summarizing both parties’ points of view, explained what the teachers were fighting for, and answered students’ more pressing concerns, such as whether they’d have to make up any strike-canceled days at the end of the school year. So far, CPS says they won’t.

Younger grade levels, meanwhile, don’t get quite as comprehensive an education in labor policy. But even in elementary school, Lane says the strike comes up in the classroom: Friends of hers who teach in lower grade levels told her that they spent time before the strike deadline reading aloud children’s books on labor issues.

Les Plewa, a teacher at Taft Freshman Academy, started teaching the strike in his civics classes two days before the strike deadline. Like Lane, Plewa says he wanted to present enough information to enable his students to come to their own position on the strike. The day before the strike, Plewa says, a student who doesn’t normally talk much came up to him and said he really enjoys the class, something Plewa thinks was prompted by his breaking down the strike and the issues behind it. “Sometimes the public doesn’t realize the effort teachers put in in terms of helping students understand,” he says.

Plewa also thinks it’s important to give students some perspective on “what other districts have in terms of resources—the students can’t understand what they’re missing if they don’t know about it.”

For example, Karen Zaccor, who teaches science at Uplift Community High School, in Uptown, says she brought up in a class discussion that the school hasn’t had a librarian in several years. She said that in conversations about the strike, many students were able to grasp some of the sharpest perceived injustices in the system, such as the pay discrepancies between teachers and special-education classroom aides. (In Lane’s class, sports funding and building repairs—most of her school’s campus was built in 1932—were issues that students immediately connected with.)

To Zaccor, the strike is a teachable moment. “I think it’s sort of illustrative for them to see [that] you always start by talking, by trying to work things out, but if you’re fighting for justice, sometimes you have to take things to another level,” she told me.

Some lessons have landed so well that many students have opted to continue their education outside of the classroom. Lane, Zaccor, and Plewa all say students from their classes have joined them on the picket lines; Lane says one student, a band leader, has even organized a group of classmates to play music during the big downtown rallies. “Since the first day, there’s been quite a few students who have showed up for me and have showed up for other teachers,” Lane said. “This is a community action as well.”

In fact, her students were already familiar with direct civic action: The unit she’d paused to teach labor history had students writing letters to Mayor Lightfoot outlining their views on how the city should spend taxpayer money, and other classes included trips to city budget hearings and a student-run press conference on bilingual education programs.

CPS canceled class on Thursday, for the fifth school day in a row. The CTU says that the two sides are making progress at the bargaining table, but are still fighting over contract language that enforces smaller class sizes and adds staff. “Yeah, I’d rather be teaching today, but I also teach history, and I know the importance of having to take an action,” Plewa told me on Monday. When he and his colleagues get back in the classroom, they’ll have another chapter in the country’s history of organized labor to teach.